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Equine Biomechanics (Part 1) – The Walk

Biomechanics has become a buzzword in the equestrian world in the recent years. Yet, many people use this word without having a good understanding of what biomechanics entails. This blog will shed a light on what biomechanics is and how it can be useful when it comes to horse training. We will start with biomechanics of walk but make sure that you also check out Part 2 – Biomechanics of trot.

Biomechanics is study the movement of living organism using principles of mechanics (a branch of physics). Biomechanics can be divided into kinematics and kinetics. Kinematics is concerned with movement of bodies – for example stride length, joint angles, speed, etc. In contrast, kinetics describes the forces behind the movement – these can be forces generated by muscles but also forces acting on limbs during locomotion.

Consequently, biomechanics can help us understand movement but also the forces that act on the bodies (of humans or horses) during movement. This can, in turn, help us understand the benefits of different movements as well as any risks. This knowledge can ultimately help us design better training programmes to help our bodies perform better and to prevent injuries.

Walk is characterised by a regular four-beat rhythm – each hindlimb stance (foot in contact with the ground) is followed by the same side (ipsilateral) forelimb. Therefore, a typical sequence of the limbs would be right hind, right fore then left hind and left fore. During each stride cycle two or three limbs are always in contact with the ground which makes walk a very stable gait. This also means that there is no suspension phase, unlike in trot or canter in which all limbs are off the ground at least at one point during a stride. 

Bar chart of footfalls of a horse during walk

Typical footfalls of a horse in walk: The arrows indicate a start of the contact with the ground for each limb. The filled bars represent stance, i.e. when the limb is in contact with the ground. (Adapted from Fig 3 in “Timing of Vertical Head, Withers and Pelvis Movements Relative to the Footfalls in Different Equine Gaits and Breeds” by Rhodin, M.; Smit, I.H.; Persson-Sjodin, E.; Pfau, T.; Gunnarsson, V.; Björnsdóttir, S.; Zetterberg, E.; Clayton, H.M.; Hobbs, S.J.; Serra Bragança, F. and Hernlund, E. (2022), Animals, 12, 3053. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani12213053 licensed by CC BY 4.0)
A slow motion video of a horse in walk.

Forces acting on the horse’s limbs in the walk

We should also consider the forces acting on the limb – these are called ground reaction forces (GRFs). These forces are generated in response to a hoof pressing against the ground during a stance phase. The magnitude of these forces depends on mass and acceleration. Mass (m) is the correct term in physics rather than weight even though you will hear the ‘weight’ used in everyday conversations. Weight is in fact a force experienced by a body or an object due to gravitational acceleration (Weight = m x g). The ground reaction force has three components –  vertical, horizontal and longitudinal. 

The vertical component has the greatest magnitude but in the walk the forces experienced by the limbs are the lowest of all gaits. This is partly due to low speed and no suspension phase (low vertical acceleration) but also because the horses are always weight-bearing with two or three limbs. The peak vertical GRF does not exceed body weight but is greater in forelimbs compared to hindlimbs. This is because horses carry more weight on the forehand. As walk is a symmetrical gait, the forces acting on contralateral limbs (i.e. left vs right limb) tend to be fairly similar in non-lame horses.

Explanatory note: When we talk about body weight in biomechanics, we talk about the force acting on the body due to gravitational acceleration (g). So if your horse has a mass of 500kg, the weight would be approximately 5000N since weight is a force that depends on mass (m) and gravitational acceleration (g). This is the force a horse’s leg would experience if they were standing on one leg without any movement involved. (The formula for weight is W= m x g; gravitational acceleration equals 9.81m/s2 but for simplicity we can multiply mass by 10 hence we get 500 x 10 = 5000N).

Variations within the walk

In dressage, depending on the level of training, your horse will be required to perform different types of walk – from collected to extended walk. The stride frequency (number of steps per minute) changes only slightly between the different variations of the walk but the stride length and speed increase as the horses progress from collected to extended walk. You should also observe an increased overtrack, this means that the hind hooves will land in front of the front hoof prints. No matter what variation of walk you are performing, the horse should move with a regular 4-beat rhythm. Any irregularities can be an indicator of weakness or even an injury.

From biomechanics perspective, there are many reasons why including walk in daily sessions with your horse is important:

  • Due to the slow speed of the walk and the lack of suspension, the forces acting on the limbs are also the smallest. The anatomical structures, such as joints, tendons and ligament, are also loaded gradually which reduces the risk of injury. This means that riding your horse in walk is a great low impact exercise. This is why walk is often used during rehabilitation following an injury.
  • Thoracolumbar rotation and lateral bending is greater in walk than in trot or canter. So walk is a great gait if you are trying to target the mobility of the horse’s back. 
  • During walk, slow controlled contractions of muscles are required. This makes walk an excellent gait for improving coordination and proprioception. Walking over poles is a particularly useful exercise for this – these can be simply a few individual poles scattered around the arena, no fancy patterns required.
Infographic of lateral bending and rotation of the horse's back
Lateral bending and rotation of the thoracolumbar region in a horse. Lateral bending on the left, rotation on the right.

Walk is a low impact gait as the forces acting on the limbs are the lowest in this gait due to slow speed and the lack of suspension. Consequently, walk is often the preferred gait used during rehabilitation, especially in the initial stages. However, walk exercise is beneficial for all horses as this gait can be used to target back mobility as well as coordination and proprioception.

Remember to check out my blog for more horse and rider training tips. You might also be interested in these posts:

Practical guide to equine gait analysis – Learn more about how we can accurately track horse’s movement in the context of performance and lameness (includes 10 handy resources which will boost your understanding of this topic).

Rider position and biomechanics – Is there a different between beginner and more advanced riders when it comes to rider position? Check out what the science says!

Get in touch with Eva if you are interested in biomechanics-driven horse and rider training in Hertfordshire:

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