Restoring the natural intrinsic qualities of a horse’s fascia is the key to pain management, and to unlocking his performance potential.
A spider web provides an interesting analogy when it comes to understanding fascia. If you touch one part of a spider web, the whole net moves, providing instantaneous information for the spider to act on or react to. This analogy serves as a tensegrity model. “Tensegrity is a design principle that applies when a discontinuous set of compression elements is opposed and balanced by a continuous tensile force, thereby creating an internal pre-stress that stabilizes the entire structure.”1
A tensioning network
Fascia in all mammals works similarly to the spider web. It provides a tensioning network that allows functional movement. You could say that it functions as a system of “guy wires”, enabling us to move about in the gravitational field. Without it, we would be like a building that starts to tilt. The building would eventually fall. However, because of our ability to utilize this guy wire system, we can make incredibly difficult and fine-tuned functional movements that enable dexterity and athleticism. This is true in the case of a human who becomes a great violinist, gymnast, athlete or simply accomplishes the task of being able to walk in a functional way. It is what allows a horse to become an Olympic level competitor. Fascia is, in fact, what creates any given posture – good or bad – in humans and animals. Fascia, like our spider web analogy, is a whole body communication system which, if stimulated, transmits a signal to every part of the body.
We are all familiar with fascia as that shiny layer covering a muscle, but it is so much more. This connective tissue substance covers even the tiniest muscle fibers, called fascicles, and forms ligaments, periosteum and joint capsules. Every organ in the body, including the brain, is encapsulated in this unique connective tissue. It actually provides and determines the shape and volume of each organ.
“Fascia is becoming the Cinderella of orthopedic science.”
– Robert Schleip (one of the driving forces behind the International Fascia conferences promoting the scientific study of fascia)
The ultimate connective tissue
In basic biology, we learned the term “connective tissue” to describe certain cell types. However, when applied to fascia, the term “connective” takes on a whole new meaning. It is the connective tissue that links together every tissue in the body to every other tissue or organ in the body. For example, it connects the skin to the muscles, the muscles to the tendons, the tendons to the periosteum and the periosteum to the bone. It also connects all the organs one to another.
For centuries, anatomists and surgeons have cut up the body to isolate and define organs, ligaments, muscles and bones – but the body is really parts and organs linked by fascial connective tissue. There is no separation of parts when we view the body on a microscopic level. In a living human or animal being, everything is linked together by fascial connective tissue. “Fascia is your body’s soft tissue scaffolding,” says Jill Miller,2 a yoga and fitness therapy expert. “It provides the matrix that your muscle cells can grow upon and it also envelopes, penetrates and surrounds all your joints.”
Fascia’s influence on posture and movement
Described for centuries as a passive structure, fascia is now known to actively contract in a smooth muscle-like manner, and consequently influence musculoskeletal dynamics. The influence fascia plays on posture and movement is now being extensively researched, at least in the human field. Thomas Myers,3 an American myofascial specialist, has shown that this connective tissue presents itself as a whole body system, and not 600 separate muscles. He describes the body as only having “one muscle, hanging out in 600 or more fascial pockets”.
Forces induced by injury can immediately cause imbalances in the fascial system, or in the case of repetitive micro-trauma sustained over a period of time, cause imbalances in the fascial system. The involved fascia may then shorten, thicken, become dehydrated, and consequently affect muscle function and joint mobility. This in turn is displayed as pain, discomfort, stiffness or decreased mobility and altered movement. Under these circumstances, fascia not only loses its ability to communicate via bio-tensegrity, but it also loses its ability to lubricate, insulate, envelope and functionally support all the body systems. It becomes excessively contracted or stretched and cannot respond rapidly to required functional changes in posture or movement.
A localized area of pain or a scar might create adhesions in the fascial planes, which will become significantly detrimental if not treated and released. Treatment through movement, bodywork, and other therapies like acupuncture, chiropractic, osteopathy, etc., will ensure the fascia retains its essential and inherent qualities. Leon Chaitow,4 a leader in fascial research, is a practicing naturopath, osteopath and acupuncturist in the UK. He describes fascia as “the new frontier in bodywork”. Fascia is the organ of posture, whether we are referring to static or dynamic posture. It will adjust to good or bad posture. When inappropriate chronic posture is present, it will “lock” the body into that posture and cause it to function in a reduced capacity. Our observations are the same in the horses that we see and treat daily.5
“Dysfunctional movement patterns may be at the root of your pain,” writes Kelly Starrett,6 a doctor of physical therapy, in his book Becoming A Supple Leopard. He emphasizes that a lot of common musculoskeletal problems and fascial restrictions that clinicians encounter result from poor or improper movement. The first thing he addresses is correction of the individual’s dysfunctional movement patterns and biomechanical inadequacies. He does this via correct movement therapy, which results in the restoration of full range of motion. Once the joints are properly aligned, the muscles and soft tissues can perform better, and will typically resolve the initial dysfunction. This, Starrett states, will put the patient in a position and posture where he can safely exercise at higher levels of intensity. We are finding the same manifestations in in the horses we see.
In the horse world, some of the best classical dressage trainers we know, like Manolo Mendez, Charles De Kunffy, Klaus Schöenich,7 Colonel Christian Carde and Dr. Gerd Heushmann, all pay special attention to balance and straightness and the role that fascia plays in the biomechanics of the ridden horse. Every day in our practice, we see the fascial constrictions, gait aberrations and dysfunctional movement patterns. These are present in both backyard horses and top athletes. We have learned, far too often, that these fascial or soft tissue dysfunctions lead to pain and lameness.
Once we understand that the fascia of the horse and/or rider is going to adjust to existing posture or body imbalances, we need to realize that the balance of the natural horse is far from adequate for the ridden horse.5,6 Unless the inherent crookedness we now know as a manifestation of “laterality” (the state of left or right limb dominance), is addressed, the rider will forever encounter resistance and be forever compensating for it. It is imperative to change the biomechanics of the horse when starting a young horse or when remedially “straightening” an older horse. In addition, riders absolutely must address their own faulty body posture and biomechanical inadequacies if these are not to be carried into their equitation. No wonder riding is such an art!
Even though the muscles and bones are definitely relevant components, we need to look deeper into the bodies of our horses and address their posture, gait aberrations, living arrangements and training, if we truly want to keep them sound and pain-free. The key message from this article is: restoring the natural intrinsic qualities of fascia (your horse’s and your own) is the key to pain management, and to unlocking your and your horse’s performance potential!
1Ingber D, Landau M. “Tensegrity”. Scholarpedia, 2012, 7(2):8344.
2Miller J. The Roll Model – A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility and Live Better in your Body. Victory Belt Publishing, Inc., 2014.
3Myers TW. Anatomy trains – myofascial meridians for manual and movement therapists –1st edition. New York. (Elsevier) Churchill Livingstone, 2012.
4Chaitow L, Schleip R, Findley TW, Huijing PA. Fascia: the tensional network of the human body – 78 authors, 1st edition. New York. (Elsevier) Churchill Livingstone, 2012.
5Ridgway, KJ. “Fascia: Its Role in the Crooked Horse Syndrome and in Straightness Training”. The Bowker Lectures 2015, Proceedings Feb. 2015, Australian College of Equine Podiatry, Merrijig, Vic, Australia; “The Secret Life of Acupuncture.” Proceedings IVAS Congress, 2014, Florence, Italy; “Understanding Laterality/ Limb Dominance in the Equine Laterality’s Relationship to Musculo-Skeletal Problems”. Proceedings IVAS Congress, 2011.
6Starret K, Cordoza, G. Becoming A Supple Leopard – 2nd edition. Victory Belt Publishing, 2015.
7Schoeich K, Schoeneich G. Correct Movement in Horses – Improving Straightness and Balance. Trafalgar Press, 2007.