Understanding A Horse’s Brace: Deepening the Horseman’s Pursuit

Training a horse can be a difficult task but amidst all of the ideas there are certain primary concepts to understand that will change the way you look at horses. Gaining the ability to sense what is happening in your horse and understanding the implications will take your horsemanship to another level. This session will focus on what is happening in your horses as they experience situations, beginning in the mind and following its response into the body. The journey of this experience will explain aspects of lameness, correct self-carriage and true leadership.

altJosh Nichol

Josh Nichol is a trainer and clinician based in Western Canada who specializes in freeing the horse from resistance and helping riders better communicate with their equine partners. Josh’s training philosophies have been featured in several publications including Equus, Horse-Canada and Western Horse Review.

Most people who are involved with horses will, at one time or another, face the struggles of having to deal with unexplainable lameness in their horse.The horse inquestion may at some point have been difficult to train yet managed to blossom into an overall workable saddle horse. There are no obvious tell-tale signs that can help identify the source of the pain.  Over time the problem persists, the soreness comes and goes and soon the horse is believed to suffer from chronic lameness that renders him unsuitable for riding.

Some horses that find themselves in this predicament were pushed extensively as youngsters and weren’t offered the chance of building the necessary strength to get through life without significant lameness.Many horses however, are the unfortunate victims of a widespread problem that is plaguing the horse world: horses being worked in a state of mental anxiety who are therefore in a consistent state of brace. These situations are far more rider focused then horse focused. How the horse feels is not considered, but obedience and submission are primary.


Here we will dissect the mechanics of a horse’s movement and will illustrate the failings that commonly produce lameness and a lack of self-carriage.

Where does a great percentage of lameness issues originate?  The short answer is: In a lack of true leadership.  Sadly, most riders do not understand the correlation between leadership, or the lack thereof, and what goes on inside of a horse’s body.

To understand a concept such as this, one must first understand how a horse looks at life and what is happening inside his mind.

Your Perspective Matters

From my perspective, almost everything that occurs in a horse’s body is a by-product of something that is happening in the mind. To truly change the way a horses body moves we must first analyze the way we interpret how a horse looks at life. Far too often, we look at the horse from an emotional perspective, I like to call it “Emotional Horsemanship”. This includes any interpretation that claims the horse is doing something motivated by human emotion. “My horse is being disrespectful, a jerk, etc…”

This tendency makes it extremely difficult to achieve the goals we set for our horses whether it be joining us for an uneventful trail-ride or performing competitively at any level.  From this perspective, it is easy to interpret struggles as disobedience.
In stark contrast to “Emotional Horsemanship”, what I refer to as “Relational Horsemanship” stems from the belief that horses have needs that must be fulfilled.  Once these needs are met, a horse will be content.  If these needs are not met, a horse will struggle. It’s as simple as that.The perspective you choose will dictate how well you are able to move forward with your horse towards the goal of true collection.

Leadership Basics

Horses are prey animals and live in a state of self-preservation. As soon as something in their life creates uncertainty, the natural response is to worry and flee. The only way that a horse will not flee is if someone he considers to be a more adept leader, one who can be trusted with taking care of all that is going on around him, is filling in.

How is this achieved? Horses are simple animals with simple needs. I like to breakdown these leadership needs into three parts:
- Clarity in Mind
- Clarity in Space
- Clarity in Pressure

If these needs are not met at any point in a horse’s life, he enters a state of anxiety and brace. This session is not focused on leadership but we must understand that true leadership is exactly what sets the stage for a horse to use their body correctly.

How Worry Manifests Itself in the Body

As a horse experiences anxiety he will immediately begin to carry tension in his body. This tension can appear in a variety of muscle groups but in most cases will cause the horse to raise his head in a state of brace.
The effects of this anxiety will also cause the horse to tighten his entire back, also known as the top-line. As the top-line muscles engage, they push the spine down and increase’s the amount of weight on the horse’s front end.

When a horse begins to travel in this state over prolonged distances, his muscle groups develop the strength needed to maintain this position.  To make matters worse, the phenomenon of muscle memory begins to develop, and before long it will be second nature for the horse to move in this incorrect way. The reality is that these are muscles we do not want to be trained, especially not when it is going to solidify improper body mechanics.

This response in the neck of a horse has an effect throughout the entire body. As the spine is thrust downwards the energy off the hindquarters is directed downwards onto the shoulders of the horse. This compounds the amount of concussion the horse has to deal with every stride and we have not yet added the weight of the rider. This results in the top-line muscles firing incorrectly, placing stress on the whole body. As a rider continues to work a horse in this state soreness is the only option and symptoms begin to show themselves.

How do we Attain Correctness in Our Riding

Correctness in our horse’s bodies begins in the mind. It is only through understanding leadership and a horse’s needs that we can open what I call the “Gateway to the Spine.” The mind is exactly this, a gateway, because without it a horse will lock down their body, making correct function a distant thought.

When we are able to achieve a state of mental peace with our horses the spine is open for conversation. This conversation is not one of force or demands but of precise questions that activate the correct muscles in the body of a horse.


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