Montag, 1. Januar 2018

Thoughts about directions of rotation in the spine of riding horses when bending

Previous discussions have revealed a need to clarify some terminology in advance. Firstly there is the difference and the connections between rotation and torsion, secondly about how the directions of rotation are defined. Lastly, it is also important to consider the different ways of looking at spinal structure. This is where the fascia lines come into play.

Since Maike Knifka and I look at it from different perspectives - she as a therapist and I as either a rider or a horse - as needs arise - we explain in different terms with different emphases. If you want to do out-of-the-box research, you have to have a „multilingual" understanding of the concepts. That's why we wrote this post as an exchange. As a result Maike’s text is green and mine is black. Lesley Osborne did the translation, thanks for that! So there are fewer "funny words"...

Rotation or torsion?

The rotation of a body part in a tensegral structure always leads to torsion of other areas. A simple example of understanding rotation and torsion is wringing a towel. You rotate the two ends of the towel against each other and torsion in the towel is the result. (Thanks to Maike Knifka for this likeness.)

Rotation describes turning around an axis. Torsion is the strain arising in an axis when a rotating element is connected to it at one end and the other end of it is fixed, or when each end of the axis rotates against the other.

Our imagination gives us the ability to define very differently which body parts rotate, where imagined fixed points are, where torsion takes place - and how the system releases itself again.

The directions of rotation

The definition of the directions of rotation in the torso is difficult because therapists view the direction of rotation differently from me and also to most non-therapists I've spoken to about it so far.

Therapists refer to the direction of movement of the sternum during rotation (i.e. on the vertebral base). If the sternum moves to the right, it is rotation to the right. As a result, from the therapist's perspective, the pelvis rotates to the right as the right hip lifts. I would call this movement a rotation to the left, looking at the pelvis like a wingnut at the back of the spine.

“How do you mean?” asks my piebald. I offer both views and ask for feedback from my readers!
As shown in the following text, I see the thoracic vertebrae in the area of ​​the true ribs (2) as the stablest, least moving vertebra and with the least rotation relative to the line representing the combined forces of gravity and turning (called hereafter the „plumb line of motion“). If I define my point of reference here and at the same time stick to the idea with the wingnut on both ends of the spine, the sacrum rotates in my mind to the right as the right hip lowers. If the torsion following the idea of the towel goes through the entire spinal column, the cervical vertebrae (wingnut in front) now rotates to the left.

In a right bend of the horse, the downward movement of the inner hip is more emphasized than the outer, bearing in mind that it is a tendency within the sequence of movement and not a rigid setting.

Tensegrity by torsion between atlas and pelvis

Dear Maren, I can understand the image of the wingnut as a symbol of the pelvis as a "rotary engine" very well. In my imagination too, the alternating movement of the hind limbs in the pelvis initiates an "oscillating propeller movement", i.e. rotation in a continuous change of direction. The counterpart of the "pelvic wingnut" for me is the atlas. Under optimal tensegral tension in bends, the front wingnut always rotates contrary to the wingnut at the back. Exactly the same as wringing out a towel by counter-rotating movements.

My idea is that in your example of the right bend with the pelvis tending to drop lower on the right side, not the entire cervical spine rotates, but rather the distinct counter rotation of the atlas takes the first cervical vertebra with it in its direction of rotation and somewhere along the line a gradual reverse in the pelvic rotation direction takes place.

Looking at the spine as a whole (see picture above), viewed from the sacrum, all of the vertebrae rotate a little (!) to the left in relation to their predecessor. From the perspective of the spine, there is no reversal of rotation. But from the point of view of the rider or any reference point in the spine there is (see below!).

“Let’s go a ride out”, says my piebald, “this is too complicated for me”.

The old principle of "no bend without position" is basically an acknowledgement of tensegrity, because the aids of the rider in positioning the poll in the bending direction lead to counter-rotation of the atlas thereby stabilizing the overall system.

Perceived connections

Anyone who is able to imagine putting themselves in the horse’s place during movement can comprehend that it will definitely be more comfortable if the saddle and rider's weight can be carried in the plumb line of motion and the power of the front legs can be directed against the total load. Since the horse with progressive training in trot and canter on curved lines should become increasingly agile and show less leaning angle, the thorax must therefore be carried more vertically (next post ...), while thrust alignment becomes more and more direct by the change in pelvic position.

Accordingly, the rotational movements of the spine flow into the loading and unloading of the haunches. The "sitting deeper on the inside" on curved lines, which is mentioned in most riding styles, but which is rarely seen, is therefore caused by the spinal rotation of the rear thoracic vertebrae and the lumbar spine and the resulting sinking pelvis, or the other way around through the torsion resulting in the spine caused by the pelvic tilt. In a powerful horse, however, you feel not only the charge, but also the discharge of the inner hind leg in the direction of movement.

The latter leads to the fact that one no longer asks whether the spinous processes tilt inwards or outwards - they move forward in the direction of movement like a shark's fin. Looking at the horse's body as a tensegral structure, the horse charges itself in the respective directions of rotation, the bones swing in the fascia net.

Strictly speaking, as a rider we do not influence the exact position of the individual bones, rather the movement amplitudes, which change in relation to each other, as well as in the relation of different parts to each other ...


Basically, not just the horse must be supple, but much more so the rider. This is maybe an unusual idea. But the rider sits between these two imaginary wingnuts and must allow and support the balanced tensegrity of the entire horse's body (and of their own body!) with the correct inner images and guidance you describe. The consequences of the collapsing entire system caused by the rider are manifold and well-known.
... because suppleness is often confused with being loose and physical activity of the rider often means "impact" rather than presence.

The diaphragm as part of the musculoskeletal system

The central linking structure between "behind and front" is the diaphragm of the horse, which stretches under the rider. The rider’s breathing therefore also assumes an important function with regard to suppleness.
With the big subject of diaphragm and breathing I drift away from the original subject "directions of rotation" (but move effectively towards advertising: This will be one of the topics of the Gebrauchshaltungskonferenz!), but without a harmonious and stable body core the horse lacks the possibility of aligning itself to the plumb line of motion and the danger of deviation from the desired direction of thrust power is great, so that the diaphragm should probably be included in thoughts about the directions of rotation. This topic can certainly be explored further elsewhere (see above).
"It's hard to concentrate on the translation because the topic is so interesting!" - Curtis
... On a bend, the amplitudes change so that the inner inclination of the pelvis becomes slightly stronger than the outer and the inner hip lowers. However we have to remember that this only works if the lumbosacral transition is closed / stretched and the knee and hip joints bend under load. If the lumbosacral transition is open / flexed, the croup rises and reaches its highest point in the middle of the supporting leg phase of the inner hind leg.

"This is something you might have covered in a previous article (I can't quite envision it), but your anglophone readers won't have read it."  Sorry, we`ll translate that one too.

The sacral bone at the rear of the torso shows the sum of the movement amplitudes of the rear thoracic and lumbar vertebrae with each step and constantly changes the direction of rotation, as shown by the pelvic movement. Or do the vertebrae connections dampen the torsion produced by the charging and discharging of the haunches in the spine?

As soon as the pelvic rotation towards the inside becomes too strong, the sacrum and thus the outer hind leg dissociate and the horse “falls out over the outer shoulder", because the outer hind leg can no longer provide directional thrust. The spine can no longer handle the torsion and "deviates".

Conversely, you could argue that the pelvis dissociates if the entire torso structure does not sufficiently integrate the torsional forces. Here we arrive at the necessity of training the core structure and the deep torso lines (fascia lines).

Stabilizing "rear-wheel drive"

The impulse for useful tension must come from the hindquarters. The alignment of the forces developed here goes forward and upwards in the direction of the atlas and poll. The resulting torsion persists in the entire tensegral body structure and finds its stabilizing and limiting counterparts in the opposite rotation of the atlas. Ideally, riders will feel a stable system beneath them, characterized by a noticeable shark-fin-like forward movement, as you call it.

Since tensegral structures in the horse are so varied, there are not only different magnitudes of rotational amplitudes and directions, but also different strengths and load bearing capcities. The better the horse uses its body, the more stable the torso area becomes under load, while the neck feels lighter and more mobile. This may be consistent with Steinbrecht’s experience, who repeatedly warned against working the horse's neck loosely before it has developed sufficient strength. Because a neck with a light feeling only feels that way because it is well connected to the torso and the torso is guided by the neck.
.. Overall, all the characteristics that a horse shows, which develops its power from the hindquarters and transmits it forwards via the pelvis and sacrum. The hindquarters are therefore responsible for the forward movement, the forehand for the upward movement. Without power from the hindquarters, the system collapses and the forehand must inevitably participate in the forward movement by pulling forward.


In order to be able to classify the relationship correctly, one should know the different ideas of what and how a spine is. Different views lead to different conclusions.

(1) The spine as a loose chain of vertebrae
This image offers too many possible directions of movement, bending and torsional stiffness is too low. A structure like this is not resilient. > Horse not rideable

System collapse due to hypermobility

During the motion assessment of a horse when I say (admittedly with a wink) that the horse is not stiff enough for me, I am amazed to see surprised faces. Anyone who thinks "tensegrally" knows immediately what is meant, but very often I come up against a rider's desire for more agility, more flexibility, etc. The horse is described as stiff and "fallen apart".

During movement these horses don’t lack flexibility, but power development from the hindquarters and the possibility of power transmission to the overall system. The hindquarters lack "forwards" and the forehand "upwards". Focusing on bending ability without focusing on system stabilization and power direction, in my opinion, leads to even more wobbly, meandering and powerless movements, and straight into the pathological motion phase shift you describe in your second book so aptly.

For me, clearly visible spinous process movements, sternum displacements and strong pelvic tilt during movement are always a sign of collapse of tensegral structure in the sense of interaction of tension elements (myofascial system) and pressure elements (skeleton) and a negative expression of mobility or even elasticity. Elasticity arises from the fact that the soft tissue can use the bones for stretching. This idea makes clear that the skeleton must always remain in the plumb line of motion, otherwise turbulence will arise in the system.

I think that torsional forces arising from pelvic rotation are ideally distributed across the entire spine, where they are organized and used by the smallest vertebrae rotations of "in and against each other". These small movements are maintained even when emphasized directions of movement take place in bends.

(2) Axis on which vertebrae are lined up
If you imagine the spine as an axis on which the vertebrae are lined up, it is conceivable that individual vertebrae twist on the axis within their natural range of motion against another, which inevitably happens when you want to bend an axis, without allowing rotation. The horse follows the picture that the rider has of it in his head – otherwise I cannot explain so many different types of movement! Thus little physiologically meaningful bending is possible, load bearing capacity is low. > Horse rideable but constantly in need of treatment.

(3) Tensegral structure
Together, the vertebrae form a flexible, rigid and torsion-resistant structure in which positive, strengthening torsion is exerted by rotation of the pelvis. Very important here is the property of tensegral structures to respond to pressure or tensile load with rotation and immediately become stronger and more resilient under load by torsion, without cramping. Bend and rotation always belong together here and are mutually dependent on each other. > Horse very resilient, but not ridable when working with inappropriate movement patterns..

Reference vertebra
Earlier, I introduced the term "reference point" or "reference vertebra" to find a way to define the orientation of the spiraling spine in space. The reference point always refers to the vertebra in the plumb line of motion - and this can only be one of them in a physiologically useful spiraling spine over its entire length. At least in a horse, a snake is different.

Let's take one of the thoracic vertebrae in the withers area as reference point: Regardless of how tiny the rotation of one thoracic vertebrae to another is, there can only be one vertebra in the plumb line of motion. All of those in front of it rotate in one direction with respect to this vertebra, and all of those behind it rotate in the other direction. Although the direction of rotation of all vertebrae to their respective predecessor is the same.
If the reference point is in the last lumbar vertebra, all of the vertebrae in front of it rotate in the same direction with respect to this point, albeit in terms of precursors and successors to a different degree in different spinal regions. So if the pelvis is level, the spinous processes tilt to the side and the cervical vertebra rotate even further in the same direction.

If the third neck vertebra is vertical, the spinous processes lean sideways and the pelvis tilts even further in the same direction.


Based on the information available to us and my work with the feeling of motion in connection with traction engagement, we would like to advance the following theses:

(1) If the horse is set very low  (horses nose below the hip-cervicothoracic line), the rib cage rotates in relation to the pelvis (or with the pelvis, then the outer hind leg lifts off) with the spinous processes inward. The outer hip rises. The cervical vertebrae rotate inwards **. (The vertical reference point / vertebra within the spiraled spine is located in the sacrum or behind the sacrum.)

That’s how I see it too and I would say that here the pelvic and atlas rotation take place the wrong way round in the sense of tensegral power transmission. The horse doesn’t move so to speak "from behind to forwards upwards", but "forwards to forwards-downwards". The question now is also how the myofascial lines behave in the respective body posture patterns.

My observation is that in this case of a deep head and neck position, the horse puts the muscular action base forward in the shoulder area due to the strong emphasis on the load of the forehand. Here I see the spiral line and the lateral line in the foreground. The overloading of the large torso carrier (M. serratus ventralis thoracis) and member of the spiral line causes the loss of overall movement, the muscular action of the torso support and thus the lifting and stabilization of the torso. The direction of power from the front legs and torso carriers are no longer directed against the rider's weight.

Abdominal muscle,
left side of the body,
view on belly bottom
(c) Maike Knifka
Further along the spiral line, the m. obliquus externus abdominis (outer oblique abdominal muscle) works more markedly than the opposing internal oblique abdominal muscle. Thus, the stabilization of the rib cage is at risk and it goes into external rotation in bends (spinous processes inwards, sternum outwards).

I also find the working method of the lateral lines very interesting, especially the very often neglected abdominal skin muscle (m. cutaneus colli), which in the thorax area represents the outermost planar and thick (up to 3 cm!) muscle layer. It is more prominent in the front torso area and strongly involved in lateral balance. When a horse is heavy on the forehand this muscle is in my opinion not sufficiently stretched from the rear movement base (hindquarters) and cannot develop its stabilizing effect.
As I understood the first study by W. Södring-Elbrond, the lateral lines are best balanced with their intersecting features in a medium head and neck position. That would be another topic for a post. : D

(2) If the horse shows a high head and neck position and at the same time a downward sloping hip-cervicothoracic line, the pelvis rotates with the inner hip up, the spinous processes point outward. The cervical vertebrae rotate inwards **. (The vertical reference point / vertebra within the spiraled spine is in the middle of the cervical spine.)
In a high head-neck position with low-lying cervicothoracic transition, an extension position prevails in the spine, which usually leads to a compensatory steepness of the pelvis. Either with lumbar spine in extension, or very often also in flexion. The steep position leads to flexion, or opening of the lumbosacral transition. For me, this posture always represents a complete collapse of the myofascial lines with loss of the desired forward and upward movement. In the collapsed lumbosacral transition, the power transfer, especially the spiral line opening into the superficial dorsal line and the dorsal line itself is hampered due to a lack of traction engagement.

(3) If the cervicothoracic transition and hip are in line with the horse's mouth

(3) If the cervicothoracic transition and hip are in line with the horse's mouth (or at least on a horizontal line), the rib cage remains in the plumb line of motion, the pelvis tilts inward and the cervical vertebrae rotate outward ***. (The vertical reference point / vertebra within the spinal column is in the thoracic area in the region of the true ribs.)
Ideally, a closed lumbosacral transition in neutral position ensures the work of the lines and vice versa muscular active work of the lines ensures power transfer in the lumbosacral transition. This becomes particularly clear if you look at how much the lumbosacral transition region is spanned by muscles and fasciae. My picture here is that this is only possible if the action base for forward movements is at the back and that for upward movement is at the front. Only the vigorous forward movement out of the rear action base allows the front base to have a righting, muscular dominant, supporting motion. Successful interaction preserves the physiological movement phases of the limbs. The spine and ribcage remain in balance and, as an almost "stabilizing pole", they enable balanced muscle action, in whatever form. For the transmission of motion these lead to an essential positive "stiffening" of the spine.

Looking at uniformly trained horses according to a particular doctrine, you can come to the conclusion that it cannot be any other way.

If you compare the doctrines with one other, you will find all the above variations and probably a few others.
The big question for me is: Is it good the way it is - or is it just the way it is for lack of workable alternatives? Is what I mostly observe good because everyone is doing it? Is the norm, which can be seen everywhere, desirable for me and / or my horse? Why? How does the standard change from riding style to riding style? What do powerful, cooperative movement-competent horses have in common?

* In November 2017, Maike Knifka did advanced training with Wiebeke Södring-Elbrond on the deep fascia lines of the horse, which also included a post-mortem examination. I am glad that these lines, the existence of which I presumed when writing "Beyond Biomechanics - Biotensegrity", are now also proven.

And what does the neck do?

The direction of rotation must run opposite to my definition of the bend here, so bending to the left, rotation to the right. (So ​​that our towel does not have to change direction right in the middle.) That's the way it feels when riding, when it's really good. My piebald agrees, we’ll describe it in the next post. Or in the one after that. Rotation of the neck in bending direction **** we have when scratching behind the ear with a hoof. The sacrum then rotates against the bending direction ****, the inside of the pelvis rises ...

Dechaotisation of directions:

** Therapist's view: cervical vertebrae rotate outward
*** Therapist's view: Cervical vertebrae rotate inwards
*** Therapist view: left rotation, the underside of the cervical vertebra moves to the left
**** From the therapist's perspective against the bending direction, sacrum in bending direction


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