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.

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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.

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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.

Who’s Your Dressage Coach? Or, er, What’s Your Name?

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Probably, she did not intend to sound snooty. But her initial greeting came across that way. I wondered if it was a strategy of one-upmanship. “Who do you train with?” she blurted as I prepared to reach for a handshake and introduce myself to this new face. She hadn’t gotten my name yet, but she wanted to know first what large named coach I aligned under.

It was not the first time I encountered this kind of interrogation replacing polite introductions among dressage students. I’ll confess it makes me chuckle every time, which I’ll get to in a second, while recognizing it as a means of establishing your validity. “Who do you train with?” translated, more or less, to “how legit are you?” It was a way to show your plumage without outright posturing. And yet, as straightforward as the reply should have been, I struggled to answer it.

The problem, of course,— and the reason I was trying not to chuckle this time—was that this kind of prodding relied on what I call the Rub-Off Principle. This is the idea that, by proximity to a top tier expert, one’s skills automatically gain ground. Some of the expert’s greatness rubs off on you. As both an instructor and a chronic student myself, I can promise that the Rub-Off Principle is a dodgy one to trust. Great riders and trainers don’t just possess skills we might hope to replicate; they have reached their success through innate talents, genetic strengths, and in some cases luck.

While we can admire and respect them, we should be careful not to see ourselves differently through them. Trust me, no amount of coaching from Michael Phelps would make a swimmer out of me. Regardless of the focus and trust and admiration I brought to my training, I could in no way hope that any of his greatness would rub off.

The gal whose hand I was trying to shake began listing her current trainer’s achievements, since I had balked at offering my current trainer’s accomplishments. I have had the privilege to study with exceptional trainers with lifetimes more knowledge than I could hope to acquire. Naming them to this stranger, though, felt presumptuous to the point of disrespectful. Listing their names and accolades felt like I was assuming a sliver of their greatness myself. In reality, I’m still working to hone and refine what they each have tried to teach me.

Certainly, traits have rubbed off during my close studies. But, as yet, none of these include my coaches’ exquisite individual dressage talents. In fact, the Rub-Off Principle seems to favor passing on an odd batch of quirks that do not lead to results in the saddle. So far by hanging around with my coaches, I have picked up a fierce coffee addiction, a fondness for art galleries and country music, a tolerance of bad jokes. I have adopted the use of analogies to explain concepts in the storytelling ways of Manolo Mendez, nurtured a child-like pride for my own horse like Georges Malleroni possessed. And just like my mom, I never tire of reading dressage theory books.

Do any of these add credibility or stature as a rider or trainer? Not really, though I could argue that the coffee keeps me perky. I never did get around to shaking that dressage student’s hand and making a normal introduction. She walked off to someone else at the gathering before we got that far, probably bored with my polite smile. Maybe she was hoping we could engage a volley of credibility points while posturing for each other. I wondered how far the Rub-Off Principle might extend. Was it possible that some of my politeness might have just dusted off on her? That was something about which I could spread my tail feathers in a big, proud plume.

How Mindful Are We (Not)?

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It was possible, I thought, that such distractedness arose from some evolutionary necessity. But I could not figure out how such fractured focus would have served us in the wild. In any case, it never fails amazing me how often during a 20-meter circle we riders drift off purpose. It seems like a small, clear task of this sort ought to keep us hooked with laser concentration. And yet our focus drifts so frequently, I wonder how any of us manages to drive from our houses to the supermarket without forgetting our destination. Or, for that matter, how do ever finish tasks like brushing our teeth without spacing out and wandering off?

I recent years, a surplus of skillful horsemanship information has hit the market. An eager student can now study videos and books and blogs to her heart’s content. And then, in theory anyway, she can go apply it to her horse. If it were it that simple! Likely, her horse does not pose the biggest challenge to implementing that new knowledge. Her human brain is the trickier beast to tame. As she heads to the barn, it will settle for a moment on her new skill set… and then bounce to an unrelated thought, then back to horses… and then to her plans for the weekend, and then…

During a recent lesson, I sounded like a stuttering machine. I reminded my student to keep her horse’s body bent inside for the duration of the 20-meter circle. She kept him bent for the duration of two or three seconds. Then her body and effort shifted, her eyes fogged with different thoughts. Her gelding bent to the outside and clambered out of balance. Again, I reminded her to bend him inside for the entire circle. Once more, she bent him as desired for a fleeting few seconds, and then—remarkably—drifted off task. I wondered if she were an airplane pilot if we would have struck a tree by now. Or if we would have ever cleared the runway to begin with.

As frustrating as these scenarios can be for instructors, I have full empathy for scattered human thought in the saddle. A few days ago, I was trying to access just the right parts of my body to ride a more successful half-pass on Corazon’s difficult side. I felt myself—and him—find the sweet spot of balance and the movement flowed sublimely. For two seconds. Then somehow I didn’t sense it happen, but obviously my brain fidgeted and fled off that wonderful focus. Corazon and I both fell apart. I became my own internal stuttering machine chanting reminders in order to find that feeling again.

Desperate to not sound like a repetitive nag with students, I started using patterns of cones to keep riders focused. In fact, way back in 2005, my attempt to conquer the ping-ponging nature of the human brain resulted in writing a whole book of exercises to keep focus: 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider. Give the mind some visible points and it tends to attach to each moment a little longer. Sometimes, with wavering concentration, prescribed exercises end up like collision courses (though cones are forgiving and scatter on impact), but mostly they have helped me harness riders’ minds.

A pattern with visual targets allows riders to self-correct when their brains scamper off to unrelated tasks. They can regain focus and offer more sustained clarity to their horses before wham!—they hit another cone and realize their distraction. Then they’re back on task and determined to execute the requirements of not hitting the next one. Occasionally, a rider will wince that it feels like a crutch to use cones and markers to stay on an exercise. But crutch or no, until riders can prove they can tame the ping-pong activities in their brains on their own, I keep giving them targets to pull them along. And I should add that I’m still waiting for an evolutionary explanation for our hyper thought patterns. Until then, you’ll find me chasing cones, repetitively spewing dressage terms.