Recently I was talking with someone about the fact that horses who aren’t ridden can still develop musculoskeletal problems.
This fact was surprising for this person, which is understandable. We know that a lot of the problems that we deal with in ridden horses are related to riding approach, tack, shoes and so on. So we naturally assume that a horse that lives without all these external factors will be healthy and not develop serious issues.
But this is actually really far from the truth.
Horses have bodies, and just like us, they are born crooked. From the natural asymmetry that comes with a prefered limb to the position they were in utero and how the birth went, they start life, like us, not perfect. This means that their bodies develop along those early lines of asymmetries with nothing that comes to encourage a more balanced and symmetrical way of use in the body. Again, just like us!
If we take ridden horses vs non ridden horses, we could compare this to people who do sports and people who don’t. In theory, practicing sport should help you and your body. It should make your muscles stronger, your spine healthier and so on. In the case of horses, when the training is well done with a coach that understands biomechanics well and how to support equine movement, that’s what you should expect. But if you look at a person who doesn’t do any sport, their body is just not going to be well held together by the different systems and so they will develop issues such as low back pain, neck pain and hip pain, by pure postural defect.
Your horse is the same. If your horse is in the field, not ridden and doing what they want, chances are they will adopt whatever posture comes naturally, which is almost always not a great posture, and with it will come all sorts of compensations.
It’s really that simple!
For me the main difference between a horse that isn’t ridden and a horse that is ridden is that the ridden horse has no say in what he/she is willing to put their bodies through. So if the horse feels pain somewhere and would rather chill and walk slowly, if their riders is up for a competition or a lesson, they will press on and the horse will have to push. Hence the tension, strain and more that ridden horses develop, on top of the fact that we don’t ride them the way we should, that most saddles don’t fit perfectly and that shoes are not the greatest thing, even with a good farrier!
So yes, a horse that lives in the field and does nothing else is still likely to develop issues at one point, just because that’s what bodies do. I also haven’t spoken about what horses get up to in their free time, but have you ever seen two horses play? They don’t exactly go easy or protect their bodies!
The ridden horses just have a ton more to deal with on top of this.