updated: 2021-02-23 22:47:03

The pursuit of mental and physical harmony with our horse is, most will say, the ultimate equestrian goal.
The training we undertake with our horse is aimed at building muscle, fitness, reactions to aids, power to jump, speed, flexibility and endurance.  However, even the fittest top level horses can have some deep muscle weakness, making it very hard for them to work with core fluidity, leading to compensations and eventually pain.
Core weakness can initially show itself as heavy, one-sided contact, resistance to schooling and other all too familiar resistances.  A weak core, and the resulting way of going and muscle usage, can indicate an extremely common and usually overlooked issue known as Spinal Crowding Syndrome (SCS).  There is some strong evidence that this can ultimately lead to Over-Riding Dorsal Spinous Processes, also known as Kissing Spine.
Spinal Crowding Syndrome is effectively the complications resulting from a hollowed back and can be slight to severe depending on the angle of the dip.  While evolution has perfected the horse's skeleton to result in naturally beautiful movement, it did not develop in a naturally strong enough back to carry a human.
The weaker the horse's back when a human first sits on them, the greater the hollowing (even if invisible to the naked eye due to the saddle) and the greater the narrowing of the gaps between the vertical spinous processes.  The first 2 pictures below show differences between the natural gap and narrowed gap of a slightly dipped back.
As the training becomes more demanding, a horse will instinctively tense their back muscles to lock the area and limit the level of rubbing and pinching from the spine.  Due to the natural habit forming ability of the horse, one this defence begins it is likely to continue resulting in a loss of flexibility and a compensatory movement pattern such as the swinging of the quarters to avoid bending through the spine.
Many horses will move very well and freely in the field and show their natural cadence, but are quick to lose this when under saddle.
The horse's core muscles, the Multifidus System, need to be strong and supple to counteract the spinal dipping from the rider and keep the gaps open.  Asking a horse to move more forward to engage the quarters will not build this system of muscles, especially if the spine has already dipped, and in this case impulsion can worsen the problem.
The more mature a horse becomes the more advance an outline we ask them to hold.  If the basic core strength isn't already in place this can result in still further tension as they attempt to lock the spine against the increased twisting of an active gait and counter forces causing increased compression.
If a horse is able to learn to work like this it usually becomes more supple through the limbs but will be crooked, one-sided and limited in their work.  In other cases, the tension will worsen until it manifests itself as severe behavioural issues, it is at this stage the diagnosis of kissing spine could be given, though it has resulted from kinks in the vertebrae from spasms in the Longissimus Dorsi crushing the nerve.
Another effect of tension throughout the spine is that the forces that are normally absorbed through the centre of the horse are forced forwards towards the shoulders pushing the lowest part of the cervical spine (base of the neck) between the shoulder blades.  This means the horse will no longer display forehand suspension or lightness and will feel downhill and heavy in the rider's hands, making straightness and balance extremely difficult.
Any misalignment in the spine will result in the subtle dynamics of limb movement and joint trajectories being put out of line, causing imbalances, restrictions and compensations.  A good example of this is a flare in the hoof, with growth on one side of the foot showing repetitive lateral slide of that limb.  Over time it can end up with bony growths, joint swellings and excessive wear in areas with repetitive strain.  Core strength and movement pattern corrections can heal and strengthen this ailments.
Horses are usually silent triers, with a naturally inbuilt instinct to hide pain, making initial signs hard to identify.  Correct initial training, not rushing the first steps and being diligent in your ground work will dramatically improve your horse's longevity and comfort, as well as by ensuring as much as possible that the exercises you carry out and the way you train your horse are in their best interests.
The common thought that bigger horses, such as the heavy breeds, are stronger in the back and therefore able to carry more weight, are not correct.  All horses require core and strength training to enable them to carry the "rider burden" comfortably.

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