The Intersection of Body Work and Horse Training
At the Intersection of Horse Bodywork and Training
I am admittedly lucky. My student Sandy Vreeburg is a Masterson Method instructor and practitioner. This means I not only have access to my preferred type of body work but I also get to trade notes with her about the horses we mutually work with. When this kind of melding occurs between trainer and practitioner, I would argue it is almost magic for the horse. In fact, I shudder a little when I look back decades ago when we trainers had to form our own best opinions about what might be going on for a particular horse’s body without the benefit of available skilled bodyworkers.
Sure, there are plenty of times when we trainers DO have the answers about what/where a horse might be physically restricted or discomforted. But there are also times when we are making our best educated guess. And, true, a bodyworker might just confirm or validate our guess. Other times, though, he or she might have insights that shift our focus in a positive new direction. These check-ins offer an excellent opportunity to assess our current stage and future aim for the horse.
Last week, Sandy worked on one of my lesson horses, Sem. A large grade mare, Sem is a sweetheart, but she can be pretty tricky to ride for new dressage riders due to getting heavy on the forehand and leaning against the reins. A rider must re-balance her frequently, more frequently in fact than I prefer. Lately, I stopped giving lessons with Sem so I could set about resolving her balance issues more permanently. I started working her through my Corrective Exercises daily to challenge her to find new motor patterns.
Despite quite a good amount of progress, I was still a little mystified about the right side of Sem’s body. It was just plain different than the left. It felt unusually difficult for Sem to rotate her trunk and bend correctly on that side while staying soft in the contact. As we know in dressage, without trunk rotation (which allows the inside hip to lower and the hind leg to thereby step under the body weight), there can be no bend and collection. When trying to respond to my cues, Sem often held her breath and braced her jaw against the reins rather than relaxing through her neck. The right rein felt heavy and lifeless, no chewing or salivation or elasticity. And yet whenever I finished riding Sem, she would work her tongue around her lips in big relaxed smacking motions, spending notably more time with her tongue wringing around the right side of her mouth.
Around this same time, Sandy worked on Sem for the first time.
Without any input or prompting from me, Sandy shared afterwards that Sem’s response to her bodywork was a pronounced amount of releasing tension from her right side. Sandy observed one particularly odd form of release: Sem twisting and twirling her tongue around the right side of her mouth accompanied by some head-twisting and yawning, all on the right side only. During the session, Sandy felt that Sem’s right scapula was fairly adhered to her thorax and possibly pulling her entire torso over to that side. Basically, her right shoulder and base of her neck felt stuck or glued to something.
Sandy’s feedback afterwards was not a revelation in the sense that it offered information I had not suspected. But it DID offer me a clearer and narrower focus for my training efforts. Instead of trying vaguely to improve Sem’s general right-sidedness daily, I could now focus my exercises on the front end, the base of her neck, the shoulder. Based on Sandy’s feedback, I now had a priority for my game plan.
I can’t tell you how valuable this kind of collaboration has been for horses in the past. It creates an excellent cycle of effort-progress—feedback. If a bodyworker informs me that one of my training horses is sore in an area I feel he should not be, it causes me to pause and take inventory of the horse’s lifestyle and workload in recent weeks. If on the other hand, the bodyworker tells me how excellent a horse feel when I have been pushing him harder then I know I can accelerate his training even more. This kind of feedback and open-mindedness among horse professionals is singularly focused on the horse’s wellbeing. Every horse should have a support team around him.
The Sandwich Lope
The Sandwich Lope
When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.
It should have springiness and energy, we told students, but not excessive speed. The horse should be adequately on the bit and lifting his back but maintaining the obedience and calmness seen in reining horses.
So, what exactly might that feel like? In the past year, hopefully without disparaging my classical dressage roots by foregoing high falutin’ descriptions, I have landed on a darn useful description.
When trail riding her often spirited Andalusian, a former student of mine used to praise the moments when cantering along a ridgeline she felt like everything was so smooth and calm and rhythmic that she could eat her lunch in stride.
I began to think of this as the sandwich test. If you and your horse were balanced and rhythmic enough to proceed with the reins in one hand while the other brought a sandwich to your mouth, you had a working lope. You should feel that you are decidedly traveling over the ground rather than grinding along and the horse should carry you on a softly engaged back that gives you a smooth enough ride to savor your sandwich.
Some horses are gifted with a balanced lope from the start. In my experience, though, most are not this naturally blessed, and the rider must invest a certain amount of effort to make the gait what we desire. Below are some of my tips for doing so, because as you have read in previous postings, I am a huge advocate of ample time spent cantering. It does wonderful things for the horse’s body. And while those wonders are happening, I suggest you think about your favorite kind of sandwich to put it all to the test.
Tips for improving the canter:
- Don’t overlook the effectiveness of a two-seat position. If your horse has a hurried or bone-rattling canter, don’t try to force yourself in to an elegant dressage position; help him out by riding in a lighter two-point position until he learns to canter with a lifted back and only then adopt a deeper seat.
- Don’t get stuck on the circle. As soon as you’re able, intersperse circles (or half-circles) and straight lines. This progresses a horse’s balance much quicker and helps him achieve self-carriage.
- The horse needs to breathe. For horses that hold their breath in the canter, the gait will always be rigid and hard to ride. If you can feel the horse holding his breath, or you hear him grunting instead of exhaling on the downbeat, ask him to work harder for 30 seconds and then stop completely and give him a loose rein to offer him a chance to let out his air. Many horses will at this point sigh or blow through their noses. If not, gather the reins and go back immediately to cantering for another 30 second bout and repeat.
- If your horse has a sluggish lope/canter, use cavalletti in your daily routines to create more “jump” in the stride. Place single poles on the ground spaced randomly around your arena.
- Don’t assume that if YOU have anxiety about the canter your horse also does. Likewise, do not assume without reliable data that the canter is more difficult for your horse than other gaits. Using a heart rate monitor can tell you just how ‘hard’ he finds the canter or not.
Blissfully Backwards by Horseback
By my instructor’s amount of hand wringing, you might have thought I had no idea how to back up my horse while mounted. To the contrary, I felt well schooled in the fine art of rein-back. But I had never backed horses up this much. Here in Portugal, it seemed like a fourth gait: walk, trot, canter, and backing up. And evidently there was a minutia of the movement that I failed to get right, although honestly I had no clue what it could be.
When our instructor Georges told us to back our horses up, which he did about a dozen times each lesson, I got my horses moving backwards no problem. Georges was still shaking his head, though, by the end of the first week. Finally, one day he asked me to get off the horse, to hope down to the ground right in the middle of what felt like a darn good rein-back.
Church bells banged in the hills around Alcainca, the warm sun fell around us, and I stood frozen in confusion. I had not been asked to get off a horse since I was a kid and riding so wretchedly that it was in kindness to my pony that an instructor plucked me off. But for flunking some hair-splitting details of a Portuguese rein-back? This seemed a bit much.
“Now, here, put your hand over mine like this,” Georges said, holding out his arm in a way that made me think briefly that we might waltz together around the arena. Then, I saw he held his fist more like the way a falconer gets his hawk to alight. Perplexed, I placed one of my hands over his sideways-turned palm.
“It’s like this. This.” Georges rocked me ever so gently back and forth on my feet by drawing my hand a fraction of an inch forward and then back. The whole time, he kept tipping his palm to keep my fingers stretching forward no matter which direction my body shifted.
“See? Like this, it’s like this.”
And suddenly it all made sense.
The horse needed to continue reaching forward with his body and energy even while he stepped backwards. That was what differentiated a really good rein-back from simply traipsing in a backwards direction. Georges guided me back and forth across the sand, my sweaty horse standing patiently near us, until I had the subtlety of movement in my body.
Since those early visits to Portugal, I have seen and ridden and experienced rein-back in entirely new light. It is a deceptively simple exercise that a rider can forever refine. And its gymnastic benefits for the horse cannot be over-stated. In addition to releasing tension from the lower back, it flexes the joints of the hind limbs—hip, stifle, hock—while toning the abdominal muscles and stretching the deep digital flexor tendon. It improves the horse a myriad of ways and makes him a far better athlete, especially when its minute nuances are accessed.
Originally appearing in Grand Prix tests from days bygone, this simple maneuver loosens the horse’s sacral region, enabling him to use his hind legs more powerfully and evenly. Ideally, the last hind hoof to step backwards is the first to move forward when motion is again initiated.
- From a square halt with the horse on the bit, ride four to six steps backwards.
- Immediately walk the horse forward four steps and halt again.
- If the horse is not square, take a few steps to square him up.
- Immediately, back up again for four to six steps.
- Repeat this sequence.
- Aim to create the feeling of a carousel horse cycling forwards-backwards, forward-backwards.
In step 2, you want him to surge forward as soon as you ask. His movements should be quick and light rather than lumbering or sluggish. If any resistance is encountered, it is best to tune up this movement from the ground off his back.
Zen and Horses… and all the rest of it
Horses and Zen
Riding my horse one day last week became a lot like riding my mountain bike. To clarify: it summoned the Zen state that arises from necessity when events get gnarly. In the case of mountain biking, this state of pure impenetrable focus comes when descending steep boulder-strewn trails beyond my skill level. My safety relies on monastic mind control and somehow there is a calm peacefulness that brackets the danger. In the case of riding Corazon, this state of mind arose unexpectedly, though quite necessarily, while working on flying changes.
Actually, to be accurate, we were not working on flying changes in that moment. The day before we had schooled a few, and evidently they were excitedly imprinted on Corazon’s mind. To that point, our ride had gone well. We enjoyed a long warm-up walking under skies filled with sunshine and puffy clouds. We both felt relaxed and ready to work. I gathered up my reins with just that plan.
As soon as Corazon felt the rein contact, he bounded from a casual saunter to an eruption of twisting leaps across the field. So certain that we were going to practice flying changes, he directed himself in airs above the ground that channeled his Spanish ancestors. Unprepared, I toppled sideways, lost both stirrups, and grabbed his mane to stay on. My chest clenched with adrenalin as I simultaneously tried to cue him to stop– the effect of which caused him to hump his back and leap higher–and prayed.
Right about then with my stirrups still flailing, my Zen state cultivated from the chaos. Everything inside me went quiet. I fixed my gaze on the horizon and regained my balance. My breathing came calm and centered. Blood kept pounding in my ears but it no longer felt fraught with disaster. I slung my feet back in the stirrups and piloted Corazon’s dance show towards a focal point. Somehow I kept my body loose, reeled him back to an appropriate version of trotting and immediately guided him through a sequence of trot-canter transitions to clarify that we were NOT schooling flying changes. What should have been quaky unsure aids fueled by self- survival came instead as clear and well timed, harmonious. In fact, I rode with a stillness and centeredness that, amusingly, sometimes eludes me on days when things go smoothly. But here in the face of pandemonium, I accessed it easily out of acute need.
In spite of my rambunctious horse underneath me, I felt almost rapturous in this state of pure focus. It’s the same state I feel on my mountain bike when I am teetering outside my skill and comfort levels down a scary section of trail. This feeling of calm responsiveness often passes as quickly as it arose, but it leaves an impression that lingers long afterwards. And it both keeps me committed to these risk-prone sports and reminds me what I’m capable of.
I won’t go as far as claiming these gnarly moments are desirable. But I do think direct interaction with these mind states reminds us that they can exist, lest we forget. They prove our own hyper minds can quell moments spiked with adrenalin and anxiety. To be clear, I’m not about to thank Corazon for this experiential opportunity last week, but I will concede that in comparison between my Andalusian and my mountain bike, I do feel more graceful aboard the horse where honestly the most negative outcome is excessive prancing.
Prime Your Horse’s Pump for Results
Priming the Pump
It’s a glorious feeling, that moment when after uncoordinated attempts the exercise you’re struggling with happens without ungodly effort. Your muscles cooperate, your body figures out what you have been trying to make it do the past several minutes or maybe even days. Sometimes these little breakthroughs are fleeting and we end up flailing again after a few successes. Doubtless, you have probably observed your horse experience the same sequence, especially when trying to make him stronger for certain exercises. It’s these moments that demonstrate how dependent performance is on the nervous system.
Helping horses use their bodies better and gain strength does not often follow a straight path forward. Like us, horses need to recruit specific neural pathways consistently enough until a movement pattern gets habituated. Only then will he experience measurable gains in strength and balance. The good news is that this can happen pretty quickly. New movement patterns can be established within six weeks. Unfortunately, though, it ends up taking most riders a lot longer. These efforts could be accelerated by what I call priming the pump.
This involves showing his nervous system the pathways we want accessed prior to introducing the gymnastic exercises we plan to use. The nervous system, after all, is where patterns of movement get stored, where the force and reliability of muscle contractions originate. So, rather than go out and charge through a bunch of exercises every day in the hope of building a stronger athlete, begin by taking the time to generate the right signals in the nervous system first. Let me explain further.
For horses with weak stifles, well-intentioned riders head for the hills, having read or heard that riding on gradients strengthens the muscles that support the stifle. But any exercise is only as effective as the neural pathways behind it. In other words, riding good exercises doesn’t guarantee results. Like us, horses can perform all kinds of exercises without recruiting the targeted weak area and making it stronger. However, if you have first signaled that area by waking up the nervous system to input it, then you will get results.
In our example of weak stifles, this means using slow and controlled flexions of the stifle prior to engaging in the hill riding exercises. These could include hand-walking over poles, manually flexing the hind limb and holding it flexed for 20 seconds, backing up either in-hand or mounted, hind leg circles/stretches, butt tucks, and so on. The idea is that you coordinate some small movements of the horse’s posture around the area you’re targeting and by doing so, you wake up the nervous system to communicate with it. You prime the pump. Then, as you ride out to the hills, you will indeed receive the strengthening benefit you hoped for.
Simple bodywork techniques like butt tucks, tail pulls, whither wiggles, and Masterson Method in addition to calisthenics like ground work, pole patterns, and corrective exercises are beneficial for priming the pump. Remember to influence every day’s performance with the correct participation of the nervous system and you’ll find yourself steeped in that resulting glorious feeling more abundantly.