In the highly competitive world of western speed sports, the need for body work has become synonymous with keeping our performance horses at the top of their game. Body workers are pivotal in the health and well-being of our equine athletes, utilizing techniques that can enhance muscle function and relieve tension. However, I’ve learned firsthand: body work is just a band-aid unless you incorporate proper biomechanics.
Now wait - before you come for me: This statement is in no way intended to cast shade on the talented body workers we so rely on. I have many on speed dial on my roster. Rather, it emphasizes that as horse owners and riders, we must take responsibility for the overall development and soundness of our horses, which may include bucking some of the typical socially accepted norms in the industry.
The Importance of Body Work
To begin: let's acknowledge the essential role of body work. Barrel racing, mounted shooting, team or breakaway roping put tremendous strain on our horse's body. Skilled body workers utilize various techniques to alleviate this strain, helping our horses feel their best. Without them, many of our equine athletes would be plagued with chronic tension and discomfort.
For years I have toted the concept of “prehab” and when I still owned my boarding facility I organized quarterly “whole horse health days” where we would bring in an osteopath, dentist, saddle fitter, laser therapist, massage therapist all on the same day for a deep treatment on our equine athletes. I would supplement these quarterly appointments with as-needed follow ups, believing that I was doing everything I could to prevent unsoundness.
The Role of Proper Biomechanics
But. After retiring yet another horse this spring even after he was on a regular schedule of allthestuffandthings – I started to wonder - what if we are missing a critical piece of the puzzle?
The horse's body is uniquely designed, with no bony attachment to the ground aside from their hind legs. It’s literally crazy to comprehend. The horse has to hold his front end, the saddle, and us as their rider – and run around at top speed making hairpin turns.
Proper development of the front end is an absolute necessity, and something that is being overlooked by instead trying new bits meant to fix “dropped shoulders” or a tie down to stop the horse from throwing their head up to literally keep their front end off the floor while we ask them to stop, go, turn and run.
Widely utilized training methods have us riding the back of the horse to the front or compressing their head in false collection before they have the strength to do so correctly (by lifting the base of the neck). If this piece of the puzzle is neglected, our body workers end up continually chasing tension, trying to patch up issues after every weekend we tear them apart, instead of addressing the root cause.
Ensuring our horse has the best therapeutic blanket, post-ride muscle gel, monthly massage or magnawave is no substitute for developing foundational strength and conditioning. Recognizing the importance of developing posture muscles, true strength and better biomechanics is about realizing how we ride and train our horses. It's about understanding how our movements affect their balance, strength, and flexibility, and making the necessary changes to support our equine athletes and avoid repetitive strain and lameness that plagues the industry.
"Prehab" is more than just a buzzword. It's about proactive daily management of our horse, focusing on developing and ensuring our horse has the correct biomechanics to truly prevent issues before they ever start. A stint at the swimming pool once a year, while beneficial, isn't enough to maintain our athletes long-term.
My next phase (I’m gonna call it prehabolution) encourages riders to look beyond the moment and train their horses with an eye on their long-term physical health. This might mean modifying training regimes, spending more time in-hand, and even rethinking some of the accepted techniques in our western speed sport industry (yeah… I’m coming for your tie downs, draw reins, bonnets and big bits: and would bet big money the need for all those could be fixed with a (properly) fitter horse).
To clarify: I am by no means saying that body work isn't necessary, important, and even crucial to the health of our horses. These equine experts are heroes who help our horses stay competitive. But we must recognize that as horse owners and riders, we have an equally important role to play.
By educating ourselves and implementing foundational fitness and proper biomechanics into our riding regimes, we can work with body workers, rather than relying on them to fix preventable issues. Together, we can raise the bar in the western speed sport industry, focusing on the well-being of our equine athletes not just today, but for their entire (and long) competitive careers.
If you’re not sure where to start: I recommend beginning HERE:
Embrace the prehab-revolution. Make it a part of your daily routine. Our horses deserve nothing less, and the results in the performance pen will speak for themselves. Let's redefine what's normal, and take our sport to new heights.
See ya at the finish line!