THE BOW AND STRING THEORY OF DRESSAGE IS FALSE
©C. Curley – Effective Equestrian, LLC 2020
The bow and string theory of raising the back of the horse has been around a long time. I do not know who first used this visual. At face value I can see how it may have been used to illustrate the perceived change in posture in collection. But then, as these simple visual illustrations sometimes do, it took on a life of its own to deterministically describe the biomechanics of what is happening. That is where the myth begins.
As you load the string on a bow, the arms of the bow flex creating a more pronounced arch in its shape. The equine biomechanics analogy that is often used is based on the theory that the abdominal muscles are the major influence on the shape of the horse’s back. As the abdominal muscles contract, it stretches the back and raises it (i.e., “arches the bow”).
While the abdominal muscles play a part in stabilizing the system, they are not strong enough by themselves to raise the mass of the back. Try this exercise on yourself:
- Get down on your hands and knees in a comfortable place, with your back parallel to the floor. In yoga this is called ‘tabletop’ position.
- Consciously relax the major muscles in your back, all along your spine.
- With these muscles completely relaxed, engage your external abdominals and try to lift your back into a rounded or arched position. Doesn’t really work, does it?
- Now do the opposite and relax your external abdominals and raise your back with the muscles near your spine. Much easier but still not perfect!
- Lastly, engage your abdominals lightly to stabilize the cavity that holds the mass of your organs, and use the large back muscles to arch the back. This is the most efficient motion.
This awareness exercise simulates the yoga cat-cow movement and can help you understand a bit of what the horse needs to do to give you that sensation of the back raising, which does not move much at all. If you have a friend who can help you can even play with the sensation of having weight on your back, or seat bones pressing near your spine and see how this affects the ability of your different muscle groups to do their job.
The key is to teach the horse to use its muscles and tendons in the most efficient and coordinated way to produce healthy and spectacular movement. This means also the rider must educate themselves on which muscle systems do what and how they coordinate with each other. It’s a whole system approach.
Swap out gadgets for knowledge and choose exercises that focus on the development of balance, straightness and coordination, and you will be on your way to spectacular.
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