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Muscular Misconceptions... What is really beneath the saddle?

Updated: Nov 19, 2022

This month was the welcome return of ‘Webinar Wednesdays’ with Gillian Higgins of Horses Inside Out. This month’s topic was ‘Muscular Misconceptions’ - all about the muscles in the horse’s body on which we place the saddle and sit. If you missed it don't worry you can read all about it in this blog and you can now purchase the recorded version HERE.

gillian higgins horses inside out muscular misconceptions

It is a common misconception that the muscle in the horse’s body that supports the weight of the rider is the long back muscle ‘Longissimus Dorsi’. Most riders are able to pin point this muscle, along the length of the back and either side of the spine or what is often perceived as the spine but is actually the bony processes that stick up from the spine. You can learn more about the bones of the back and spine in the recorded webinar 'Understanding Your Horse's Back'

Did you know that your horse has over 700 muscles in their body (counting left and right sides)? And all these muscles work together with tendons, ligaments and fascia to create movement and tensegrity in the body.

In this webinar Gillian focused on the muscles under the saddle, splitting them into 9 categories:

  1. Cutaneous muscle

  2. Trapezius muscle

  3. Latissimus dorsi muscle

  4. Abdominal muscles

  5. Pectoral muscles

  6. Dorsal serrate muscles

  7. Ventral serrate muscles

  8. Superficial back muscles

  9. Deep back muscles

gillian higgins horses inside out muscles underneath saddle

So many muscles to think about and in fact by the time Gillian gets to longissimus dorsi (which is in part 8. Superficial back muscles) we will learn that longissmus is actually a gymnastic muscle designed to extend the back, laterally flex the back and to assist in the transfer of forces from the hind limb of the horse forwards through the body. It really isn’t a postural muscle designed to hold the weight of the rider at all.

This is why it is so important for riders to learn which muscles are designed for good posture and support so we can then also learn how to train and strengthen these muscles and create a healthier riding horse.

During this webinar for each section Gillian shares with us:

  • How to palpate the muscle(s) on your own horse - for this she demonstrates using her own gorgeous ISH Toby

  • Some photographs from real horse dissections she has previously done - these are amazing to see and give you a real insight into the position of the muscles, the thickness, the direction of the fibres and the fascia connections

  • Painted horse demos - helping to show what the muscles look like when the horse is in motion

  • Exercises for stimulating the muscle(s) - which will help you to train your own horse’s body

  • Muscle Chains and Connections - showing how the muscle(s) we are looking at in each section works together with other muscles in the horse’s body

  • Muscle Layers - which to me is really important as when you put your hands on your horse, you are not just touching one muscle directly under the skin, there are layers of muscles and fascia which also contains blood vessels and nerves of varying degrees. Having an understanding of this gives a great insight into why some areas of the horse are more sensitive than others and also how to help your horse develop body awareness and improve posture.

I think depending on whether you are a horse owner, rider, trainer, therapist or other professional you will get something different out of this webinar and how you can use the information.

"I just wanted to share with you some of the points that resonated with me from the perspective of an Equine Massage Therapist" Jessica Limpkin
  • The Cutaneous Muscle (skin twitch muscle) can be under the saddle on some horses but every horse’s Cutaneous Muscle is different

gillian higgins horses inside out cutaneous muscle painted horse

  • The hollow behind your horse’s wither is unlikely to be due to atrophy of the thoracic trapezius muscle and quite likely to be postural!

  • Latissimus dorsi turns from muscle to fascia right under the panels of the saddle

  • Rectus abdominis sits right under the girth and is the muscle that is responsible for the ‘6 pack’ in humans - this is due the direction and pattern of the muscle fibres (Gillian shows some great images of this in the webinar)

  • The transverse abdominis muscle has a thick sheet of fascia crossing underneath the abdomen

gillian higgins horses inside out disection photograph trunk transverse abdominals

  • The contraction of the External Abdominal Oblique muscle has a direct relationship to the movement the horse’s ribcage and movement of the hind limb on the same side - showing the importance of the rider timing up their leg aids with the swing of the ribcage (again a fabulous demo of this in the webinar)

  • Girth tension can affect forelimb protraction as the girth sits directly over the Ascending Pectoral muscle which is part of the Forelimb Protraction Chain of muscles.

gillian higgins horses inside out under saddle painted horse forelimb skeleton muscles ascending pectorals pecs deep

  • You can train the Dorsal Serrate muscles using cardiovascular exercise. These muscles are responsible for lifting the ribcage which will give support for the rider. This demonstrates the importance of having a fit horse before you think about riding it.

gillian higgins horses inside out under saddle paimted horse dorsal serrate muscles

  • Longissimus Dorsi is not just a back muscle - it has connections to the poll and tail too

  • Pressure points from the saddle can cause dehydration of the fascia over the back muscles, causing muscle dysfunction

  • Hill work encourages the horse to push more symmetrically from the hindlimbs so can help if a horse has a weaker hind limb

  • Multifidus is a postural muscle but is also a back extensor muscle. Multifidus makes more detailed, intricate movements and is highly innervated. Multifidus can be trained and educated.

gillian higgins horses inside out under saddle disection photograph multifidus muscle

  • The Thoracic Sling muscles are fighting gravity particularly as horses get older - keeping these muscles tones will help our horses to have a healthy posture and therefore a healthy back.

  • And finally a thought provoking one…………..when we (or the horse) feels muscle soreness, are we actually feeling this in muscle itself or is what we are feeling actually tightness in the highly innervated fascia as the muscle expands during exercise?

I hope my notes give you food for thought and whet your appetite for this webinar - the webinar is about 2.5 hrs long and is jam packed with much more than I can post here and the visuals are amazing too.

You can purchase a copy of the webinar from the Horses Inside Out Academy. The Academy itself is free to join and there are tons of videos there you can watch and learn from too.

I can’t wait for the next webinar in this series which is on the subject of Head Anatomy related to bridle fit and design.

I hope you have found this blog useful.

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