The term disengagement means the horse no longer has a source of power from its hindquarters. Defined by Webster it means, “the process or action in which something or somebody is released from a physical or mental attachment.” In riding, disengagement means that the horse is no longer engaged, no longer active and powerful through the hindquarters or connected through its body from back to front.

Is this desirable? It depends… Do you need control? Do you need the horse to be sound and healthy? Yes to both, thank you very much. There are many, many ways to achieve both so be very careful that you are not the creator of more difficulty than you want.

Cliff was a horse that arrived at ERAF in a very disengaged state even though he had won ribbons in both dressage and jumping

Disengagement can happen to a horse over time when a majority of the horse’s body weight is habitually borne by the front legs. The horse will appear stronger and disproportionately larger in it’s front end compared to its hindquarters because the front end has been over working and the hind end atrophies from lack of use.

Disengagement can also happen from working on some lateral maneuvers before the horse is familiar with and well muscled from engagement. If a horse is not strong or stable enough to engage, flex and step laterally with balance, then the hind legs will likely bear weight while the leg is at an angle instead of straight over the ground.

Horse is balancing on its front end and loading the hind legs at dangerous angles

Loading a hind leg with a majority of weight on the inside or outside of the hoof will compromise the hind leg joints. Over time, the stress on the hind leg joints makes it harder for the horse to engage and use its hindquarters correctly.

Disengagement is also a term for a training technique used by riders to control the forward motion of a horse. The technique involves bending the horse’s neck to one side using one rein and simultaneously pushing the hindquarters in the opposite direction with a leg aid. This causes the horse to step laterally and cross the hind legs – thus effectively taking away the power of the hind legs to push forward by disengaging or disconnecting the hindquarters.

When used as a training technique, disengagement is often practiced repeatedly. The idea of practicing disengagement is to develop the muscle memory so that an “emergency brake” is available to the rider in a crisis situation. The hind legs are usually loaded at an angle because the point of the technique is control, not correct movement. Disengaging a horse as a training technique has an even greater damaging effect to the hind leg joints than premature lateral maneuvers because the horse’s entire body is being “jackknifed”.

The unhealthy load is obvious in this photo. Used for emergencies is one thing, but this kind of torque on a horse's body regularly? Really?

When horses are purposefully disengaged as a part of training, left to travel for months or years on their forehand or do hindquarter lateral maneuvers before their bodies can do it correctly, then a disengaged, weakened horse is the result.

Obviously I am not a fan.

Disengagement as a training technique is supposed to help by gaining control over a horse that is behaving badly – and yet the technique itself is so taxing to the horse’s body that the horse generally becomes weaker, less confident and more defensive in its behavior.

The most ironic part to me is that when you weaken a horse’s body, behavioral issues are often the result. Depending on the horse’s personality, compromising its body will have the effect of escalating the defensive behavior or eventually dulling the horse into introverted compliance and lethargic forward motion.

So practicing disengagement starts a vicious cycle of “I need it because my horse is hard to control” and the horse is hard to control because what you are doing creates massive discomfort to the horse’s body. Finally when the rider has disengaged the horse enough times to make the horse compliant, the very next complaint from the rider is that the horse will not go forward or “hates collection” or “hates the bit” –Makes me a little crazy.

I have been down these roads of always riding on a floppy, loose rein; working on hindquarter yields, lateral maneuvers to “build suppleness and engagement” and using disengagement as a training technique to control naughty horses. Witnessing the systematic destruction of horses while also labeling them as “difficult” and then just about ruining my own horses was enough for me. Coming out the other side, my biggest and hardest lesson was experiencing how much additional time and patience it takes to restore a horse’s body from a disengaged state back to neutral and then finally begin to develop it into a healthy, engaged posture. I was very lucky that my horses did not break down in the process. Many of my friends and old Parelli students were not so lucky.


2 Responses to “Disengagement”
  1. Michelle says:

    I volunteer on a farm and the owner has a 30+ year old mare that is severely disengaged. Doing the same as cliff above. We’ve had the vet out, the equine chiropractor out, and neither has been able to really figure out what has caused this. I have noticed she’s lost almost all of her muscle mass in the hind quarters. At a slow slow walk she can somewhat control her hind end but the minute she starts to speed up to a brisk walk she starts moving sideways and loses control. The owners have added senior grain to her diet and purchased hi quality timothy/orchard grass mix plus alfalfa and that seemed to help a little bit while she was given bute twice a day. The chiro then suggested to take her off the bute as he said it wasn’t allowing her body to heal it was only masking the symptoms well when they did that she went downhill again only worse this time. The owner just started the bute again two days ago. Any info or suggestions are greatly appreciated.

  2. Kirsten says:

    Hi Michelle.
    If you have ruled out EPM or a neurological interruption with the vet and chiropractor then it could be a long term pattern of disengagement that has led to such weakness. If she is better on bute, then by all means you need to alleviate pain in order to restore muscle and balance. You might also ask your vet about Prevacox – it can be easier on the stomach for the mare. I would recommend that you continue to work with the vet, chiropractor and a good farrier to keep her as comfortable as possible during rehab work.

    From a training perspective – her exercise program should be limited to hand walking only until she builds enough strength to better control her hindquarters. Hand walking can be extremely beneficial and is the least stressful for a horse in the condition you are describing.
    Some key points for hand walking:
    1. Walk her twice daily if possible
    2. Walk for a maximum of 15 minutes each session
    3. Keep the pace slow, steady and regular with very short strides. As soon as the pace is too fast or the stride too long, she will lose control of her feet. Choose a speed and stride length where she can take even, regular steps – even if that feels like a snail pace.
    4. Polo wrap all four legs for hand walking – make sure to wrap with fetlock support. Your vet can show you how or I can post a photo if you need help. Polo wraps will be important.
    5. Use a riding whip to help her walk forward – do not pull on the halter to lead her. Position yourself near her shoulder and use the whip lightly to help “push” her forward from the hind legs.
    6. Do one session from her left side “near” side and do the other hand walking session while standing on her right or “off” side.
    7. Walk her on as straight a line as possible – no circles or tight turns.

    If you would like to email me a photo I may be able to add more. It sounds like she will likely need several months of daily walking and pain management to see significant improvement. You can rebuild her strength if there is not a degenerative disorder lurking inside. You should see definite improvement in her muscular strength and coordination if you stick with this regime for 3 months. Over the 2 or 3rd month you may be able walk her for 20-30 minutes per session, but always keep the pace slow, short strides and regular – that is the key!

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