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The SENSE Method: Improving Equine Movement and Well-Being

Most of us know how our touch influences horses. We use a soft, rhythmic stroke to reassure an anxious horse, while a leg aid can stimulate impulsion. In each of these scenarios, the horse’s attention is focused on the associations (either pleasant or unpleasant) that the touch elicits. A horse that has learned to trust his rider may be calmed by gentle caresses. A horse who realizes that ignoring the rider’s leg leads to a stronger aid will move forward when cued.

In contrast to the above, the specific, non-habitual touching of the SENSE Method actually draws the horse’s attention not to the touch itself, but to the sensory information it conveys. Simply put, SENSE Method practitioners touch and move the horse in gentle, precise ways to remind the horse how all his parts can work together harmoniously. Just like humans, horses develop inefficient habits of moving, with some of the joints and muscles doing more than their share of the work. Soreness, fatigue and degenerative changes such as arthritis can be the result.

The SENSE Method can be a way out of this. SENSE is an acronym for Strength with Elegance through Natural Somatic Education. Strength with elegance is the ability to play or perform athletically in a graceful, relaxed way, rather than having to counteract habitual movement restrictions or tensions. The term “somatic education” is derived from the Greek word soma, meaning body. Somatic education is learning that occurs through the refinement of one’s movement and senses. The SENSE Method practitioner works with the horse to improve the awareness and use of the horse’s body, resulting in enhanced movement as well as a greater ability to learn.

SENSE Method practitioners engage the horse’s attention in this process by touching and moving the horse in a way that heightens the horse’s awareness of her body. And once the horse becomes aware of how she is currently organized, the SENSE Method practitioner shows her more comfortable options. Instead of focusing on the human’s touch, the horse focuses instead on the internal sensations that the touch produces. That’s why I like to describe the SENSE Method as “touching a horse from the inside out.”

When a horse becomes more aware of his internal sensations, his proprioceptive sense is enhanced. While the five senses of tasting, touching, smelling, hearing and seeing tell horses what is going on in their external environment, proprioception is internal sensing. Along with giving the nervous system the information it needs to maintain body temperature, appetite and thirst, it also tracks muscular tension, joint movement, weight-bearing, direction of movement, acceleration, and so on. You can see how important it is to enhance and refine the proprioceptive sense.

For example, let’s say your horse has difficulty rounding her back and engaging her hind end. You also notice that her back is tight and sore. In order to both relieve the strain on her back muscles and allow her back to round, the horse needs to learn how to use her sternum and ribs to help, not hinder, the movement of rounding her back.

An integral part of how a horse rounds her back is by contracting her rectus abdominus, or belly, muscle. This is a long, strong muscle that runs from the lower part of the sternum and adjacent ribs to the pubic bone. (The pubic bone is located in the pelvis.) Think of the sternum and pelvis coming closer together when a horse rounds her back. That is engagement of the hind end.

Imagine a muscle that attaches the pony’s sternal area (lower right of photo above) to the pubic bone (far left in photo below).

Horses often learn to immobilize and “tune out” the sternum to protect themselves from the discomfort that can be caused by such things as quick cinching up, badly fitting tack or an unbalanced rider. In addition, if a horse has poorly trimmed feet, he must adjust his movement to cope, and will usually tighten his back and sternum to minimize movement. This leads to soreness and tension in the back or girth area. However, even after the horse’s feet have been properly trimmed, the soreness and inhibited movement often remains, to at least some degree, unless it is directly addressed.

Horses that have inhibited movement of the sternum will find it difficult, if not impossible, for the sternum and pelvis to move toward each other. These horses often further stiffen their backs when asked to engage the hind end. Thus, the vicious cycle of tension and pain continues.

A SENSE Method practitioner can help by gently touching and moving the horse’s sternum and ribs in a way that reminds the horse’s nervous system that these parts can, indeed, move. And not only move, but that the freer the sternum and ribs become, the more comfortable the horse’s back feels. Proprioception is enhanced and rounding the back becomes easy.

Once the horse learns to move his back in this new way, the SENSE Method practitioner may then tack up the horse and repeat the process. Since many riders unknowingly use saddles that create restricted, uncomfortable movement, the SENSE Method practitioner can check that the horse’s saddle will allow this free, easy movement to go through the back.

Repeating the process is also important for another reason. If the habit of immobilizing the sternum and ribs was adopted to protect the horse from a poorly fitting saddle or uncomfortable girthing up, the horse may immediately revert back to this old pattern when the saddle is reintroduced. This is true even if the offending saddle has been replaced, as many horses will maintain the negative association with tacking up. Gently suggesting and supporting movement of the sternum, ribs and back with the saddle on and while slowly girthing up will help overcome the negative association.

The SENSE Method practitioner can also elect to work with the rider in the saddle, since the horse may have developed inefficient patterns of moving that are highlighted with a rider up.

SENSE Method helps the horse learn how to move in a coordinated manner, with the effort distributed throughout her body. The more parts of a horse that participate in a movement, the more elegant the movement becomes. Effort is reduced, so the horse is capable of greater strength and stamina. In addition, the horse develops better balance.

SENSE Method can be an integral part of a natural lifestyle for horses. It is truly a holistic approach, respecting the mind, body and spirit of the horse. SENSE Method recognizes the necessity of well-balanced hooves; comfortable, unrestrictive tack; appropriate training methods; proper dental care; and living arrangements that allow freedom of movement.

Horses in virtually every discipline and level of fitness have benefited from SENSE Method, from World Cup competitors to those with neurological disorders. Riders are often amazed at how this gentle work brings about profound changes in their horse’s performance and attitude.

I developed SENSE after being inspired by the teachings of the brilliant scientist, the late Dr. Moshe Feldenkrais. Dr. Feldenkrais created the Feldenkrais Method® for people, a form of somatic education that is popular with equestrians wishing to enhance their riding skills as well as banish their own aches, pains and stiffness.

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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