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Anatomy and Biomechanics Related to Saddlery

Updated: Nov 15, 2022

You all know how passionate I am about horses, equine anatomy and sharing all I know for the good of the horse.

The way I pass on this knowledge has changed over the last few years with a lot more content now being delivered online. This is fantastic and allows anyone from anywhere in the world to join in. However, I do still enjoy running a range of practical courses at Horses Inside Out HQ. All of my courses attract a great bunch of people from all different backgrounds but all with the same goal – wanting to learn and improve their knowledge for the benefit of the horse.

I love the interactive element, getting hands on with the horses, bones, anatomical models and specimens as well as all the questions and discussions.

The recent two-day course Practical Anatomy and Biomechanics for Saddlery Professionals was no exception. This course is one that’s full of surprises and provides so many lightbulb moments for those that attend.

Skeleton, bones, course, interactive learning anatomy at Horses Inside Out
Course members adding the bone labels to Marvin - our pony skeleton

This course takes an in-depth look at the structure and function of the horse, relates it to the way of going and how saddle and bridle fit completes the puzzle. This course is jam-packed with content.

Our large selection of different anatomical models really helps learning about equine anatomy.

Head Anatomy

When it comes to anatomy of the head, understanding the biomechanical connections is important to appreciate how discomfort in the head can affect movement and performance. Bridle fitters and horse owners need to be able to find and palpate the anatomical structures as well as understand their structure and function. Of particular importance are the specific anatomical structures, which, when subject to pressure can cause discomfort for the horse. These include the:-

  • Temporomandibular joint,

  • Trigeminal and facial nerves

  • Infraorbital and mental nerves

  • Upper lip levator muscle

  • Nasoincisive notch

  • Facial crest

  • Auricular cartilages

  • Temporal muscle

  • Vascular notch

Learn more about equine anatomy related to bridle fit and comfort with the online presentation Head Anatomy - Related to Health, Performance, Bridle Fit and Design or with my book Illustrated Head Anatomy

Movement in the back

Understanding the amount of movement available in different parts of the back is so important for fitting and designing saddles. Horses from different disciplines will demonstrate different movement patterns as the biomechanical demands of their sport causes them to adapt differently. So Understanding the Horse's Back, the range of movement available between each vertebrae and how and when the horse uses it is so important to be able to accurately assess back movement.

Also a horse’s posture can affect the range of back movement and needs to be considered when fitting and designing saddles. Over the years I have developed a clear system for assessing posture as well as back movement. If you would like to learn more check out the online presentation: Understanding and Assessing Your Horse's Posture.

Muscular Misconceptions

There are many misconceptions about muscles and very often the anatomy of the horse's back is over-simplified. This means that many structures are not even considered when riding, training, looking after or even fitting a saddle to the horse's back. Most people have heard about longissimus dorsi and the trapezius muscle but other structures that need to be understood and considered when fitting a saddle include:-

  • Spinalis dorsi muscle

  • Latissimus dorsi muscle

  • Cutaneous trunci muscle

  • Dorsal serrate muscle

  • Iliocostalis muscle

  • Parasympathetic trunc

  • Psoas major and minor muscles

  • Multifidus muscle

  • Rib levator muscles

  • Gluteal tongue muscles

  • Thoracolumbar fascia

  • Ascending pectoral muscles,

  • Sternum and the xiphoid process

  • Spinal ligaments

  • Ventral serrated and the thoracic sling muscles

To help learn about the location of anatomical structures related to the saddle and girth, and to learn to accurately palpate them participants have the opportunity to paint bony landmarks and muscle borders on horses on this course.

We run a competition for the most anatomically accurate team. This year we had mixed results but everyone had lots of fun, developed their palpation skills and an appreciation of the anatomy of the back. Pumpernickel was painted by me and Toby enjoyed taking the opportunity for a roll in the rollarium afterwards!

I always love getting feedback from courses – here’s what a few people said:

“Gillian Higgins is a world class expert with world class enthusiasm and world class facilities and learning materials. The more you know the more you realise you don’t know. I’m going back to learn more when I have digested the books I bought, watched the videos they link to, re-watched the content I’ve already bought and devoured the free content on the Horses Inside Out Academy. Finally, learning new stuff is exhausting remember that when you ride your horse or teach a lesson.”

Dawn Britnell, WOW saddle fitter

Here are some of Dawn’s take home messages from this two-day course

  • Human and equine bodies are amazing

  • Until you look at a skeleton pelvis you don’t realise how foals are born

  • How horses stay sound as long as they do is remarkable

  • Balance is key and speed rarely helps it

  • Use it or lose it – using walk, raised walk poles, hills, lateral work and canter are the best ways to get a connected, fully functioning strong body

  • The less you put on a horse’s head and in his mouth, provided he is well ridden, the better he can connect from his hind legs all the way through his body

  • There’s no such thing as a perfect horse. Some of them don’t even get the same number of ribs and vertebrae, or have muscles in the same places

  • It’s remarkable that horses do what we want as willingly as they do

  • Canter work makes the strongest backs to carry a saddle

  • Employ the best help you can for your horse, but ask questions. If they don’t like you doing that, or don’t answer you, employ someone else

  • If you’re going to ride badly do it on a long rein to give the horse a chance to help himself

  • The nuchal ligament is more incredible than I thought

  • The hyoid should be explained to every rider

  • There is no such thing as a perfect bridle as every horse is different

  • The horse’s back doesn’t move the way you think it does

  • With up to 23.4 degrees of movement possible is it any wonder that the lumbosacral junction can get into trouble?

  • Hydration is key to muscle health

  • If you grip with your knees, do you know what you do to your horse’s latissimus dorsi muscle?

  • Muscles need tone, depth, posture, fitness, hydration and more

  • Your horse’s thoracic sling is just as important as his engine

  • A horses gut weighs about 150kg

  • If you want to get rid of his big belly he will need to do some cardio

  • Lateral Flexion and rib cage bend improve range of movement, lateral stability, relaxation, muscle memory, strength and confidence

  • Respect your horse’s qualified, registered, insured physio, Osteo, chiro- what they do is seriously cool

“Two days of total immersion into anatomy, posture, palpation, painting - yes painting! Anatomical markers, biomechanics and saddles. This was a truly awesome clinic, as a farrier it was great to sit in with a group of mainly saddle fitters and be something of a fly on a wall. It’s an area I have remained woefully weak in for way too long and it was so good to gain a deeper insight. We all battle the same problems but from our different perspectives and skill sets and gaining a deeper understanding of others is not just fascinating it’s essential.”

Mark Johnson, Farrier

Equine anatomy, learning, models, biomechanics, horses inside out classroom
We absolutely love the facilities here at Horses Inside Out HQ!

"I had a great time with Gillian on her Practical Anatomy and Biomechanics Course for Saddlery Professionals. Amazing atmosphere, good learning experience and even better company.”

David Kempsell, WOW Saddles

If you would like to learn more about these topics join us for next year's Practical Anatomy and Biomechanics for Saddlery Professionals

Or check out these online learning options:


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