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Improve Your Horse's Posture - Improve Performance!

Updated: Jun 1

In this article we share some key points about how to improve your horse's posture to improve performance which Gillian demonstrated, with the help of 5* event rider Simon Grieve, Olympic dressage rider Laura Tomlinson and liberty trainer and equine sports massage therapist Jessica Limpkin, at the Horses Inside Out evening extravaganza at Hartpury last week and give you some insight into what goes on behind the scenes for an event such as this.

Olympic dressage rider, Laura Tomlinson, and 5* event rider, Simon Grieve are literally turned inside out as they help to illustrate the importance of applying an understanding of anatomy to training. Hartpury Evening Extravaganza with Gillian Higgins at Horses Inside Out
Olympic dressage rider, Laura Tomlinson, and 5* event rider, Simon Grieve are literally turned inside out as they help to illustrate the importance of applying an understanding of anatomy to training.

The word that immediately came to mind at the close of the Evening Extravaganza show was ‘WOW!’ Yet again, Gillian Higgins delivered over two hours of mind blowingly interesting and educational information in a style that was fun, engaging, and easy to understand. Not only does Gillian have a vast anatomical and biomechanical knowledge, her passion and delivery style make learning enjoyable, and as people were leaving their seats to go home, I could hear the buzz of enthusiasm rippling around the arena.




Hartpury Evening Extravaganza with Gillian Higgins at Horses Insideo Out
Gillian with a team of Hartpury students and volunteers painting Buster in preparation for the big event.

For the HIO team, the event started the day before with two of the horses arriving in the afternoon - Eric, Jessica Limpkin’s beautiful section D Welsh pony, and Buster, Simon Grieve’s very friendly 3* eventer. Laura Tomlinson’s gorgeous dressage horse, Moon, was arriving the next day - Thursday. It was going to be a busy, busy time.


Once they were all settled, the painting began. Several Hartpury students came along to help, which is always appreciated as painting two horses can take up to 5 hours. For this event, however, Gillian needed to paint three horses!






VIPs meeting the horses and riders at Hartpury Evening Extravaganza with Gillian Higgins and Horses Inside Out

Later in the afternoon, Simon and Laura arrived and, along with Gillian, they had another final discussion about the plan for the evening and who would be doing what and when in the arena.


A lucky few got to enjoy the VIP meet and greet session before the demonstration. With the opportunity see and get up close and personal with the horses, to meet Laura, Simon and Gillian, and ask questions, all with a glass of bubbles in hand before the demonstration began. This added to the sense of occasion and the excitement grew.


VIPs meeting the horses and riders at Hartpury Evening Extravaganza with Gillian Higgins and Horses Inside Out


Skeleton suits were handed out for Laura and Simon to put on, last minute tweaking was done to the horses’ manes, tails and boots, and then the doors opened at 5.30pm and the audience began to stream in and take their seats.



Hartpury Evenin Eztravaganza with Horses Inside Out. Gillian Higgins demonstrating the thoracic vertebrae of the horse

During the first half of the evening, Gillian used her huge array of bones and the musculoskeletally painted horses to explain what’s going on in the skeleton from the head all the way down to the tail and hooves.


Muscles were then added into the mix and an appreciation of the biomechanics was discussed.


My personal favourite, Eric, was the lunge pony and he demonstrated his moves over walk, trot and canter poles.  Gillian explained how regular use of walk, trot and canter poles can help to improve strength and stability as well as flexibility and posture for all horses whatever the discipline. And we know many people went home inspired to do more of this with their own horses.


Eric also gave a superb demonstration of backing up. You can really tell that this is an exercise that Jessica performs with Eric on a regular basis as he conducted the backward steps calmly, actively with the head lowered, good back positioning and core muscles recruitment.


Eric demonstrating the increased lumbosacral flexion and abdominal and thoracic sling muscle recruitment as he walks backwards. Evening Extravaganza at Hartpury with Gillian Highgins and Horses Inside Out
Here you can clearly see the increased lumbosacral flexion and abdominal and thoracic sling muscle recruitment.

Horses Inside Out Hartpury Evening Extravaganza: Simon Grieve and Autograf

In the second half, we got to see Simon Grieve jump some big fences followed by Laura Tomlinson displaying her and Moonie’s superb dressage skills. Throughout the two horses’ demonstrations, Gillian applied the information she had given us in the first half so we could actually see with our own eyes what happened to the bones of the leg, the thoracic vertebrae or the abdominal oblique muscles, for example,  as the horses moved around. 


Laura Tomlinson riding Moon at teh Hartpury Evening Extravaganza at Hartpury with Horses Inside Out and Gillian Higgins

One of the themes for the night was Posture for Performance. Welfare of the horse in all aspects of riding and home management, whether he be a happy hacker or an elite competition athlete,  is one of the keystones in Gillian’s educational platforms. Gillian wanted everyone to know what we can do to help improve the posture of the horse, which in turn will help the horse’s performance as well as his health and longevity in his working life. 


Posture can be defined as the position in which the horse carries himself. In a moving horse, he needs to have good balance in order to carry himself efficiently and gracefully.  Gillian clearly explained how understanding the four main mechanisms that maintain good posture will enable the rider and the horse to train more efficiently:


1. Positioning of the Head and Neck


Gillian Higgins at Horses Inside Out:With the head and neck in this position, there is little support through the nuchal and supraspinous ligament into the back.
With the head and neck in this position, there is little support through the nuchal and supraspinous ligament into the back.

There are several ligaments that help maintain good head and neck position and Gillian explained how the nuchal ligament works, which attaches onto the back of the head, the cervical vertebrae and then changes its name to the supraspinous ligament as it leaves the neck and runs over the top of the spinous processes of the back.

Gillian Higgins at Horses Inside Out:When the head is lowered traction from the nuchal ligament into the supraspinous ligaments helps to raise and flex the back.
When the head is lowered traction from the nuchal ligament into the supraspinous ligaments helps to raise and flex the back.

This ligament is an energy efficient way of supporting the head and neck.  We have probably all seen a dozing horse and noticed how he hangs his head lower than his withers. This position is maintained by the nuchal ligament supporting the weight of the head thus allowing other neck and head muscles to relax.


Importantly, the nuchal ligament along with other spinal ligaments, depending on head and neck position, can help raise the back, provide strength and stability and  help support the weight of the rider.


Horses Inside Out Webinar: Understanding the Horse's neck

If you would like to learn more about the effect of head and neck position on the horse's body, posture and way of going, check out the on-demand webinar: Understanding Your Horse's Neck




2. Positioning of the Hindlegs


Evening Extravaganza at Hartpury with Horses Inside Out. Laura Tomlinson riding her horse Moon

The next mechanism for good posture that Gillian demonstrated involved the positioning of the hind legs. The more under the body the hind leg comes, the better the horse is able to support back posture. But this range alone is not enough - strength and the action of the hindlimb to "carry" as well as "push" was something beautifully illustrated by Laura and Moonie.


The hip joint is the main joint involved in bringing the hindlimb underneath the body. But to understand how this action affects the back and posture, it is important to appreciate two important joints: the sacroiliac joint and the lumbosacral joint.


The sacroiliac joint is a fixed joint - it has very little movement. Its purpose is to transfer movement and energy created by the hind legs forward through to the front half of the horse. This means the sacrum and the pelvis move together.


The lumbosacral joint, meanwhile,  is where it all happens! This is the point at which the last lumbar vertebra and the first sacral vertebra meet. It’s a hinge joint and after the neck and the tail, forms the most flexible part of the spine. It is this joint that allows the horse to perform fun movements such as canter, gallop, jumping, and collection moves in dressage.



Simon and Buster beautifully demonstrated the function of the lumbosacral junction and sacroiliac joint by galloping around the arena. At the same time we got to see just how much forward canter work can improve the quality of trot.

Gillina Higgins demonstrating the lumbosacral junction by using her vast array of  equine bones

Being able to see the pelvis bones togehter with the lumbar and sacral vertebrae, which Gillian held up for us all, as well as observe the joints on the painted horses,  helped us understand how this joint biomechanically works in bringing the hind leg under the body, its relation to posture, and its importance in movement and performance.


Horses Inside Out webinar: The Biomechanics of Collection and Engagement

If you want to learn more about the the biomechanics of collection and engagement check out the on demand webinar: The Biomechanics of Collection and Engagement.

Horses Inside Out book and video: Sacroiliac Ligaments and the iliopsoas Muscle Group



If you horse has had sacroiliac dysfunction or if you want to strengthen the area and help prevent problems occuring you definitely should check out this on-demand video course all about it.







3. Positioning of the Thorax


Hartpury Evening Extravaganza. Gillin Higgins demonstrating recruitment of the thoracic sling muscles

One of the most fascinating facts about our equine friend is that there is no joint, or bone to bone connection of the forelimbs onto the horse's body. The forelegs are solely held into place by muscle! These strong and supportive muscles are known as the thoracic sling muscles, and the stronger and more toned they become, the higher the position the thorax can be held - thus contributing to better posture. Gillian demonstrated this by activating the sling muscles through rubbing or gently scratching the belly from sternum to the end of the ascending pectoral. You could actually see the thorax lift and the horses seemed to grow inches in height. Little 14.3 Eric seemed quite pleased at becoming ‘horse’.


Horses Inside Out webinar: Thiracic sling muscles - improver posture and movement

If you want to learn more about the Thoracic sling muscles and exercises to strengthen and improve them check out this on-demand webinar which is available in the Horses Inside Out Academy.




4. Contribution of the Flexor Chain Muscles



Hartpury Evening Extravaganza with Gillian Higgins and Horses Inside Out. The flexor chain of muscles recruited by using carrot stretches
The flexor chain of muscles in action.

The horse's muscles can be divided into many groups or chains, but the two functional chains Gillian focused on during the evening were the spinal and hindlimb extensors - those muscles that lift up the head and tail and dip the back, and then the flexors - the muscles that round the back and flex the neck and head.


In particular, she looked at the abdominal muscles, which are part of the flexor chain,  and how recruiting these particular muscles help support, lift and flex the back. They need to be well-toned in order to provide a strong back and core.


Throughout the explanations, Gillian demonstrated examples of good posture and bad posture on the horses through various stretches and reflexes. It is one thing hearing or reading anatomical theory, but it was actually seeing the horse’s painted spinous processes stretch further apart or push closer together depending on head, leg or pelvic position that really brought equine anatomy home to roost!


After a 45 minute break where people could buy books, go down into the arena and see the horses, ask Gillian questions, and look at and hold the bones, it was time for the ridden section of the night when the wonderful Simon Grieve and the amazing Laura Tomlinson rode their horses. These combinations are at the top of their games, and on Thursday night were impressively throwing their equine shapes around the arena in a manner that most of us can only dream of doing. 


Simon’s jumps got progressively higher and higher and Buster, his horse, sailed over all of them with ease. The jumping clearly demonstrated the flexion and extension of the lumbosacral joint at various stages throughout take off, flight, and landing over the fences. Having Gillian explain the biomechanics in real time helped us all to see what was anatomically happening through the jump.


To learn more about the biomechanics of jumping check out the on-demand lecutre demonstration: Jumping from the Anatomical Approch


After Simon and Buster dazzled us all with their skills, Laura and her horse, Moonie, came into the arena. I had never seen a top level dressage horse up close before and I was amazed at the balance and strength that Moonie displayed. He perfectly demonstrated how far under the body the hind leg can be placed - indeed, it was this that enabled him to maintain excellent posture throughout the evening. Laura very kindly agreed to end the evening on a high by doing her dressage-to-music routine. As soon as the music started, Moonie found the beat and didn’t lose it once. Amazing!


All in all, Gillian Higgins, along with the brilliant horses and riders, managed to put together one of the most interesting, informative and enjoyable equine events I have attended. Gillian wonderfully brings anatomy to life and no doubt inspired and motivated the whole 500-strong audience to go home and try some of the posture improving exercises that were suggested as the night went on. If you missed this one, I would highly recommend coming to our next one on 21st September at Moulton College, Northamptonshire. More information and tickets can be found by following this link: www.horsesinsideout.com/lecture-demo/moulton

2 Comments

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It was a great evening, I learnt so much and it was very entertaining!

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Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

Excellent blog ⭐️

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