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Does ‘Tracking up’ Mean Engagement?

Does your instructor or coach keep saying ‘you need to engage the hind end’?


But what does this actually mean? What are they looking at to determine engagement?


‘To Engage’ means to include or to be busy with an activity. Therefore to engage the hind end means to include or make the hind end active.


The feeling of true engagement is wonderful! As the lumbosacral joint flexes, the caudal part of the pelvis tilts forward so that the hip joint and leg move farther under the horses body. With the pelvis in this position the hind limbs are closer to the centre of gravity, resulting in greater upward propulsion and a lighter forehand.

So how do we visually assess it?


Most people focus on foot placement as the visual representation for engagement and for many horses that is a sign of engagement and a great start. However there are other components to consider:

  • Tracking up

  • Conformation

  • Posture/ muscle strength

  • Hind leg activity/ energy

The movement of whole horse should be assessed however I will focus mainly on the hind end.


Tracking up


Is defined as ‘The hind feet step into the prints of the front feet’, but is this true engagement?


As mentioned above, a horse tracking up is a great place to start when looking for engagement, but did you know horses can track up while ‘on the forehand’?

Instead of the hind legs coming further underneath towards the centre of gravity, the forelegs actually come further back under the horse as they spend more time in contact with the ground due to excess weight (Figure 1: top photo). This often gives a false sense of ’tracking up’ or engagement (See Figure 1).


(Figure 1: Top photo: horse on the forehand and foreleg coming further back during retraction. Bottom photo: horse lighter on the forehand)


The rider can push a horse forwards to achieve tracking up however if the horse is not active through the leg and flexing through the lumbosacral joint, they have not reached true engagement. Pushing the horse forward and using speed to help with tracking up, actually causes the spine and lumbar muscles to stiffen, preventing the back from transferring the propulsion from behind.

Focusing on hoof placement alone can place a horse at risk of injury.


Conformation


Conformation is the measure of the lengths and angulations of the bones and joints.


It plays a vital role in hind end engagement. A horse with ‘straight-legged’ conformation will struggle to track up and forcing to do so may place excess stress on the hock joints and sacroiliac joint resulting in injury. On the other hand a ‘sickle-hocked’ conformation will naturally step underneath and track up giving a false sense of engagement.

(Figure 2)


The angle of the pelvis also plays a role in the horses ability to engage the hind end. In horses with a flat pelvic conformation (Fig 2: Bottom photo), the muscles require greater force to achieve lumbosacral flexion than in horses with a more sloping pelvic conformation (Fig 2: Top photo). This excess force actually pushes the hip joint down rather than forward. On the contrary, a steep pelvic angle may prevent extension of the stride as the hind leg has a restricted retraction.


Posture


Posture and strength also play an important role in the horses ability to engage the hind end. The slope of the sacrum varies depending on the strength of the core muscles. When they are toned they hold the lumbosacral joint in slight flexion allowing the hind legs to step further under the horse. A weak core will limit the ability to achieve this flexion through the lumbosacral joint resulting in inconsistent or complete lack of engagement.


(Figure 3)


Figure 3 highlights the relationship between pelvic angle and hind end engagement. The top photo shows the horse with the more sloped pelvis (green lines) and his ability to step further underneath (red line), whereas the bottom photo shows that the horse with the flatter pelvis which is unable to step as far under. The blue line highlights the length of the length of back behind the saddle.


Active and inactive hind leg


The difference between an active and inactive hind leg is energy. An active hind leg will flex at the joints, step underneath and propel the horse forward, while an inactive hind leg will often result in reduced joint flexion, therefore toe dragging and their hind legs ‘out behind’. If your horse is struggling to flex through his hind joints its important to rule out whether is due to laziness, pain, joint restriction or conformation therefore you should seek advice form a veterinary professional to reduce the risk of injury.


To Conclude

Hind end engagement isn’t as simple as hoof placement, it is overall conformation, muscle strength, posture, joint mobility and energy. If your horse is struggling to engage its hind end its important to stop and ask why? As pushing a horse to ‘track up‘ when their conformation prohibits this range of motion or they are lacking in strength, will lead to injury.

Having a greater understanding of what true engagement looks like and how conformation and posture play an important role, will help you in your training and hopefully help prevent injuries.





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