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How Debono Moves Helped A Horse with Hock Problems

The eight-year-old Dutch Warmblood lumbered out of his stall. “See how stiff he is!”, exclaimed Kim, his owner and rider. The gelding, George, did appear reluctant to move. He also rope walked, his hind legs crossing the midline with each step.

George received the best of care. He was examined regularly by his veterinarian, who had injected his hocks a couple of times. He had chiropractic and acupuncture sessions. His farrier was top-notch and his tack fit well. Kim took lessons from the onsite dressage trainer and supplemented George’s feed with appropriate nutraceuticals. Still, George’s movement was not free and his rope walking particularly bothered Kim. Not only did it interfere with her dressage aspirations, but she worried that it signaled pain.

All the previous professionals had agreed that George would always rope walk. “It’s just the way he is,” they said. X-rays rays revealed significant arthritic changes in George’s hocks and Kim was told that this was the cause of his unusual movement. She had become resigned to the fact that the best she could hope for was to help slow the further degenerative changes that were certain to follow.

As I began my Debono Moves* session with George, I noticed that his back and hind end were very tight. No wonder George was reluctant to move out! I gently pushed through his right point of buttock (his right seatbone or ischium). I watched as the small wave of movement I had created stopped in his rib cage. It had gone no further. A soft push on his left ischium produced even less movement through his body.

Ideally, a gentle push through the ischium will produce a wave of movement that travels smoothly up to the horse’s head. If you watch carefully, you may see the chin move forward in response. When the movement is jerky or stops short of the head, it often signifies that chronic muscular tension is interfering with the transfer of movement through the skeleton.

Think about the way a horse moves forward: he pushes against the ground and the propulsive force moves through his hoof, up his leg and through the rest of his skeleton. Muscles contract to move and stabilize the skeletal structure as needed. If the propulsive movement is met with chronic muscular resistance, however, the horse must use greater force to propel his mass forward. The movement through his skeleton will not be easy and smooth, and joint stability may be compromised. In an attempt to protect the affected joints, the horse will produce more muscular contractions around them. This, of course, leads to further damping of the propulsive forces and even more musculoskeletal strain.

While some horses, like George, exhibit unusual gait patterns, the symptoms of inefficient movement are usually much more subtle. Horses may simply move or bend easier in one direction than the other. They may be a bit stiff, have muscular or joint soreness or fatigue quickly. Some horses will find it difficult to engage their hind end and round their back.

It may be easier to pick up one canter lead than the other. Horses can manifest the effects of inefficient movement in many different ways. In fact, the symptoms of inefficient movement are sometimes labeled “behavioral problems” since physical limitations or discomfort make it difficult for such horses to cooperate with their riders’ requests.

The question now becomes: How can the horse break this vicious cycle and learn to move freely, comfortably and efficiently again?

This is where the Debono Moves comes in. Simply put, Debono Moves practitioners provide an environment where horses perceive that change is not only possible, but preferred. We provide the horse with options to their usual tightening of muscles and resultant musculoskeletal difficulties.

Debono Moves, which was greatly informed by the Feldenkrais Method for humans, uses both hands-on touch and novel exercises. Practitioners use gentle, specific touch to suggest a movement, influencing rhythm, balance and the movement’s potential and direction. This provides the environment that allows the horse to discover more efficient and comfortable action patterns, resulting in freer movement with less likelihood of fatigue and strained muscles. Stress on joints is reduced and horses become more balanced, flexible, cooperative and less anxious. Horses are also worked in-hand or under saddle, utilizing carefully choreographed exercises to help them learn new patterns of movement as their sensory and motor awareness is enhanced.

As I continued working with George, I found many places where he held his muscles tight, constricting skeletal movement. Touching his rib cage, I explored which directions his ribs moved easily and found that some of his ribs barely moved at all! Instead of trying to force these resistant ribs, I simply inhibited the ribs that did move easily. This meant that the movement had to go somewhere else and gradually the formerly inhibited ribs began moving. Thus he experienced easy, pain-free movement in those places. Trying to force movement is counterproductive, leading to further resistance and tension. In contrast, Debono Moves work is soft and slow, and the practitioner’s hands serve merely as pointers to guide the horse toward easy and elegant movement.

George’s head was lowered and he was licking and chewing. “He looks so blissful,” is how Kim described his appearance. George was learning new ways to move his body and his chronic muscular contractions began to melt away. I gently pushed through various parts of his skeleton, noticing how the movement transferred. We were making progress!

As I ended the session, I pushed through his right ischium again. The movement traveled easily up to his head. I went to his left ischium and watched the movement tip his chin forward ever so slightly.

I asked Kim to back up George a few steps and then walk him away from me. His hind legs no longer crossed the midline. Instead, they produced an effortless, efficient gait. Concealing my glee, I offered to walk George so she could observe his movement. Suddenly the quiet barn was filled with joyful shouts, “What did you do, what did you do? He’s not rope walking anymore! I can’t believe it!” All three of us — George, Kim and myself — seemed very happy that evening.

I received a call from an ecstatic Kim a few days later. She had entered a dressage show and George had won both his Second Level tests that weekend, earning the highest scores of his career. He had moved with an elegance and power she had never felt before.

*Debono Moves was formerly called the SENSE Method. This blog post was published previously using the term SENSE Method. 

Mary Debono
Mary Debono, is a Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner who teaches people how to increase mobility and confidence while minimizing the effects of aging and injury. She is the author of the award-winning, Amazon #1 bestseller, "Grow Young with Your Dog," and the creator of Debono Moves. Mary travels internationally to teach workshops with an equine, canine/feline or human focus. She also offers online consultations. Mary lives in sunny Southern California with her husband, horse, dog and cat. Visit her at www.DebonoMoves.com
Mary Debono
Mary Debono

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