Dr. Hilary Clayton: A Scientist and Her Magic

Equine researcher Hilary Clayton discusses her work, her dressage horse and her latest book. By Patricia Lasko for Dressage Today magazine.
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Equine researcher Hilary Clayton discusses her work, her dressage horse and her latest book. By Patricia Lasko for Dressage Today magazine.

Suspension and Balance

Last year, while attending a conference on animal locomotion in Vienna, Austria, Dr. Hilary Clayton received permission to videotape horses at the Spanish Riding School. She wanted to confirm previous studies that showed, unlike passage or trot, there is no airborne phase in piaffe.

"It seems the more correctly a horse piaffes, the less able he is to spring into the air," says Clayton. She explains that this is partly because in order to spring off the ground the horse has to straighten his hind legs, push off and extend the joints, and that raises the croup. "So the horses that are sitting are not leaping up and down. You'll see the same thing very often in draft horses when they pull. They'll actually piaffe a little bit because it gets their body in a place to exert a huge force. To always think of the hindquarters as being a little bit lowered and the shoulders as elevating--those things undoubtedly happen, but the mechanics of how they happen might not always be exactly as we imagined."

Clayton admits she doesn't have all the answers on whether the horse's center of gravity is really moving backward and forward. Further studies at the McPhail Center will tell more. She does know that the position of the horse's head and neck does affect where the center of gravity is. However, the head and neck simply moving up and down doesn't move the center of gravity backward and forward. "It's when horses stretch out the head and neck that the center of gravity comes forward," says Clayton. "When the neck gets rounder, it's not necessarily coming back toward the horse's body, and that's what has to happen to shift the center of gravity backward.

Arabians and Dressage

Clayton helps out with the dressage lessons at MSU's breeding and riding facility. It was there that she discovered her current dressage mount, MSU Magic J, named after MSU's most famous athlete--basketball player Magic Johnson. She took on the training of the rascally Magic and not long afterward arrived at the Arabian Nationals in October 1999 in Lexington, Kentucky, where Magic won top 10 status at First Level out of 60 entries and was champion at Second Level with over 40 entries.

"Not all Arabians are suitable for dressage," says Clayton, "but they are a diverse breed and can do all sorts of things. Magic is an amazing horse. He piaffes fairly correctly.

"My goal always is to take a horse like him and keep moving through the levels and score in the 60 percents. I did my first Third Level test this weekend and he was champion at Second and Third Level. The ring was wet and Magic doesn't 'do' puddles. But he does now," she laughs.

Clayton says that going to the Arabian Nationals was a different experience. "It is geared toward show horses, in-hand, pleasure and park horses who don't need to warm up and train the way dressage riders do. It is hard to accommodate all those disciplines and give them what they want," she explains. "It was really difficult to get good training rides in. During most of the day, there would be three horses longeing, one or two horses driving and 15 to 20 horses riding all at once in that arena. There was nowhere to even ride a circle. You had to just go round and round and that was the most frustrating part of it. If I could only go up and down a straight area, I would do lateral work and try not to get mowed down by a park horse!"

The venue looked more familiar once the dressage ring was in place. American Horse Shows Association "S" dressage judges, Trip Harting, from California and Sarah Michael from Michigan, officiated. "The competition ring and footing was very nice. Everything was correctly done," says Clayton.

Coming Soon--Biomechanics of Equestrian Sports

"Biomechanics of Equestrian Sports is the book I always wanted to write but the other books got in the way first. I think it finds a niche that has not been filled yet because it discusses movement (kinematics) and forces. It goes back to basic biomechanics of principles--Newton's laws and how they affect equestrian sports.

"All the examples come from equestrian sports. It will have a chapter on the rider and how he affects the horse; a chapter on tack--the mechanical principles that affect choices; a chapter on each of the different sports and the basic principles in relation to performance. The final part of the book will fit the applications.

"Biomechanics is actually a tough topic because of all the physics and math involved. What I'm trying to do with this book is not to dumb it down but make it understandable to people who don't have a degree in engineering. There are some formulas in the book, but you can ignore them, and it should still make sense.

"I'm hoping the book will be finished this year. I've got somebody working on the illustrations. It's just finding the time to work on it."

Hilary Clayton earned her veterinary and post-graduate degree from the University of Glasgow in Scotland. She leads the innovative research programs on equine movement and its effect on health and lameness issues at Michigan State University's (MSU) Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center in East Lansing. Clayton has spent a lifetime studying equine biomechanics, and her mission is to perform scientific investigations that directly benefit the sport of dressage.

Read more about Dr. Hilary Clayton and her research in the October 2001 issue of Dressage Today magazine.