“Letting Go” has sort of become a popular subject in all sorts of context. Letting go of expectations, letting go of your children, letting go of convictions or patterns that don’t serve us well. Anything from “Letting go of attachment” (Zen) to “Letting go of love” (Dr. Phil). And if you’d like see this thought expressed in a song, there is anything from Lynard Skynard (Free Bird), over various relaxation tunes to hip hop.

But what does it mean in the context of horse ownership? Having had to face the topic of letting go in various situations recently—including one very important horse related situation lately—I’d like to explore this topic a bit deeper. Note: This is a NOT a gloom and doom article! It’s all about life. 😉

A beloved senior gelding
A beloved senior gelding

Convenient solutions?

As we Americans (with or without German accent…) are a convenience-addicted society, we include death in the spectrum ‘servicable’ life occurances. With servicable I mean, “Please let someone else handle it!”. We don’t really want to have anything to do with it and let service providers such as funeral homes handle most aspects (generalization, of course). As many Western societies, we do not include death as part of life as it is the case in many other cultures. Furthermore, we cannot influence the date and time that death occurs, making it an unpredictable occurrence that we’d rather not think about.

One exception is pet or horse ownership. Here we have the responsibility of deciding when is the right time to let our companion go, meaning confront ourselves with the inevitability of death and bringing it about for our beloved companion. What could be harder, especially when there seem so many medical options to prolong life available today?

(I purposely want to exclude the topic of ‘death decision evasion’ by those horse owners, who decide to sell their senior horse at auction and thus letting someone else (the meat buyer, the slaughter house) make the tough decision.)

A little mare—and a big lesson

I recently worked on a little Arabian mare in Germany, who—for the sake of privacy—I will call ‘Dusty’, since she seemed like a bit of fairy dust to me. Sometimes you encounter animals (or people) who clearly live beyond our plane of everyday existance and just seem to have something quite extraordinarily etheral about them. And Dusty, 28 years old and riddled by arthritis and the long-term effects of old injuries, was such an animal. I was called to perform bodywork, nothing unusual, even on a 28-year old horse. Anticipating a quiet and gentle bodywork session for a reportedly ‘cranky’ elderly horse, I did not expect anything out of the ordinary. It turned out to be a very extraordinary experience where I learned so much about the horse, our human agenda, and the profound effect of the type of interactive bodyworkI have been fortunate enough to learn.

Dusty during bodywork

In the end, the owner and I looked at a little horse with the biggest heart, who now felt open to simply let go of any braveness and who—after some very gentle bodywork and encouragement—felt free to express her physical discomfort and general exhaustion with her condition. It would go too far to explain what happened in detail. But on that day and during the following week, Dusty taught me and her owner a big lesson: Horses often try much harder than we think to please us and ‘do a good job’. If that job is defined as “I need you to hold on longer for my sake”, the horse will try to do that, no matter how strong the pain or how great the odds may be. This is a reminder that we need to learn to differentiate between our need to keep a horse around for our sake and the horse’s situation and quality of life. We need to answer the question: Do I ask my horse to hold on for my sake or for his/her sake?

Dusty’s owner sent me several updates after the session and reported that Dusty’s demeanor had changed considerably. She was no longer hiding her discomfort and was very affectionate to her owner, following her around and just trying to stay as close as possible. She had to be removed from the herd to stay safe and spent some quality time closer to her owner. Her owner had to come to terms with the reality that letting go and ensuring a peaceful transition into the next realm (if that is what you believe, I do) in the company and with the support of the caring owner is imminent.

It would be a hard decision. Her owner had spent 25 years with this horse, met her when she was still a kid. Vets, friends and barn personnel gave various advice from “put her down” to “try this medication or that treatment”. But on that day, it became clear that Dusty had reached the point where holding on was too much to ask.

Here an excerpt of her letter to me after her’s and Dusty’s last day together. It was very inspiring to me and hope you will feel the same way:

“We put Dusty down last Thursday after she had continued to show pain symptoms even after being put on the highest possible dose of pain medication.

It was a sunny morning, not too cool, just the kind of weather that Dusty liked best. Everything was real peaceful and Dusty was completely calm. My sister, who is also a vet and just happened to be visiting [from out of town] was also there and assisted my vet. My husband was also there to say good-bye to Dusty and to comfort me.

My husband and I went to the barn early in the morning so Dusty would have some time to graze with her chubby friend Labiroun on the big pasture. I stayed with Dusty the entire time and followed her around the pasture. After two hours, Dusty stopped eating and I sat down with her and listened to her breathing. She positioned herself over my body as if I was a foal that needed protection and pressed her muzzle against my head. Then, slowly but surely, Dusty went to the spot where the barn owner and I had agreed that we would put her down. She went there all on her own. 15 Minutes before the vet came, Dusty stopped at exactly that spot as if she knew what this was all about and as if she wanted to express agreement.

When the vet came, Dusty took a small step towards her. I was so afraid that I was trembling but when it counted, I was very calm because it was more important than anything else not to put any more stress on Dusty than she already had. Labiroun did not notice anything, she continued grazing with the black pony a distance away…”

Her owner’s favorite picture of Dusty

I am very grateful to Dusty’s owner that she agreed that I could share this report with you. My hope is that all who find themselves in a similar situation will feel encouraged to create a similarly peaceful and loving atmosphere around this last service to their horse.

On that note…

Life is for the living, and those we love and we have shared wonderful times with continue to live in our consciousness and hearts. At the same time, letting go is part of life. It pays to think about that part of life before it occurs and come to terms with your own beliefs and even think through steps you would take once the time comes.

Reminder:

  • Enjoy every moment you have with your horse while you are still walking your path together!
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff and see if you can make your relationship a genuine exchange.
  • ‘Listen’ to your horse. If you have a good rapport with your horse, you can be sure: Your horse is trying, up to his last minute.

Be well and enjoy your horse

 Stefanie Reinhold

paint horse in winter
winter is here

It’s that time of year again here in the Midwest and elsewhere… hard, frozen ground exascerbates the impact on the horse’s limbs, joints and hooves with every step. During bodywork sessions in the winter, I find a lot more soreness in the muscles supporting and balancing the front limbs, in particular. While we cannot change the fact that the ground is hard and frozen, we can support our horses in maintaining flexibility in their natural ‘shock absorbing’ mechanisms by releasing tension in front limbs and shoulders.

Here a few ‘no fail’ exercises you can do with your horse.

During the winter months, I often find the ascending pectorals—the muscles passing right under the horse’s girth line behind the elbow—especially reactive, compared to the warmer seasons. This particular area is also known as ‘the foot point’, since reactivity in the ascending pectorals often points to discomfort in the front limb or foot. These muscles—part of the horse’s intricate system of front limb and shoulder attachment to the body—are responsible for balancing the horse’s front limb and can get sore if the horse tries to avoid discomfort. As balancing across hard and frozen ground is a fact of life for horses here in the Midwest, I have come to accept this. However, there is something we can do to help our horses be more comfortable and to keep the horse’s shoulder appartus—it’s “shock absorber”, if you will—as functional as possible.

Here a few exercises that are easily done and can become part of your winter grooming routine:

The front leg drop (example: left front limb)

  1. Place yourself in front of your horse, facing backward
  2. Gently get a hold of your horse’s leg, right hand behind fetlock, left hand further up
  3. Ask—don’t tell—your horse to bring his leg forward in a relaxed fashion
  4. Imagine a plum line from you horse’s knee to the ground and aim to set the hoof there
  5. Don’t pull, let the horse drop the leg and shoulder!
  6. Once your horse has dropped his leg on that spot, encourage him to stay in this position a bit longer by gently stroking the leg.

    leg drop technique
    gently ask the horse to drop the leg

Do’s and don’ts:

  • Again – dont’ pull!! If the horse pulls away, go with him, then gently ask again.
  • Look for relaxation and release down, this is NOT a stretch.

What this does: The horse releases tension in the shoulder apparatus and thus gains improved “shock absorber” function. This is an easy exercise, once you get the feel for it. For those of you, who are interested in learning more about this particular exercise or other Masterson Method exercises, I recommend Jim Masterson’s book “Beyond Horse Massage” or his new DVD with the same title.

The hoof wiggle

  1. Hold your horse’s hoof up as if you were to clean it.
  2. Keep holding it, gently moving with the horse, if he resists, until your horse relaxes the hoof in your hand.
  3. Then gently wiggle and rotate within the natural range of motion of fetlock and knee joints.
  4. Do this for a minute or two—all the while in a relaxed state—then gently place the hoof on the ground.

    the hoof wiggle
    wiggle the knee and fetlock joint (shown: the knee wiggle)

What this does: Releases tension in functional elements of the front limb (muscles, tendons, ligaments) and thus eases strain on the structural elements (joints, bones).

Other pointers:

  • Clean your horse’s hoof daily, especially if he is shot. Ice buildup can cause discomfort.
  • For the shod horse, discuss ‘winter options’ with your farrier.
  • When riding in snow, consider wrapping your horse’s legs to avoid irritation from harsh snow and having him wear boots instead of shoes in the winter (for example “Easy Boots”). Your farrier will be able to advise you on fit and model.

Enjoy your horse and enjoy your winter activities!

Stefanie and Paladin

We all know the saying “When the student is ready, the teacher shows up” (or something like that…). Since I am past the youthful state of ignorance where I saw life as a sheer endless road ahead and teachers wore 1960’s glasses, suspenders or pencil skirts, I came to the realization that teachers can show up at any time and in any given shape. If you’re lucky, you recognize them and actually learn something.

One of those teachers turned out to be my horse Paladin. I obtained Paladin, then Yankee, in February 2007 from a rescue organization specializing in off-the-track Standardbreds. Gorgeous, lanky, spirited and not really warm and fuzzy with people, Yankee had been through several adoptive homes and was now back in the program. Upon first meeting, he gave my brought-along apple a disgusted look (later I learned that carrots are more to his liking) and showed me his hiney, walking away from me with, what seemed, a clear attitude of disdain. “I’ll take him!” I exclaimed. Not really knowing why … – and that as one ‘ass’ recognizes another, I had spotted a fellow adrenalin addict and he was mine!

my horse Paladin
My horse Paladin, a typical "Wood Horse"

Fast forward through a journey of trial and error (What do you mean this horse doesn’t tie?), confusion and self-doubt (What the heck was I, as a rusty horse person, thinking to get this horse?) and ultimate reward after some hard earned successes (This horse is the best, we are attached at the hip!) and to a point in time, where I was stuck in a rut and didn’t know it.

[Side-note: Carrie Cameron, who travelled the country for a long time with Doris Halstead (mother of myofascial release for horses, in my view) and worked on horses with her, later co-authored a book with Doris (Release the Potential), when asked about the possible reasons for my history of recurring head-injury said something like: “The universe is going to knock you in the head until you get it!” “Get what?” “Whatever it is you are supposed to get.”]

On November 4th, 2010 Yankee – in a clear act of defiance – let his adrenalin take over and – instead of simply making a defiant gesture – kicked me in the face and knocked me out while we were working in the round pen, doing things we had done hundreds of times before. So I thought, until I saw the video (yes, it was on video…).

What I saw was a woman on an adrenalin high, who had an impatient hissy-fit because her horse did not ‘perform’ the way he usually does or was expected to do. His wrong-doing: He went for a tasty nibble of gras. He answered me with the same energy and attitude I approached him with at that moment: Impatience and unproportionate assertiveness.

What can you learn from a kick in the face?

Lesson 1: Know the horse in front of you.
Horses aren’t pets. They are sensitive, powerful and very reactive creatures with memories like elephants. The difference in their personalities astounds me every day. I knew my horse well. He is – according to the very worthwhile Horse Harmony Temperament Test by Madalyn Ward, DVM – a “Wood Horse”: athletic, competitive and plenty of resistance and attitude. Or like one trainer put it, after having spent two afternoons with my horse: “This horse will ask you every time you show up: Who’s the boss today?”  So if I could rewrite this moment, I’d take a deep breath, take a step back and start over.
Lesson learned: Take a good look at your horse and consider his nature in everything you do with him. Always work ‘with the horse that shows up’, not the horse your horse was yesterday or last week. He may feel off, too, and may have his reasons.

Lesson 2: Consider the horse first.
This is a principle I have held dear, especially in my bodywork with horses. At that moment in time, however, I was overwhelmed with my own agenda, with someone else’s (perceived) expectations (the person with the video camera) and a ticking clock (THROW THAT AWAY, when with horses!!).
Lesson learned: Always, always put yourself in the horse’s shoes first. If your horse is ok, you will be ok.

Lesson 3: There is always tomorrow. (God willing)
OK, so there is the “Agenda”, which is always the human’s agenda, and then there is the “Horse”. Horses don’t have agendas. If you cannot let go of your agenda, go and play backgammon, don’t spend an afternoon with horses. Rather come back tomorrow with a clear mind, without a clock and without an agenda. You may be surprised what you will accomplish, effortlessly and in harmony.
Lesson learned: Whatever can be accomplished at any given day, needs to be accomplished within the parameters determined by the horse’s ability. If you can’t let go of expectations, come back another day. It’s safer.

Lesson 4: Change happens.
After this accident, which left me injured but feeling fortunate in view of what could have happened, I went through phases of sadness, fear, anger and despondence. What hurt me most was that my horse was more traumatized than I was by this incident. When all I was left with was a lingering feeling of shame, my horse still did not let me near him 2 months later. Came February, he would not let the vet near him for spring shots. I was convinced that I had to let him go. Only when I gave him and myself a chance to make a change (starting with myself), I could regain his trust and we are now – once again – “attached at the hip”.
Lesson learned: Look at yourself and at your horse and know that your and your horses “Best Self” is somewhere in there. Give yourself the chance to bring it out and start with YOU! Change happens!

Lesson 5: And last not least: Do-Be-Do-Be-Do!
At the time right before the accident, I had just come back from Germany, where we had taken photographs for Jim Masterson’s book “Beyond Horse Massage“, which I co-authored, was writing, working on horses, doing translations, setting up a web-store, etc. etc. etc., all feeding into my 16-hour/day adrenalin-driven lifestyle. As someone rightly put it: We are human be-ings, not human do-ings! Abandon that 20th century mode (we are in the 21st now…) of Do-Do-Do-Do-Do and let your motto be: Do-Be-Do-Be-Do!
Lesson learned: Take Five (or even ten!)!

Stefanie and Paladin
My Paladin and I

And about my Paladin: I gave him a new name to better reflect his personality: Paladin. He is always ready for battle and quickly puts on his armor and pulls his sword. This is a horse you don’t battle with, but rather enthuse him for your ideas. But when the day is done and he got nothing but respect, fairness and clear messages, he’s the sweet sensitive guy, who is in a state of bliss when you brush him nicely.

Well, you may say: “Oh, I knew all that. Where has she been? Surely don’t need to get kicked to figure this out.” And I say: “Daahhlink, had you asked me on November 3, 2010, whether I knew all this, I would have said ‘sure I do!’. The point is to internalize and remember it when it counts…”.

It doesn’t always take a ‘kick’ to learn your lesson. With a little bit more openness and a humble, relaxed attitude, you can spot the lessons and the teachers without the big wake-up call. Hope you are getting a little something out of me sharing my experience.

Enjoy your horse!

During my equine bodywork practice I work mostly with horses who are suffering from performance limitations due to restrictions in their musculature, which were developed due to biomechanical habits or compensation for other underlying issues.

carrot stretches with horses
Carrot Stretches make us happy!

While some owners or trainers are interested in learning the basic techniques of the Masterson Method™ after seeing real-time improvements in their horse’s range of motion during the bodywork, others would like to do something a little more ‘low tech’ to help their horse stay supple in between.

Active stretching with a bait – also called ‘Carrot Stretches’ – are a great way of enabling your horse to loosen up and gain or retain range of motions, even into old age!

Furthermore, it increases your popularity with your horse!

An Important Difference: Active vs. Passive Stretching with Horses

What are active stretches?

Active Stretches are exercises where the horse is encouraged – via bait, such as a carrot – to stretch as far as his abilities allow. He may increase the stretch or go beyond of what he thought he could do, but will never overstretch beyond the abilities of his soft tissue, such as muscles and ligaments. Therefore, active stretching – where the horse determines the amount of stretch – is a ‘no harm’, riskless and fun way to get your horse into that nimble state we so much desire.

What are passive stretches?

Passive Stretches are exercises where the horse’s handler determines the amount of stretch and the horse passively goes along. We have all seen publications where horses’ limbs are stretched out at a 90˚ angle to the front… The temptation to see our horse perform these types of exercises is great. We need to remember, however, that these passive  types of stretches can easily be overdone and cause damage to soft tissue such as muscle fibers or ligaments, if performed on cold muscles or on an overly compliant horse, who will not express his discomfort. These types of stretches are best performed persons who have received hands-on training and have obtained the necessary background knowledge (contraindications, anatomy, etc.) in order to do no harm.

How to Perform Basic Carrot Stretches

The principle is easy: You hold out the bait and the horse reaches for it. A carrot is the preferred bait, since it’s long and will save you a finger or two, if a misunderstanding arises regarding the exact measurement of the bait…  To be completely on the safe side, you may want to wear gloves and use a disposable cup cover to protect your hand, if needed. (You know, the type you get at the fast food place, simply stick carrot through straw hole…)

What is the purpose: The purpose of the bait stretches is to encourage your horse to move through his full range of motion in the direction that you are setting in the respective exercise. This means, that your horse experiences his full range of motion, how far he actually can move his neck around, for example, without exerting force or creating resistance, which is often the case when we use tack to encourage the horse to bend. Horses, just as humans, often never use their full range of motion for anything. Doing so re-educates the body and mind, lets muscles relax and releases long-standing tension. And, just as in humans (we are all made of the same stuff…), the more frequently you perform these stretches, the more nimble your horse will be.

Basic Carrot Stretch Exercises

1. To the shoulder/elbow

Benefits: Loosens up head/neck and neck/shoulder  junctions, increases flexibility in vertebrae of the neck by loosening up surrounding muscles

2. To the hip around you

carrot stretch with horse
To the hip around handler

Benefits: Loosens up neck/shoulder junction, increases flexibility in vertebrae of the neck by loosening up surrounding muscles, stretches the bracchiocephalicus muscle and thus aids in developing range of motion in the front limb, good stretch for rib cage and shoulder

3. To the girth line

carrot stretch with horse
To the girth line

Benefits: Opens/releases head neck junction, nice stretch for ligaments of the top line

4. To the front down

carrot stretch with horse
To the front down

Benefites: Stretches/releases tension in ligaments of the top line

5. To the outside of the front hoof

carrot stretch with horse
To the outside of the front hoof

Benefits: nice stretch for shoulder and neck

There are quite a few more you may incorporate into your daily routine.

When Should You Perform Carrot Stretches with Your Horse?

Personally, I like to perform carrot stretches as a routine right after grooming. I feel that this is an added ‘quality time’ that adds value to our rewarding and happy grooming routine. You can do these stretches on cold or warm muscles, no harm will be done, as the horse determines the amount of stretch.

Stall-bound horses in rehab can also benefit. Check with your vet to be sure your horse is ready for these types of exercises!

What if I don’t like to feed my horses ‘treats’?

It is understandable, that some of us may prefer not to feed our horse treats for training reasons. On the other hand, a ‘food reward’ has been proven to be a highly motivating factor in horse behavior. If you manage to set the rules straight (e. g. : You only get the carrot after the correct stretch, no treats outside of exercises!) your horse will be intelligent enough to understand it. Consistency is the key.

I’d be interested to hear about your experiences with carrot stretches. Please do drop me a line to stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com or comment below.

Enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold

www.reinholdshorsewellness.com

We all know as human beings and bipeds, that we are not completely symmetrical. One foot may be larger than another, one leg shorter, one body side stronger or one knee weaker. Our eye-glass prescription is different for each eye, we tend to have a leg that we prefer to jump on and tend to be left- or right-handed. We accept this as a given and work around it.

senior draft horse
Visual symmetry check on a senior draft horse

In horses, however, many of us don’t give symmetry a lot of thought. Yes, we know we should ‘straighten the crooked horse’ and that our horse has one ‘good side’ and a ‘bad side’, but are we really paying enough attention to the implications of asymmetry in horses in our everyday activities? Let’s take a closer look.

Asymmetry as a CAUSE for performance issues in horses: As the horse is a quadruped, we need to look at asymmetry in consideration of the nature of the biomechanics of a quadruped.  

Generally speaking, this means that any irregularity I find, I will want to connect with anything I find in the diagonal.

Example: A horse has difficulty picking up the right lead. Due to the fact that the vet issues a clean bill of health, I suspect the horse has a biomechanical issue, an asymmetry or muscular tension that prevent him from using himself efficiently. During the course of several bodywork sessions, I discover that my horse’s spine seems bent slightly more to the left. The right shoulder is bigger and the right hind is restricted. Through bodywork and proper gymnasticizing, the horse soon gains muscular comfort and starts picking up the right lead without further ado.

However, since I became aware of my horse’s limitations, I now know what type of maintenance he needs in order to stay sound and performing well.

This is a typical case for asymmetry as the CAUSE for performance issues.

These types of issues are often addressed as training problems, causing the horse suffering and grief and the owner and trainer a never ending source of frustration.

Asymmetries as secondary issues, caused by other physical irregularities: Horses can display asymmetries that are noticeable to the beholder but are not the root cause of their performance issues, instead a symptom for another underlying problem.

This is where the example of the “Mini-Shank” comes in!

No, I don’t eat Minis, any horse meat at all, actually, and not much meat in general, but I had so much fun handling this Minis leg, that I could not simply call it a ‘leg’, it became a ‘shank’.

The Mystery of the “Mini-Shank”

When working on horses at St. Francis Horse Rescue and Retirement home. Mary Hetzel, Director and full-time ‘Mom’ to over 30 horses, introduced me to Rosie, a 12-year old Mini mare, who was in foal with her 10th foal (!!) and had recently been rescued out of a less than ideal situation.

The mare showed an irregular gait and hopped a bit when speeding up, which had led the vet to suspect a locking stifle, at first glance. Rosie’s hip on the left was severely dropped (asymmetry) and her spine looked torqued. Her left gluteals were rock-hard and smaller than the right (asymmetry) and she looked quite ‘crooked’ in the hind end.

The Masterson Method is a great tool to get to the bottom of things… and I soon came to the conclusion (during the exercise ‘pelvic drop to the front’) that her left hind leg must be shorter than her right hind leg (underlying cause for the symptom of asymmetry). Mary soon after measured the legs hip to toe and found the left hind to be an entire inch shorter than the right! For a mini with leg length of under 30” that’s quite a bit!

You can see a short video of this exploration here: WATCH VIDEO “DISCOVERING ASYMMETRY IN A MINI HORSE”

 

Conclusion

Asymmetry, whether as a cause for secondary issues or as a symptom of other underlying problems, must be assessed on an individual horse by horse (or mini…) basis. EVERY human and EVERY horse is slightly asymmetrical. Exploring and knowing your horse’s body like ‘the back of your hand’ will help you help him along, whatever his situation, physical make-up or training level.

Just like you know which is your weaker or stronger eye, bigger or smaller foot or longer or shorter leg, you should know your horse’s asymmetries. It will help you do the right thing for your horse and help you help him stay well.

One way to get in tune with your horse’s body and help him feel and perform his best, is to practice interactive bodywork with horses, such as the Masterson Method, which is also a great ‘fact finding’ tool when it comes to your horse’s anatomical asymmetry. For a class schedule and more information (also about hosting a weekend seminar) please visit Jim Masterson’s website.

Be well and enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold

 

During my equine bodywork practice, I occasionally encounter horses with unexplained lameness or restrictions. Vet, farrier and saddle fitter have exhausted their possibilities and the owner is faced with the horse’s recurring unsoundness without explanation. In these cases, bodywork provides relief, but often does not result in lasting change alone.

This leads the focus to the missing piece in the puzzle: the horse/rider interaction or rider biomechanics and how the rider affects the horse’s soundness.

There are two undeniable basic facts about using horses as riding animals:

1)      our vertical spine meets the horse’s horizontal spine in various levels of impact during a sequence of motions of two separate yet attached bodies and

2)      “there is nothing natural about horse back riding”, since horses were not by nature designed to carry a rider.

From this we can conclude:

a) yes, riding a horse implies the possibility of doing the animal harm, simply based on the biomechanical parameters and

b) riding therefore needs to be a factor, when considering what in the horse’s environment can keep him sound or potentially make him unsound.

Rider biomechanics have been on my mind for a long time, not just since a young man offered me a seat on the bus the other day. Thinking about your own flexibility as a rider and ability to stay out of the horse’s way during our – hopefully – harmonious movement together, is not a question one starts asking when approaching 50 or so. It’s a basic requirement whenever we want to do the right thing for the horse.

This is a vast topic and good books have been written by very knowledgeable folks (e.g. “The Rider Forms the Horse” by Udo Burger). I can only highlight a few aspects and hope to enthuse you for the subject.

As bipeds, we often naturally move contrary to the horse’s quadruped movement.

As an example: The walk, the ‘easiest’ of all gaits to ride. We bipeds move our arms diagonally to the legs during the walk, meaning when our right hip moves forward, our right arm moves back. When we ride and hold the reins, we will tend to do the same: move the right hip forward, and the right arm back (even if ever so slightly). Try it on a chair! This directly counteracts the movement of the horse and means, that if we do not want to jar the horse’s mouth with every step, we need to make a conscious effort to develop an independent seat, where hip can move independent of arm.

Let’s take this example one step further – a fictional case study: A rider who has not yet developed an independent seat rides a willing and compliant horse for several years, jarring his mouth with every step in the walk. Soon the horse will develop a ‘dead mouth’, possibly leading the rider to believe the horse needs a sharper bit. After using the sharper bit for some time – which works wonders with the ‘stoppability’ – the horse starts shortening the stride and refuses to take the right lead. He develops an unwillingness to bend in the neck and an ornery temperament. The rider (possibly in unison with the trainer) attributes this to a number of factors unrelated to his/her riding and continues to ride until the horse develops unexplained front leg lameness. A journey through farriers and vets begins with no result.

This is a fictitious scenario, a combination of different cases I’ve experienced. Similarities to real, living horses are merely coincidental ;-).

What happened here? Causing the horse discomfort in the mouth by moving like a biped on the back of this quadruped causes the horse to carry himself in a way that compensates and allows him to avoid the discomfort as much as possible. Instead of swinging his head lightly from side to side during the walk, he will hold his head still, and his neck stiff, in anticipation of the next jarring feeling in the jaw. Over time, the ‘head neck muscle’ (bracchiocephalicus) and related muscles become permanently contracted. This muscle’s job is to move the front leg forward. Through the restriction, the horse’s stride becomes shortened. Soon the tension will expand into the upper neck musculature and muscles that are responsible for the movement of the shoulder blade (scapula). The shoulder becomes tight and unyielding. Since it is the ‘shock absorber’ for the front legs, it now loses its function as such and the front legs have to bear most of the impact with every step. The trot becomes choppy, the strides restricted. Discomfort and restriction leads the horse to get stiff in the neck and possibly refuse to take one lead or another.

By the time the symptoms become loud, this has been going on for a while. Often it’s hard to make the connection. It’s not easy to ask oneself ‘how could my riding be a factor’?  Nevertheless, it’s the right question to ask.

There is an excellent website with in depth information regarding rider biomechanics http://nicholnl.wcp.muohio.edu/dingosBreakfastClub/BioMech/BioMechRideContent.html.  You can also order a book on this website about the same topic.

Even small changes in your riding can make a big difference for your horse’s soundness. As a non-ambitious rider who doesn’t show, I personally have to make a conscious effort of working on my seat. Having seen quite a bit of damage to horses by unskilled riders, I am painfully aware of what my riding can do to my horse and do what I can to get guidance and feedback, to keep myself fit and flexible and to stay aware of my short-comings as a rider.

If you have a story to share or tips or experiences regarding Biomechanics of Riding, please email me stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com or share your comment.

Have a harmonious ride!

I’ve spoken to several horse owners lately who had the same depressing condition: The Trainer Blues. See this list to check yourself for symptoms:

  • When your trainer interacts with your horse, you frequently cringe inside or feel like apologizing to your horse
  • You’ve been working on the same issues over and over, feeling like things are getting worse rather than better
  • Your horse wants to ‘hit the road’ when he sees the trainer coming, you reassure him ‘it’ll be ok’
  • You are really interested in exploring different riding philosophies, but your trainer will hear nothing of it
  • You are afraid to ask questions, your trainer is ‘untouchable’
  • You are not sure what’s going on, but you don’t look forward to your riding lessons any more. You want out, but this seems to be the best trainer in the area.

If more than one of the above applies to you, you’ve got the Trainer Blues! We all want the best for our horses and it’s hard to resist a reputable trainer, one that everyone in the barn uses or that was recommended to us by our best friend.

On the other hand, there is no licensing requirement for horse trainers and riding instructors in the US and the industry doesn’t have a homogenous self-regulating mechanism. In other words, there trainers of all sorts of backgrounds, philosophies, methods and angles out there, with widely varying degrees of experience and qualification.

How does one bring light into the jungle? I believe it starts with asking yourselves the right questions:

  • What is the riding philosophy that most appeals to me? Or, if i am unsure:  Is there a rider I look up to, who inspires me? (Can be someone like Rainer Klimke or Tom Dorrance.) What was their philosophy?
  • What kind of riding do I want to do?
  • What’s my skill level? (that’s a tough one…)
  • What type of trainer –> horse interaction would I most appreciate?
  • Do I know what my horse’s potential is? What is his skill level?

After honestly and bravely (especially in regard to your own riding skills and the abilities of your horse…) answering these questions, you can move on to the next set of questions:

  • Does my trainer meet most of my criteria? (This is a tough one, especially if you really like your trainer personally.)

If yes, you don’t have the Trainer Blues… If No, move on to asking:

  • Which points could I compromise on?
  • Do I know of a trainer – near or far – who represents the philosophy I am interested in?
  • Is there a way I can observe this person? Can I reach out to this person to recommend someone in my area?
  • Is there an organization that can recommend a trainer? (This can be an organization like CHA, NARHA, USDF or a local endurance/distance riding club, etc.)
  • Am I prepared to do what it takes to find the right trainer?

If yes, all you now have to come up with is:

THE COURAGE TO CREATE A VACUUM

This is the number one reason I observed, why people stick with trainers that they are not in agreement with. It seems to feel ‘safer’ to do ‘something’ (as in working with the wrong trainer) than doing ‘nothing’ (as in allowing a period without trainer).

Well, let’s ask another stakeholder in this scenario: What would your horse say about this?

Our horses are much smarter, more intuitive and sensitive than many of us think. Every time you cringe while watching the trainer work with your horse, your horse cringes, too! He knows there is something not quite right. He doesn’t feel safe, if you feel worried about something. How could your horse now make any progress?

I know how hard it is to find someone qualified, who we like personally and who teaches us our riding philosophy of choice in a pleasant and non-confrontational way. I’d like to encourage you to say NO to what feels wrong to you, create this trainer-vacuum and open the door for the right professional.

It’s been a good 3 1/2 months now since Yogi’s hitching post flip-over accident, resulting in a watermelon sized hematoma (see earlier postings). After having been renamed from Jimmy Dean to Yogi and most recently – after Stefanie’s consumption of a tiny bit of Jägermeister – occasionally also called Yogi-Meister, the horse formerly known as Jimmy Dean now has a mostly healed, but quite different looking behind.

Yogi's hind end 3.5 months after the accident
Horse's hind end 3.5 months after accident

Yogi doesn’t mind at all. It feels good, he moves nicely without visible restriction or signs of lameness, the pain and heat is gone and: he cannot see what it looks like!

When Yogi scratches his sides with his teeth, all he sees is the quite attractive side view (compare to pictures of hematoma, taken in September in earlier post).

Horse's hind end 3.5 months after hitching post accident, side view.
Side view of horse's hind end, 3.5 months after accident, hematoma completely healed

And that looks pretty good!

Now it’s time to move this formerly very well proportioned Quarterhorse hind end around, get some exercise and some really enjoyable equine massage and bodywork. Massaging the area will help break up adhesions, encourage blood flow and help the body to move waste out of the muscle tissue. Bodywork (Masterson Method (TM)) will help regain full range of motion and overcome restrictions caused by temporary immobility and layup.

Uh-oh! Almost forgot: Yogi suggested to include some pictures of his other end –> the FRONT END in this blog! He feels there has been undue attention to his hind end and would like to show his other attractive side.  Until the next update on the horse’s …. [behind], that is!

Quarterhorse Yogi's sweet face
Yogi's sweet face
Yogi's attractive front end in focus
Yes, Yogi DOES have a really good looking front end!

It might seem odd, but surely not to those who have been interested in any concept of riding and training with feel: One of the fundamental principles of the Masterson Method(TM) (Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork, see Jim Masterson’s website) lends itself perfectly to raise awareness in the rider/trainer and promote training success with the horse.

It’s real simple. If the horse resists, yield…, then try again. Seems counter-intuitive to many, as we human beings are used to meeting resistance with resistance. In equine bodywork, Jim Masterson found, that meeting the horse’s resistance with resistance or force, would negate any efforts in creating the right state of mind or ‘frame of nervous system’ (for the horse) to successfully relax the horse and help him release tension. Instead, resistance is met with softness. If the horse resists, the handler yields, then softly asks again. Soon the horse registers that there is nothing to resist against, relaxes and becomes compliant and even cooperative.

After practicing the Masterson Method(TM) on many, many horses – client’s and my own – and noticing how these principles almost automatically and instantly spilled over into other areas of my interaction with horses, I became more aware of how this principle can actively be applied in working with your horse, whether it’s riding for pleasure or training with a goal.

Here an example: My horse Yogi (formerly known as ‘Jimmy Dean’, see my blog ‘The Jimmy Dean Story’) had learned in a different environment in a former life, that lunging is a scary thing and it’s best to whirl around, buck and run backwards, then look for a hole in the fence or other escape routes. This prompted lots of folks to provide lots of different input on how such thing should be (man or woman-)handled.

The solution became quite simple when I actively applied the principle of yielding. When Yogi started twirling his hind around, raising his head, slightly rearing and starting to move backwards, I let him do it for a moment, then calmly asked him to step towards me and move out on the circle again. No battling, no fight. Soon – actually after two lunging sessions – Yogi got it: there is nothing to resist against. Whatever it is I thought I’m protecting myself against, doesn’t exist.

Is this an all new and revolutionary insight? No, maybe not. But it helps to keep it on the surface of your consciousness and consciously make it a habit: When the horse resists, yield, then ask again.

Watch this video on youtube to see how this works in a bodywork situation. Then try it on your horse.

Just thought I’d share this with you! Enjoy your horse!

Jimmy Dean was standing calmly at the hitching post on the morning of August 29, waiting for his feed while farrier Jim Keip was trimming Cody and the usual Saturday morning bustle was going on at ‘Oak Mountain’, when something scared him awfully. He pulled back at his halter, panicked, tried to rear and got his front feet caught on the hitching post while his hind feet slipped from under him. He landed on his right hind. After the worst scary moment was over, he seemed OK, in spite of lightly swollen and bruised hocks. The next few days he had a grapefruit sized hematoma on his right hind which was closely monitored and cold hosed. [A hematoma, from Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, is defined as “a tumor containing effused blood” (tumor meaning a benign swelling or mass). Hematomas usually result from bleeding within the body which, as the blood clots, the swelling or hematoma results. Most hematomas are just an indicator of prior hemorrhage and do not need treatment. However, there are other types that indicate severe hemorrhage…(TheHorse.com)]

Jimmy Dean's hematoma
Jimmy Dean's hematoma

One week later Jimmy Dean’s hematoma had swollen to watermelon size. It was a scary situation and Jimmy – now confined alone in the barn – started wondering why these things always seemed to happen to him. Why can’t things for once go smoothly and uneventful, Jimmy Dean thought. All the other horses were outside frolicking in the pasture and even his best friend Yankee now had a new playmate, a mare named Athena.

Coldhosing the Hematoma
Coldhosing the Hematoma

Doctor Ketover recommended continued confinement and cold-hosing for 30-45 days. Jimmy Dean couldn’t believe his ears. This would be really, really boring. Stefanie came out every day and cold hosed his hematoma. This felt pretty good and the swelling went down a bit, but she kept calling him ‘Mr. Bumpy Butt’, he didn’t really care for that. Stefanie bought Jimmy Dean a toy, a light blue horse ball, which disappeared mysteriously within only 24 hours. Jimmy Dean thought it was a rather silly looking thing, like a big pacifier. All I want is out of here!!!

Yesterday, after over a month of cold hosing, confinement and controlled walking the ‘bump’ finally seemed to have shrunk very noticeably. There was even talk of maybe being able to go back into the pasture soon. Yeah!

Now that it’s almost over, this time of confinement and boredom, Jimmy Dean is starting to think about it a little differently. Actually, it wasn’t all that bad. Everyone was so concerned about him. People stopped in the barn to pet him and say kind words to him, give him hay or water or carrots.

Stefanie brought him out every day and tied him next to Yankee, his best buddy. Even Yankee seemed real concerned and nuzzled him a lot, displaying his affection and empathy. Yankee helped keep Jimmy Dean steady when at first he did not want to stand still for the

Hematoma, 3 weeks later
Hematoma, 3 weeks later

cold hosing and was there every time Stefanie got Jimmy Dean out. A real friend in need. Lots of different people kept looking at his hind end, which was a little bit embarrassing. And Stefanie used the time to practice being nice and patient about volunteering the feet when picking hooves, learning to tolerate the scary feeling of being tied up and possibly getting a rope caught over your poll.

Jimmy Dean really bonded with Yank and Stefanie during that time, several people learned a lot about hematomas and Jimmy Dean learned that it’s not that scary to be tied. So in the end it was an accident with benefits. But still, Jimmy Dean will be glad when it’s over and he can jump about the pasture with Yankee again.

Yankee keeping JD company
Yankee keeping JD company