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Student Spotlight: Courtney Vesel uses paint to study Equine Biomechanics in Honors Thesis


A senior honors student from Raleigh, N.C., Courtney Vesel has owned her horse, “Hugo,” for six years. At Virginia Intermont she is majoring in equine studies with a minor in business, and she is a member of VI’s dressage team. Through her experience riding and her studies of the anatomy of a horse, she became interested in biomechanics and how she, as a rider, influences her horse’s performance.

“Over the years, I’ve realized how much I affect how he moves” said Vesel of Hugo. “If I grip too hard or tense my back up, he in turn tenses his back up, resulting in a shorter, choppier stride. The horse has a ‘ring’ of muscles that helps allow for extension and collection, and I wanted to study the correlation between rider position and the horse’s motion and muscle movement, with a focus on this muscle ring.”

Vesel’s interests led her to choose the following topic for her Honors Thesis: the correlation between rider and equine biomechanics with regard to the movement and longevity of the dressage horse.

Hugo with painted muscular system

Hugo with painted muscular system

Vesel's horse, "Hugo"

Hugo with painted skeletal system

“I am using Hugo to demonstrate biomechanical effects by painting the skeletal system on left side and the muscular system on the right side, and then riding the horse under observation,” Vesel explained.

Her work will consist of experimental observation, analysis and writing a paper that she anticipates will be about 30 pages long.  She will present the results from the observation and analysis before the honors committee at the end of fall semester.

Vesel assembled a team of fellow equine and art students for the experimental phase.  In addition to herself as the rider and painter, team members are:  Stephanie Nix, painter; Danielle Clark, photographer; and Kelly Barnes and Rachel Rice as on-ground eyes.  With the aid of textbook illustrations, Hugo was painted with washable non-toxic paint. Then photographs were taken of the horse at standstill, during back lifting exercises, working on the lunge line, and being ridden at the free/medium walk, stretching/working trot, the collected, working, and medium canter, and over trot Cavaletti.

Vesel riding Hugo under observation

Vesel riding Hugo under observation

For the analysis, Vesel made a checklist of the effects of applied technique on muscular and skeletal movement. She draws from her equine science classes in Conformation and Selection, Methods of Teaching, Schooling Techniques, and her mounted class – Advanced Dressage.

Last summer, Vesel learned more about equine biomechanics after attending an educational workshop and a symposium in North Carolina, led by experts in the field Dr. Gerd Heuschmann and Susanne von Dietze.  The practical knowledge she gained has benefited Vesel in her thesis project and also in her newly launched equine business in Raleigh.  In teaching lessons over the summer, she applied some of the exercises learned at the symposiums to help her clients and their horses.  Vesel was also introduced to a new tool specially designed to affect the horse’s movement:  a lunging Cavesson, which has a fixed, yet hinged noseband that allows the lunger to flex the horse at the poll.

In addition to completing the requirement for her Honors Thesis, Vesel believes her personally tailored research will underscore the importance of the warm-up in daily schooling sessions and offer some useful tips for equestrians.

“My expected outcome is to better understand how I can affect my horse’s health and performance, and do what’s best for him to keep him sound and happy,” she said.




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