I Heard It…

…with my own two ears. Just the other day I overheard a riding instructor say to a young pupil: ‘Stick your belly button out.’ That stopped me in my tracks. Is this a gymnastics class?  The student rode by on her pony with a lovely ‘c’ in her lower back like pictured below.

Tilted Pelvis

This type of rider posture – hollowed, locked back – is incorrect and disrupts not only the rider’s ability to absorb the horse’s movement, but also causes the horse to hollow and lock its back (as seen in the picture) in response.  When that happens the horse trails its hind legs, can’t swing through its back, drops its wither and base of neck, raises its head, and shortens its stride.  It’s the antithesis of correct movement, stressing the body.  Even the best conformed horse can’t overcome.

Here’s a great illustration showing the correct amount of curvature in the lower back.  (The human spine does have some curvature through the ‘loin’.)  Also of note is the straight line created by the alignment of the ear, hip and heel that we all know about but often struggle to obtain.

I don’t know the education background of the riding instructor, if she’s certified,  or who taught her, but she’s popular with her students and their parents.  It discourages me that another group of young riders is being developed with such poor basic skills.  Besides the hollow lower backs, all the riders in her class (5) had knees and toes pointed outward and overly straight arms.  And like a horse that has lived in inversion, a rider with incorrect basics will need to spend much more time correcting those bad habits than if they’d learned the right way first time around.

I wish I had a solution for this widespread problem, which feels to me as if its gaining momentum.

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A Place To Start – Stretching Under Saddle

Some times we just don’t know where or how to begin. In a recent article (Virtual Horse – A Must See!) I linked to a video showing the biomechanical differences between a horse being hand ridden and forced into a false frame; over flexed in the poll, chin on chest and one allowed to stretch and seek contact, and how that affected the horse’s movement. Following is a short (4 min) video that starts to show how you do the latter.

Video

Though I don’t agree with everything said and shown (such as the reference to and title of video ‘engaging’ the back – why even go there?!), there are some really important things happening in the video that I’d like to point out.

First is the forwardness of the horses. Before anything else can happen, a horse must be forward. No forward, no nothing. That is not going fast, though for some it may appear that way, but rather having a purpose in getting from point A to point B. This is a major issue I often see, horses piddling about, dragging their feet, and otherwise lacking any sort of energy or motivation in their striding. The horse must actively and willingly move forward, be in front of the leg, and stay in front of the leg without being constantly badgered. Once that is achieved, the horse on its own will begin to relax into a rhythmic gait and stretch. This applies to our Western riders as well. You all should be riding forward as shown in the video until the horse has, over time, developed the strength and condition to slow down the stroke of the legs via right and proper engagement. The jog and lope that is so often seen today in the Western ring is an atrocity, but I digress.

A lot of the video shows the horse on the circle. The circle helps to encourage weight to shift back onto the inside hind, which in turn will lift the back and so on. But don’t get stuck in the idea that this can only, or should only, be done on the circle. Alternating between straight lines, circles and changes of direction will keep the horse thinking and thus forward. It will increase suppleness and straightness, and as you make the figure changes it’s a challenge and a check that the horse remain relaxed and rhythmic throughout.

I also liked that Mr. Faerber mentioned the rider lightening their seat and that this work is done primarily in rising trot. ‘Driving’ with your seat to get the horse forward only results in triggering the back to contract and then hollow, as does banging around like a sack of rocks in sitting trot. Of course, some riders also bang down on the horse’s back in rising trot, so the execution of the rising trot by the rider may need to be examined if the horse continues to hollow.

You can not achieve any of what is shown in the video via the use of side reins, draw reins, martingales or any other tack contraption. I repeat: CAN NOT. The horse must be free of restrictive devices including the hand, so put away the tack and lengthen those reins. The horse’s head WILL come down once it is forward, relaxed, and rhythmic, and its back will lift. Note that at the four minute mark a young horse is being longed with side reins on, but those side reins are overly long. They are not restricting the horse in any way. So why use them at all? In this instance it’s for the education of the horse’s mouth, to begin to understand weight in its mouth, and to encourage the horse to be straighter (not over bend) through the neck on the circle.

It’s important to also note the time period given in the video: One year to develop the topline of a horse, and that’s for a horse that hasn’t already developed inverted muscling and poor posture from bad riding and training; those horses are going to require even more time. This is not a process that happens over night, nor can it be fixed in 24 hours. But don’t think you should be riding your horse as in the video every single minute of that year. Stretching is not a static position either on its own nor as part of training. Remember that you should be testing your horse’s development, asking for the poll to lift little by little BY engaging the haunch.   You’ll be doing other exercises and figures, cross training.  And don’t forget, the horse’s haunch should be lowering as that poll lifts, otherwise it’s incorrect.

Even out on a hack, you should be encouraging your horse to stretch, to be forward, relaxed, rhythmic in its gaits, straight and so on.  Horses are not toys and require constant consideration, care and management.  There is joy and pleasure to be found in understanding that.  You can enjoy the horse even while knowing that every step is training mind, body, and soul for better or worse.

Neglect in Redding, Connecticut

Sadly another clear situation of the system taking too long to act and giving someone multiple chances.  There’s no excuse after the initial complaints in 2011 that this woman should have had another opportunity to neglect animals.  She even has an option of appealing the seizures. What!?

NBC Report

I wonder if this woman’s age has anything to do with the situation? Is she mentally, emotionally and physically able to care for animals?

If anyone here is in the state/area can you get us any additional information or updates moving forward?

The Long And Winding Road

I’ve been asked a number of times to discuss in detail how a horse can be improved with correct work; how musculature and posture can be changed. Intellectually we all understand the importance of correct work/exercise, relating it to human activities like something as simple as doing a sit up the right way versus the wrong way, and the implications – the development of a strong core or a week in bed with a sore back.

The problem is that I don’t often know where to start. The topic is immense. Just thinking about it is overwhelming to me, trying to then share the information and not overwhelm the recipient is next to impossible. Moreover, I’ve discovered that hardly anybody seems to be able to execute even after they have the information. The task is always more involved than just knowing or having good intentions. You also have to have some skills and talent; patience, tenacity, common sense, an aptitude for critical thinking, good judgment and instincts, and the capacity and will to continually learn. If that’s not enough, it can often times be financially draining and time consuming.

I can always find pictures of horses in need and point out what’s wrong, but rarely is there a chance to get ‘after’ pictures. Since a lot of us learn best with visual aids, pictures are important to connect all the dots. Additional to the pictures would be a comprehensive summary of treatment, exercises and the like. Following is an example that tickles the vastness of the topic.

Thank you to Earthshadows (the human) and Capataz (the horse).

BEFORE

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Capataz was purchased with the intention to advance his rider in Dressage. We could nitpick a few things, but overall he’s well-suited physically to the task and should breeze through the lower levels on his way to medium. Except for one thing; he’s injured.

I’ve marked the injury in the photo below, some might have seen and called it a ‘hunter’s bump’. I don’t care what you call it, or whether it appears on a horse that’s not head bobbing lame, or whether it’s on a horse competing successfully at a high level. It’s an injury, all day long, every day, and should not be dismissed or ignored. Indeed, when purchasing a horse this should, in more cases than not, be a deal breaker. It’s an injury that often occurs in horses that jump, race, and/or slip at speed.

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Fortunately (or unfortunately depending on your point of view), Capataz injured himself after his purchase. This at least meant that Earthshadows knew when and how it happened. The sooner treatment can be administered, the better chance of recovery.

Here’s a condensed version of events from Earthshadows:

So it was a bit of a rough start for me and my horse. Within the first few months he spooked and had a bad fall on the cement aisle, his chest hit the floor and legs were everywhere. I’m not sure if he maybe had a pre-existing issue at this point, but this set him lame for sure. Not dead lame, but something was wrong.

My coach at the time wanted to do nerve blocking, but it didn’t quite feel right yet to me. So before doing that, I had a certified chiropractor vet take a look at him, and she said his hip looked off. She adjusted it, but wasn’t sure if it would solve things.

Still lame.

Soon I received a recommendation for a very talented lady that also did manipulation therapy (but not a vet). At this point, I was very skeptical, was never one to believe in these things. But she came out, and after some heavy adjustment (she had to pop his leg into his pelvis or something as equally gross–there was a quite the loud pop), the very next day, no longer lame. Just like that, after months of lameness. I was ecstatic.

Of course, that meant recovery was only starting now. He had lost most of his muscle definition, and had now a very prominent calcium bump on his hindquarter that may or may not shrink. So I started having his bodyworker come out somewhat regularly (bodyworker suggested that it not be frequent), and we saw his pelvis hold itself together longer. For you see, his hip wanted to remain tilted the wrong way.

At first, he would never stand square, legs in all directions. Now, I find him more and more standing naturally in a square position–he’s finding himself straight. But that was only half the battle. The other half was learning to ride him correctly. I went through a few coaches (and styles of teaching!) until I found the one I have now, one dedicated to riding from back to front, and about engaging those hindquarters. And so with strength coming back, his pelvis has remained correct even longer.

He still has a bump today, although the muscle sorta tricks the eye, but you can see it. There’s still stiffness at the start, and I have to be very careful to warm up his hips properly before asking him to work. But he’s come leaps and bounds, especially with a novice owner who’s had to learn everything along the way!”

AFTER

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Some points to take away from this example; even with early diagnosis and treatment, the rehabilitation of this type of injury to a horse is still time consuming with no guarantee of complete recovery. The longer the injury goes unnoticed or ignored, the more difficult it becomes to repair and the less likely the horse will fully recovery. Scar tissue, bone remodeling and calcification occur rapidly due to the amount of stress this area of the horse takes, and it’s not unusual to have significant, chronic inflammation and fluid build-up.

I refer you back to the previous blog article Hind Limb – Part 1 where I discuss the attachment of the horse’s haunch to the rest of its body. (See second paragraph). Refresh yourselves on the stay system of the hind leg and imagine how if one of those joints is injured or stressed how that must affect the rest of the joints of the leg. Imagine too if just the surrounding area of one of those joints is affected how that too is going to have a trickle effect to the rest of the hind end. Keep in mind that our intent for any riding horse is to have it transfer weight from the forehand to the haunch via that itty, bitty LS joint. If there’s any sort of natural, structural weakness in the haunch; long loin, poorly placed LS joint, post-leggedness etc…, then not only is the potential for injury increased but also the amount of injury that can occur, with time added to rehabilitating such an injury since the structure contains a general inherited weakness.

There are a lot of horses out there performing for their riders with loin/sacrum/pelvic/hip injuries of this sort, whether from direct or secondary sources. Lameness can be subtle from a shortening of the gait, or carrying the haunch off to one side, or as predominant as head-bobbing. But even if it’s not at first obvious or apparent (not everyone has an eye for subtler unsoundness) and the horse has continued to win in the ring, know that the horse is injured and unsound if any sort of topline or pelvic unevenness is in evidence. It is the nature of prey animals to hide illness and injury, and the nature of the horse to get along and please. Through compensatory actions (ie., travelling heavier on the forehand) the horse will more often than not, keep right on truckin’.

In the case of Capataz, he dislocated his hip. This pulled all the soft tissue around the hip joint, around the pelvis, and up into the sacrum and loin, stressing the entire haunch. And even then he wasn’t head-bobbing lame.

It may seem that the topic of this article has now changed from the opening paragraph, but I assure you it’s all very much related and intertwined. One of the first things we must make sure of when wanting to correct the horse’s musculature and posture is that an underlying injury does not exist. While remodeling muscles and improving posture can take several months, it’ll never happen if the horse is suffering from an undiagnosed injury.