“I can’t understand why my horse is stiff. I exercise and stretch her every day.”
These words were spoken by Ellen*, whose Hanoverian mare was having trouble bending. Turning to the right was the most difficult, and the mare had become resistant and grouchy when asked to bend. The veterinarian ruled out a medical problem, so Ellen assumed she simply needed to use stronger aids. But schooling sessions turned into battles, and neither horse nor rider enjoyed their time together. Seeing no end in sight, Ellen asked me for help.
As Ellen led the bay mare, who was named Juliet, in a figure-eight pattern, I noticed that the mare did not swing her barrel freely, and the movement of her hind legs was stilted. I was told that Juliet often had trouble with her hocks, and they had been injected several times. Since she was a Fourth-Level dressage horse, Ellen thought this wear and tear damage was to be expected.
Restrictions in one part of the body can lead to injuries and arthritis in other parts
I put my hands on Juliet to feel for subtle differences in the tension and size of her muscles. I also initiated tiny waves of movement through her skeleton to observe how movement flowed through her body. Noticing the path the movement took could tell me where the mare was restricted. This was important, because restrictions in one part of the body can lead to overuse injuries and arthritis in other parts of the body, including the neck, back and hocks. Indeed, I discovered that Juliet was very tight through her back and rib cage, which would hamper the movement of her neck and make bending difficult, if not impossible.
Stretching could remind the horse that bending was difficult and painful, thus reinforcing her habit of bracing
With one hand on Juliet’s neck, I put my other hand ever-so-lightly on her halter and asked the mare to turn her head the tiniest amount to the left. I was just looking for how Juliet initiated the movement, nothing else. I wasn’t checking how far the mare could turn her head or asking for a stretch. Both of those things would remind the horse that bending was difficult and painful, thus reinforcing her habit of bracing. Plus, the sensation of stretching drowns out other, more subtle sensations that would allow the mare to learn how to bend easier.
Small, incremental movements would allow the horse to associate movement with pleasure
In contrast to stretching, asking for small, incremental movements would give the horse an opportunity to change how she moved. And it would allow the horse to associate movement with pleasure. This is critical. It’s essential that the foundation of the movement be comfortable and efficient first. You can increase range of motion later. I’ll state that again. It’s essential that the foundation of the movement be comfortable and efficient first. You can increase range of motion later.
These small turning movements also allowed me to observe what happened in the rest of the horse’s body when she started to turn her head. Did her back and rib cage soften or tense up? Were the other parts of her body helping or interfering with the movement of her neck?
After observing the movement on both sides, I went to the mare’s rib cage. I used my hands to remind Juliet that her sternum and ribs could move, and that doing so would make turning her head and neck easier. I supported the muscles along the Warmblood’s broad back, glided her rib cage in easy circles, and introduced gentle oscillations from her pelvis to her poll. All of these pleasurable experiences could help the dressage horse learn how to coordinate her movement so that it became easy and elegant.
When horse and human are relaxed and connected in mind and body, the smallest cues are felt and responded to
I returned to the mare’s head. With my fingers lightly on the halter, I asked her to turn a little bit to the left and right. This time she did it easily, her back and rib cage softly participating in the turning. It was a big improvement, and Ellen was surprised that Juliet responded to such subtle requests. I explained that when horse and human are relaxed and connected in mind and body, the smallest cues are felt and responded to. Conversely, if we get tense and strong with our aids, our horses become tight and resistant too.
The mare now had a long, graceful stride and could turn elegantly in each direction
As Ellen walked Juliet, I saw that the mare’s stiff walk had transformed into a long, graceful stride, and she elegantly turned in each direction. Ellen and I were very pleased at the progress that the Hanoverian had made in her first session with me.
But then Juliet gave us an even bigger surprise. As I was saying good-bye to this gorgeous mare, a fly landed on her back. As we watched in amazement, Juliet turned her head to the right (her previously more difficult side) and elegantly flicked the fly off with her nose. Now, that’s learning!
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Mary Debono can teach you how to use Debono Moves to enhance your horses’ performance and well-being and improve your own flexibility, posture and balance using the Feldenkrais Method® . To find out how to work with Mary in person, please visit www.DebonoMoves.com/Events. Mary is based in Encinitas, California, teaches clinics internationally and offers online opportunities to work with her.
Questions? Please email Mary. I look forward to hearing from you!
*Names have been changed.