In my previous post, I wrote about Jill*, a rider who unknowingly sat with more weight on the left side of her pelvis. Jill’s unbalanced seat made bending difficult for her horse and caused both horse and rider to have sore, stiff backs.
I led Jill through a Feldenkrais® Awareness Through Movement® lesson that helped her sit evenly on her seatbones. And this felt comfortable and natural, not forced. When she stood up, she felt half a foot taller! Her back was softer and more mobile and her walking took on a graceful quality.
Next it was her horse’s turn to feel good.
Running my hands over Jill’s bay mare, I felt her tense, hard back muscles, with the left side being tighter than the right. Such chronic contraction causes soreness and fatigue, and the muscular restriction would prevent the mare from bending easily to the right.
While I had helped Jill resolve the all-too-common problem of uneven seatbones, it would not be enough to only work with Jill. When a horse has been compensating for a rider’s idiosyncrasies for a period of time, she often develops habits of body use that don’t automatically disappear when the rider becomes balanced. The bottom line: both Jill and her horse, Kali, needed to re-learn how to bend easily.
Before Jill met me, she had been doing carrot stretches with her horse, hoping that this exercise would improve the mare’s ability to bend. She would hold a piece of carrot out at various angles and the mare would reach for it, often stretching quite a bit in order to obtain the goodie.
But there was a downside to those stretches. The sensation of stretching drowns out other, more subtle, sensations that would allow the mare to learn how to bend easier. Kali was simply exacerbating the patterns of use that she already knew. Just repeating and/or exaggerating a movement will not improve it. In addition, because there was a carrot waiting for her if she stretched far enough, Kali stretched beyond what was truly comfortable, giving her nervous system the experience of limitation, not freedom of movement.
Since a horse will override signals of pain or discomfort in her attempt to obtain the treat, I did away with the food enticement. I wanted Kali to be more aware of her body, not less so. I explained to Jill that instead of asking Kali to stretch, I wanted to engage Kali’s attention in the process of bending and help her learn new, more comfortable and efficient ways of doing it. Just like the work I do with humans, we needed to re-train the brain.
The first thing I did was to break the process of bending down into its smaller parts. Asking for the whole movement (the entire bend) would result in Kali doing the same thing she always did. But by separately exploring each small piece of the movement, Kali would have the opportunity to change her usual response.
Since Kali could bend to the left easier than to the right, I placed my hands on Kali’s left ribs and gently brought the ribs closer together in several places. Kali remained at ease. Bringing the ribs together can have the effect of softening the neck, ribcage and back muscles on that same side and can help the horse learn how to bend more easily.
Notice that I chose to begin this bending lesson on Kali’s easier side. This is important. This allows the horse to feel safe, since no one is contradicting what she feels comfortable doing. A relaxed horse is receptive to learning. An anxious, defensive horse is not.
Since my hands were doing the work of Kali’s muscles by bringing the ribs closer together, Kali’s nervous system could sense that the habitual contractions were no longer necessary and could let those overworked muscles relax.
I then moved around to Kali’s right side and, reaching across Kali’s back, I cupped my hands around the muscles just to the left of her spine. Slowly, I brought my hands towards me, coaxing Kali’s back to follow. This subtle movement helps to mimic the movement of the back and barrel when the horse is bending to the left. I worked my way from Kali’s withers to her tail and back up to her withers again. I did this for several minutes, while Kali, her head hanging down, remained relaxed.
For proper bending, the neck must also soften and participate in the movement. Improving the movement in the ribcage is essential for enhancing freedom in the neck, and I wanted Kali to feel this connection. I put one hand lightly on her neck while my other hand gently brought movement and awareness to her sternum, the bone that runs down the middle of the ribcage. When Kali’s sternum moved, I could feel the movement in her neck. More importantly, now Kali felt it too.
The bay’s neck muscles became noticeably softer. Putting my hands lightly on her neck, I showed Kali how she could move each section of her neck independently and easily.
Now it was time to put these pieces of the puzzle together to simulate the act of bending. For this, I elicited Jill’s help. I brought Kali’s ribs together as Jill coordinated turning Kali’s head to the left. We helped Kali feel how moving her sternum could influence her neck and make her movement freer and more comfortable. We then repeated these movements on Kali’s right side, which had been her more difficult side. Throughout, Kali stayed soft and relaxed.
After Kali improved her bending to both sides while standing still, I began to work with her while Jill led her at the walk. We took Kali into the arena, using the corners as a visual reminder of bending, while my hands guided her movements.
To further integrate her improvements, I worked with Kali while she was tacked up and then with Jill in the saddle. All these variations helped Kali assimilate the improvements in bending into her actual work under saddle.
And now that Jill had greater body awareness, she could feel if Kali showed even the smallest amount of resistance, and could look to herself first to check if she was restricting Kali’s movement. Jill would then organize herself so that her body could support her horse. Jill and Kali became relaxed and happy together, and it was gratifying to see horse and rider progress into such an elegant, harmonious partnership.
*Names and identifying characteristics have been changed.
Many thanks to Pam Johnson and her horse, Lover Boy, for modeling for the photos. And big thanks to Wally Johnson for the photography!
Thank you for reading my blog. May you and your animal friends enjoy health and harmony! ~ Mary