Are you Riding the Head and Neck?
The Head and Neck Will Take Care of Itself
Somewhere along the path of their learning journeys, many riders including myself became conditioned to constantly observe and correct the horse’s head and neck position. We were taught that if the horse’s head/neck was in a desirable frame it meant everything about our ride was going well. This led to over-prioritizing the front end of the horse, often at the expense of addressing all the other critical components of a horse’s body mechanics. Without realizing it, we spent the ride fidgeting with the bit above all else.
When I first rode with trainers who thankfully steered me on a different path, they spent a lot of time reminding me to lengthen the reins. Stop playing around with the bit. Just forget for a moment about the head and neck. Huh? Forget about the factor by which we measured our session’s success?? Wasn’t that like copping out from our goal? “The head and neck will take care of itself,” Manolo Mendez used to plead with me, reminding me to focus on everything else. And he was absolutely right every time.
As I have experienced over and over, a horse’s head/neck will adopt the ideal position as I help the horse bend and align his ribcage, travel with steady rhythm and symmetry, and relax emotionally. At first this can seem inexplicable; it’s almost too easy. Without constant fiddling with the reins or encountering resistance, we end up at our goal. In other words, we ride the horse from back to front, as the classical masters taught repeatedly.
A brief consideration of the horse’s muscles explains why the head and neck will take care of themselves. In order for him to stabilize his neck posture, the horse must relax and tone the interconnected muscles in his trunk and along his spine. The neck muscles do not work in isolation. They can support postures only when the groups that attach to them make it possible. For instance, if the trunk muscles are completely slack or hyper-tensioned the neck muscles on the end of that chain cannot perform correct contractions independently.
The more a rider fiddles with the reins the more rigid these muscles become, which makes them unstable. This creates a vicious cycle with the rider tempted to niggle the reins even more to get the head and neck right. The solution is not in the neck; it is in the body. We must fix the body first and the head placement will result automatically.
Trusting this process requires gumption, though, and it can be easier to succumb to the expectations of those watching us. Letting the BODY take care of the HEAD requires letting things get a little messy. The picture will not be one of a horse that is ready for the show ring but one of navigating his imbalances to find a good, sustainable change. Things will look, necessarily, like a work in progress. And that is okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. You might be in this process for 10 minutes, 10 days, or sometimes 10 months. Take a deep breath and relax. You might as well enjoy the process because there is no way around it: the only way to improve a horse’s mechanics is through his whole body not just his neck.
Mystery Lameness?: exploring rein lameness
I call it the lameness that is not really lameness. Sometimes, a horse develops an unexplainable hitch in his movement that leads to much head scratching from vets who, after an array of diagnostics, find no clear answers. The horse is described as being “not quite right,” but beyond that, there is no reason or treatment.
This mystery lameness that produces an inconsistent limp during one or more gaits is often what we call “Rein Lameness.” It is a disrupted gait pattern owing to muscular tension or imbalances that have reached a point of negatively affecting motion through the spine. The term ‘rein lameness’ originated from the frequent occurrence of horses made sore from riders with too much rein pressure. It does not, however, only originate from tight reins. In fact, I observe it most often in recreational riders’ horses ridden on loose or inconsistent rein contact.
The following is a simplified description of the development of this condition. In good healthy movement, the horse’s torso channels energy forward from the hind legs. It both creates and stabilizes the force of the hind limbs swinging forward each stride. Tension in the back or abdominals disrupts the synergy needed between these two muscle groups in order to play this role. The disruption in their interplay due to this tension and imbalance causes the horse to short-stride with one hind leg. This causes his trot rhythm to be noticeably uneven, or it may cause an actual limp. While it can sometimes be observed in other gaits, rein lameness is usually most notable when trotting.
Rein lame horses rarely show gait patterns that are explained through the typical diagnostic veterinary exam. They can be intermittent, or the soreness might appear in the front limbs one day but the hind limbs the following day. Sometimes they appear sound on the longe line but start limping when a rider gets on.
In the past year, I have become increasingly vocal about drawing riders’ attention to the fact that muscle tension patterns can indeed be the source of ‘lameness.’ Initially, this can sound too simplistic; riders assume that something on their horse must be broken, pulled, or otherwise very wrong if the horse is moving “not quite right.” But let’s stop and think about this.
To make a human comparison, consider how altered your own gait becomes following even a mild exertion. If you have ever used your body in an asymmetrical fashion (worn shoes with uneven soles, for example, or sat in a twisted position on an airplane), you have experienced a mild lameness without breaking or tearing anything. In order to resolve your disrupted gait, you must loosen up your muscles and rid them of the tension that is causing the limp. These occurrences are quite frequent over the course of our lives. For many horses, it is the same.
Of course, plenty of horses can be exercised in all manner of incorrect postures and states of tension, and yet they do not develop rein lameness. Others, however, are very susceptible. In my own experience, I believe some horses are just naturally more negatively affected by muscle tension and imbalance. Perhaps it is because of a less than ideal conformation or metabolism, or a delicate constitution. The good news is that despite having a slight limp in their gait, many rein lame horses are not in pain. Remember, the limp comes from a mechanical glitch, not necessarily from a glaring soreness
The answer that many vets do not provide is that the problem must be fixed with good, correct gymnastic exercise. The horse must be ridden in a basic dressage balance and required to stabilize his core for short, rhythmic bouts of exercise.
Resting a rein lame horse does not usually resolve the problem. Chances are high that once he is put back in a training routine the underlying gait patterns will show up again after a week or two. In order to resolve the problem, the horse must be exercised with his body in an ideal balance and engagement. On several occasions, I have seen the disrupted gait pattern disappear immediately once a skilled rider gets on and asks the horse to carry his body with correct posture. Other times, it might take a day or two, but it rarely takes longer than one week.
It is too tempting for modern riders to think they can resolve any abnormality in their horse’s movement with an injection or medicines or costly layups. My plea is to do our horses well by treating dysfunctional movement with a protocol of good, functional movement. This should be our first plan before taking more drastic actions.
** If you would like to read and learn more about rein lameness, I recommend Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s book “Balancing Act.” It contains a very informative section about this disorder.
How to Train on the Trail
How to Train on the Trail
Students who ride primarily on trails often ask me what kinds of exercises they can do to benefit their horses. If they don’t plan to be in an arena any time soon, does that mean they can’t give their horses the gymnastic and core exercises that optimize their bodies and comfort? Luckily, no. Plenty of valuable exercises can be added to a trail rider’s regular routine without stepping foot in an arena. First, though, I want to applaud these riders for acknowledging that their horses will gain from focused exercises that target their postural muscles. There is actually a lot you can do out there in the woods!
Below are my top suggestions for trail riders, mostly for their simplicity of execution. Obviously, the terrain sometimes dictates where or how long you might perform them, and you will be a lot more successful if you can convince your riding buddies to do these exercises along with you. Some days, you might elect to spend 5-10 minutes at the parking lot or trailhead working your way through them as a warm-up. Other days, you might ride on terrain that is suitable for incorporating a few of these on your outing. Or you might have a moment to do them after you get back. When you do them matters less than making sure you do them consistently.
These are intentionally simple exercises to perform but they create measurable changes in the horse’s body and posture when done consistently. Can you do them at least 3 times per week in addition to, or as part of, your trail ride?
Either before you mount up, or at some point during your ride, ask your horse to walk backwards at least 30 steps. Ideally, you want the horse in a lowered neck position (poll and withers at approx. the same height) and you want to make sure the horse steps backward an equal distance with each foreleg. If your horse tends to anticipate and rush backwards instead of calmly walking back step by step, you can repeat a sequence of backing up 10 steps and then walking forwards 10 steps. Repeat a few times.
Turns on forehand
Before you mount up, or at some point en route, execute 3 turns-on- the- forehand in each direction. I’m defining each turn here as a full 360-degree turn. Be sure the horse crosses his hind legs to form an “X” as he makes the turn. For detailed instructions about turn-on-the-forehand, you can read up in my books.
Transition of speed within gait
Arena riders like to wax poetically about the value of riding transitions between gaits. These simple maneuvers help balance the horse to carry more weight on his hindquarters, improve responsiveness, and stimulate fuller neuromuscular recruitment. But transitions are not just for arena riders! In fact, I like to head down a flat stretch of trail with the goal of riding at least three gait transitions. Every twenty meters or so, I’ll switch from walk to trot then back to walk and up to trot again. It keeps my horse listening to me AND using his body more fully.
I also encourage trail riders to practice walking and trotting their horses at different speeds. Make transitions between a slow trot, a faster trot, and a medium paced trot. Ride frequently between these different speeds. Doing so will keep your horse much looser in his back and haunches. Too often, people get stuck riding at one steady speed all the time on trails and like any repetitive motion this creates stiffness.
Change up the Frame
Similar to the advice above, change your horse’s posture and body carriage frequently to encourage fuller recruitment of core muscles. When you are on a flatter section of trail, ride a half -mile or less, depending on your terrain, in a shorter or more “collected” frame followed by the next half-mile asking your horse to stretch his neck forward and downward towards the ground. This is an exercise that we arena riders do frequently to develop good flexibility and range of motion in the horse’s musculo-skeletal system. This exercise can—and SHOULD—be done on the trail, too. Don’t worry, as with any of these exercises, you do not need to spend your whole ride practicing. You can still relax and just enjoy the view for much of your trail outing, but do try to find 5-10 minutes where you can ask your horse to change his frame a few times while cruising along.
Training by Feel….or by Time?
For years, the sage advice of classical dressage master Nuno Oliveira guided my daily rides. I had read a quote by him deriding the use of a watch or any kind of timepiece when schooling a horse. His philosophy was that riders needed to school by feeling and responding to the horse rather than by any kind of external measurements or parameters. I adopted this idea wholeheartedly for many years, modulating the duration of my training exercises and sessions based on how I felt the horse was, or was not, making gains from them.
Over time, however, two realities altered this approach for me. First, the more I studied exercise physiology the more I realized that certain tasks needed to be performed for a very specific amount of time in order to achieve the desired result. Second, we humans are not as focused nor aware nor consistent in our efforts from day to day as we assume. This makes the ‘training by feel’ paradigm erratically applied throughout any given week, day, or session. Today, I still ride a majority of each session by feeling and responding to the horse, but I do often use my watch.
Using a watch keeps me on track. It holds me accountable, prevents both laziness and over-working, and provides structure to any workout. Let me offer a few examples of why it is necessary to use a watch. Numerous scientific studies have shown that horses need 8-12 minutes of continuous walking at the beginning of a session to warm up and circulate their joint fluids so their joints are optimally primed. When I ask riders to adhere to this figure, most of them “feel” like they have reached the 10-minute mark when in fact only 5 minutes have passed.
As soon as my butt lands in the saddle on any given horse each day, I immediately note the time. As a trainer, I am frequently interrupted by students needing to ask questions or stopping by to say hello, and by noting the time I am able to be fairer to the horse I am schooling. On a recent day, for example, I mounted a horse at 9:52am and commenced our phase of walking around to circulate joint fluid. Within moments, one of my students walked in to the arena and interrupted me. I had to stop my horse and answer a bunch of questions.
Feeling a little annoyed and now behind schedule, I wanted to carry on with my ride and was just about to urge my horse to a trot when I checked my watch again. It was 9:58.I had definitely not satisfied my own rule of walking the horse for a full 10 minutes before trotting. Good thing I checked my watch, because my instincts were telling me to move the session in a difference direction!
The safeguards of checking my watch also applies to the actual exercises within any ride. Often, in our quests for perfection, we can spend far too much time drilling a maneuver or routine. Horses’ neuro-muscular systems respond to this kind of repetition by dulling, meaning they recruit fewer muscle fibers and at lesser force rates. In other words, there are diminishing returns on our efforts.
When I introduce gymnastic exercises to students at clinics, they sometimes experience an immediate result from their horses. After one or two repetitions of a cavalletti pattern, for example, the horses might suddenly start trotting with more rhythm and agility. However, these instant changes do not indicate deeper muscular and skeletal adaptations. I like to remind riders that any exercise needs to be practiced enough to make these more substantial and permanent changes. A single moment is insufficient. An entire half-hour is too long. How, then, do you know what timing to use?
The long answer is that each horse is different: some horses will benefit from 90 second intervals while others might need three-minute intervals. Figuring out what your horse needs requires monitoring your rides for clues about how/when your horse is in the work zone and how/when he recovers. The shorter answer is that you need a watch.
Focus and Fitness in Horses
What Does Focus Have to do with Fitness?
It is a conundrum that many riders have faced in the midst of consistent, focused effort: despite hours of invested time and exercises, the horse’s fitness and athleticism show no improvement. Even the most wisely chosen exercises do not seem to be working. One explanation for this might be due to the precision with which they are executed. Research from the past few years, though, has revealed an alternative—and surprisingly non-physical—explanation for some of these cases.
What we have learned recently about horses’ brain function shows us that curiosity, or mental engagement, plays a large role in the success of physical adaptations. A horse needs to be alert enough (not too much, not too little) in order to form the neural pathway bridges that create new movement patterns.
When a horse participates in a task without giving it full attention, whether from dullness OR tension/anxiety, he does not form an optimal number of synapses from the task that he would otherwise. This means he fails to form the pathways in his brain that connect nerve signals for particular movements. In fact, these nerve signals will degrade over time due to lack of stimulation and chemical input to the areas of the brain that store them.
In the case of fitness, this translates to diminishing returns. Rather than make consistent positive gains in the precision and/or power of his locomotion, the horse idles at his current fitness level. Many horse will not make the fitness gains you would expect after routinely performing exercises that promise strength, agility, and so on.
As an example from my own training, I had the opportunity to work with a lovely Andalusian mare that had been schooled extensively with various groundwork programs. The problem was that she had done TOO much groundwork. She was docile and obedient about the patterns and games that her owner liked to do with her, but she went through the motions with a vacant expression and slow, shuffling steps. She was bored and tuned out. The mare was not doing anything “wrong” per se, but she resembled a sullen child sitting slumped at her desk passively listening the her teacher.
Consequently, when the mare came to me at 7 years old she had some persistent movement and balance challenges. She could not sustain a canter for any duration, she did not bend through her spine to the right, and her body posture was disorganized and unbalanced for a horse of her age. The solution? Use entirely new exercises to encourage full mental and physical engagement. Within six months, she could sustain a very nice canter and developed much greater propulsive strength.
Your fitness goals rely on keeping your horse’s attention dialed in. Any time you notice it shifting, whether tension is escalating or the horse is fading and getting dull, you need to make a change. This might be as simple as speeding up or slowing down changing gaits, switching to a different exercise, or taking a quick break.