Understanding the Body Mechanics of Working in a Frame

Most riders eventually understand that it is ideal for their horse to work in a frame. A frame is a way of carrying the body that utilizes the ring of muscles by asking the horse to engage his haunches, lift his back, travel lightly on the forehand, round the neck from the base and drop the head. This is an efficient way for the horse to move that prevents injury and helps the horse to carry the weight of the rider. Unfortunately, many people lose sight of the whole picture and focus only on the head and neck carriage of the horse. This is an easy mistake to make since the neck has the most movement and is the most visible.

Focusing on the head and neck alone leads to people using devices, such as martingales, draw reins or tie downs, or harsh rein aids to force the horse to drop his head. All of that is entirely unnecessary and can actually lead to injury, chiropractic problems, muscle tension and a bad attitude. More importantly, it will break the trust of your horse. The head and neck set is an extension of the rest of the body and with correct movement from behind, your horse will naturally carry his head and neck correctly. Since it is the most visible, the head and neck can help serve as a an indication of what is happening in the hind end, back and shoulders if you do not yet know what elevation, collection and suppleness feels like as your riding. 

To help you understand the body mechanics, I want you to feel the difference between working in a proper frame and working hollowed out. Stand up with your feet shoulder width apart. Gently stick your butt out, hollow out your back, pinch your shoulder blades together and slightly tip your chin up. This position is the equivalent to a horse that is inverted and not working in a frame. When the horse is in this position, his haunches are out behind him, his back is dropped down, he is unable to lift his body up through his shoulders, his neck will be in a “u” shape and his head in the air. 

While in this position, gently try to lift your knee to your chest – you can’t get your knee very high which is akin to your horse being unable to step under his body to propel himself forward with power. Now try lifting your arm over your head – does your arm get stuck half way up? You have reduced movement through your shoulders. Finally, try to bring your chin to your chest. If you stay hollowed out through your body your head can only drop so far and all of the movement will come from the base of your skull, or the poll in the horse. In fact, it likely hurts to try to do this. If you ratchet your horse’s head down when his body is hollowed out you are going to cause pain and injury and the horse will never be able to maintain it naturally and comfortably.

Now I want you to put your body into a correct frame. Engage your stomach muscles to tuck your butt in, round your back, round your shoulders and gently tip your chin into your chest. While in this position, lift your knee to your chest. How much farther can you lift it? You should be able to see a significant difference. Raise your arms above your head one at a time – how much more freedom of movement do you have. From this position you can likely get your chin all the way to your chest though that would be the equivalent of going behind the bit. It should, however, be comfortable to drop your head to stay in the arc of the rest of your spine. In fact, keep your back rounded and try to tip your head back. You can’t go with your head straight in the air without pain. If your horse’s body and spine is in this position he will naturally carry his head and neck where you want them. In this correct frame the horses hind end is engaged creating power, his stomach muscles are lifting his back helping him to carry your weight, his shoulder is free to swing and you don’t need anything other than soft hands to get the head and neck set that you want. 

When the horse is in an inverted position he will have to compensate in order to move forward. With his hind end out from under him, his weight will shift to the front end and he will become heavy on his forehand. However, without freedom of movement through his shoulder he will have to use his chest muscles and the muscles on the underside of his neck to pull his body along. Essentially you have a front wheel drive horse at that point that is heavy in your hand and unbalanced preventing him from performing good transitions, bend, or lateral work. In addition, his quality of movement will be lessened. This heaviness will cause more concussion with each stride and you are setting him up for injuries in his back and legs. When he shifts into a rear wheel drive horse and the power comes from behind everything changes. He will shift his weight back onto the hind end and reach under his body with the hind limbs, he will become light and responsive your aids and he will have improved movement and softness. 

If you need help understanding this concept, we can take the above exercise a step further. Find a carpeted area or go out into the grass to protect your knees. Get onto your hands and knees – you are going to do the cow and cat stretches practiced in yoga. Start with the cow – drop your back down gently, stick your butt out and lift your chin up. Again you should be able to feel that your hips and shoulders are restricted and you are unable to drop your head comfortably. Stay in this position and start crawling. You will likely feel that you have to catch yourself with your arms so that you don’t fall on your face. Your legs end up out behind you, you are heavy on your forehand, your movement is stiff and there is a lot of concussion with each “step”. Can you sense that if you were able to go faster in this position that you would end up rushing your arms along to hold you up and keep your balance? Imagine a child sitting on your back – how much more difficult would this become? 

Now put yourself into the cat position by rounding your back, tucking your pelvis in and dropping your head. Stay in this position and resume crawling. You should feel a big difference. You can bring your legs under your body and support your weight on your legs. You should feel much softer on your hands with more ability to swing your shoulder forward. You should feel balanced and more flexible through your entire body. Feel how it would now be uncomfortable to go with your head straight in the air while in this position. Imagine how much easier it would be to move quickly, to turn and to stop. Imagine how much easier it would be to carry a child on your back. 

Hopefully these exercises help you to understand how you have to ride your horse from the back end forward. To do that you must ride off your seat and leg which is what controls everything from the hind end to the shoulder. If you can get that part right, your arms can stay relaxed and simply catch the energy that comes through the neck and head from the body. To learn how to control the body through your seat and leg takes patience, practice and intent but the rewards are great for you and your horse. Please do your horse a favor and stop forcing his head down without addressing the root of the problem. 

Stef Perkins, Bend Equine Solutions, LLC

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Comment by Stef Perkins on April 25, 2013 at 2:52pm

True - we have collar bones and our structure is different but I think it can help for a student new to the concept if they can feel it in their own body even if it is not a perfect translation.  It is so common to lose that movement that is free, ground covering, and up/open/active.  I think we lose it and then spend a lot of time trying to get it back - it would be nice if it was never lost.  Thank you for your feedback, insight, and perspective.  All the best!    

Comment by wildehex on April 25, 2013 at 2:27pm

I dont believe that most riders do understand how the posture of the horse affects how the body moves.  They are taken in by the reasoning (being told by teacher/'winners') that says immediate longitudinal flexion is what they are supposed to be doing, and then there is constant use of the flexion to close the throatlatch rather than compress the hindleg joints (effective hh).

Using the analysis of a human doing cat stretches really is not applicable because we have collar bones. That said I agree about forcing a posture upon the horse. With a horse the only way they stay connected is if the throat latch opens when they go to a longer posture, but a longer posture tends to put the horse onto the forehand.  If we look at a young horse/one which is free and covering ground, it is up/open/active.  This we must try to sustain once we sit on the horse.

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