This study investigated the balance demands for horses when performing passage.
Locomotion results from the generation of ground reaction forces (GRF) that cause translations of the center of mass (COM) and generate moments that rotate the body around the COM. The trot is a diagonally-synchronized gait performed by horses at intermediate locomotor speeds. Passage is a variant of the trot performed by highly-trained dressage horses. It is distinguished from trot by having a slow speed of progression combined with great animation of the limbs in the swing phase. The slow speed of passage challenges the horse’s ability to control the sagittal-plane moments around the COM. Footfall patterns and peak GRF are known to differ between passage and trot, but their effects on balance management, which we define here as the ability to control nose-up/nose-down pitching moments around the horse’s COM to maintain a state of equilibrium, are not known.
The objective was to investigate which biomechanical variables influence pitching moments around the COM in passage.
Three highly-trained dressage horses were captured by a 10-camera motion analysis system (120 Hz) as they were ridden in passage over four force platforms (960 Hz). A full-body marker set was used to track the horse’s COM and measure balance variables including total body center of pressure (COP), pitching moments, diagonal dissociation timing, peak force production, limb protraction–retraction, and trunk posture. A total of twenty passage steps were extracted and partial correlation (accounting for horse) was used to investigate significant (P < 0.05) relationships between variables.
Hindlimb mean protraction–retraction correlated significantly with peak hindlimb propulsive forces (R = 0.821; P < 0.01), mean pitching moments (R = 0.546, P = 0.016), trunk range of motion, COM craniocaudal location and diagonal dissociation time (P < 0.05).
Pitching moments around the COM were controlled by a combination of kinematic and kinetic adjustments that involve coordinated changes in GRF magnitudes, GRF distribution between the diagonal limb pairs, and the moment arms of the vertical GRFs. The moment arms depend on hoof placements relative to the COM, which were adjusted by changing limb protraction–retraction angles. Nose-up pitching moments could also be increased by providing a larger hindlimb propulsive GRF.