Animal Biomechanical Professionals Australia

The Biomechanical Effects of Long & Low in the Horse

The Biomechanical effects of long and low in horses

Firstly everything is always a matter of perspective. There is long and low done the correct way with the horse in balance and there is long and low done the incorrect way with the horse on the forehand and over-flexed (behind the vertical) which is very stressful on the horse physically and mentally. It also depends on what your aim is from the exercise and the stage of training of the horse i.e – for stretching, relaxation, suppling, balance and/or self-carriage.

There are a couple of important points – for effective long and low the abdominals need to be engaged as the back muscles can’t support the spine effectively with a rider and saddle. There is a lack of musculature on the underside of the spine right where the saddle sits.   When I say lack, I mean there is no muscle supporting under the spine in this area.

For the horse to be able to support the rider the back is provided strength through flexion and abdominal support. An extended back is generally a weak back, especially under saddle.

Try it yourself!! -Get on all 4’s – hold your back straight with your head up, you don’t even need to hollow it, just hold it rigid – can you engage your abdominals? Do you feel strong? – now get someone to sit on you. Then on all 4’s engage your abdominals, extend and slightly lower your head and neck, reaching with your nose – now get the same person to sit on you. Which feels stronger and more supported? Now on all 4’s lower your head and neck and don’t engage your abdominals and think of your hind legs not being engaged and get the same person to sit on you – how does this feel?

In spinal stability and support the abdominal muscles are the key along with the cybernetic muscles of the spine i.e multifidi. But the problem is these muscles can tire easily and need to be stretched and rested to be maintained in optimal condition and build strength and endurance to aid in supporting the rider’s weight as the horse is brought up into a true higher frame.

Correct long and low is good for young horses in developing their core and in cases of kissing spine and spinal arthritis – thoracic & lumbar. Thoracic flexion with efficient abdominal contraction prepares the horse for more athletic fitness.

Lowering the neck promotes the lengthening of the epaxial muscles (above the spine) and the vertebral column to support the rider’s weight. The tension of the supraspinous ligaments and recruiting the abdominal muscles facilitates hind limb engagement.

This also opens up the spaces between the vertebral spines especially in the thoracic region which has the highest incidence of kissing spine. Therefore spinal flexion is paramount in preventing and alleviating kissing spines.

The Effect on the forehand

Long and Low can place increased loading and stress on the forehand and is contraindicated in horses with a tendency to be on the forehand especially if there is no hind-end engagement.

It can opens the intervertebral foramen in the neck where the nerves pass and be beneficial in horses with a stiff neck, forelimb lameness and defensive behavior but it depends on how low the horse is and how flexed. If the neck is too low and flexed it can do the opposite.

Effect of hindlimb engagement and Long and Low

Engagement of the hind quarters in this position will increase flexion through the thoracolumbar spine amplifying the stretch. Abdominal engagement is required to counter the inflexible pull of the supraspinous ligament. Therefore this will improve abdominal strengthening but is hard work so should not be continued for long periods of time, interval training is best – 5 – 10 minutes then getting off the horse for 5 mins and repeat in the early stages of training.

Improves proprioception, mobility and flexibility of the vertebral column in all planes by lengthening the supraspinous ligament through traction of nuchal ligament induced by the lowered neck.

The mobility of the lumbar spine is reduced in long and low during engagement of the hind quarter with a lowered neck and therefore increases flexion of the lumbosacral joint to compensate.

Excessive tension on the supraspinous ligament can lead to strain and compression of the vertebral bodies and result in injury especially in the lower back.

Improved LS flexibility – lengthening of the erector spinae and the middle gluteal as it causes a downward swing of the pelvis (these 2 muscles are important in propulsion so their lengthening improves their ability in athletic exercises) – improves lumbar spine flexors countering the restriction in lumbar movement – abdominal wall strengthening – rectus abdominus and oblique’s and sublumbar strengthening – psoas and iliacus (iliopsoas) – important in lumbosacral and hip function

  • Iliopsoas – Improves flexion of the hip (coxofemoral joint) – lengthening of the gluteals
  • Iliopsoas contraction – increases stifle extension – lengthening of hamstrings

Therefore improving the effectiveness of hind-end propulsion and strength

In general a multitude of varied dynamic exercises should be utilized to improve the balance, proprioception, straightness, and strength of the horse. Long and low is useful in certain situations both physically and mentally and like all exercises should be used with mindfulness of the individual horse.

It is also important that all muscles maintain the ability to contract, stretch and relax. Any muscle in a constant state of contraction will lead to imbalances in the body. So it is important to do complimentary exercises. i.e long and low combined with hay high or weight shifting onto the hind quarters.

Reference: Denoix 2014 ‘Biomechanics & physical training of the horse’

From the desk of:

Dr. Raquel Butler

BVSc G.Dip ABM, EMRT, CCMRT, Equi-taping
Integrated Veterinary Therapeutics