My teacher usually begins with my horse's neck and poll. She asks him to telescope his neck forward and down, open his throatlatch area, move his neck laterally, and nod so that he has released his poll. From there she usually moves to his shoulders, ribcage, belly, and works her way to his hindquarters and tail with breaks to let him "think" and feel what his body is doing. She describes the work that she does with him not as "exercises or massage", but as movements or postural changes to make him more aware of his body. Bodywork, as she demonstrates it, is all about body awareness. I have seen her do work with several horses and one of the things that she stresses is having the horse stand balanced over all four feet. Since most horses are inclined to stand with more weight on the front end, Harley being no exception, she encourages the horse to rock his weight back to his hind end and she does "exercises" (I need a different word for it!) to help the horse realize that he has a hind end and he can use it. Harley is, in my opinion, notorious, for standing with his back dropped. While standing in the aisle, he will belly-lift until the cows come home and nearly to the rafters, but once I stop asking him to hold his tummy muscles in, he just lets them hang. Of course, I encourage him to engage his abdominal muscles and, therefore, lift his back under saddle and I can see him lift on the longe and in the long lines, but he is not one to stand at rest with lovely posture. This is at least partly conformational, as he is built somewhat downhill behind the wither (a saddle-fit challenge, I might add), and partly habitual. My teacher tells me that when he stands with his back dropped, he is standing on the forehand.
However, on this particular day, after a few minutes working with him, she stopped and asked me,
"What has changed with this horse?"
I had already told her about the show and that we were preparing the tests and then I told her that I had been working on our homework from our June lesson: riding Harley with an emphasis on letting his energy from behind lift his shoulders in front of me, uncollapsing my left side, keeping my outside elbow and making sure to keep my inside hand lifted to correct my tendency to drop it. It didn't feel like completely new stuff for us, so I was not sure what could have been terribly different. Then she showed me Harley's back and explained how it was more lifted than usual. She also demonstrated how released he was in his neck and more so in his shoulders than on previous occasions. She said that he felt distinctly better, maybe the best he had ever felt.
Cue huge smile.
That is always something that I like to hear. And, believe me, my teacher does not dish out gratuitous praise. For example, previous not-so-pleasant-moments in our training past have included: too much padding under the saddle, an ill-fitting (although newly purchased and expensive) saddle (which initiated an arduous saddle search), unbalanced teeth and the necessity for a new equine dentist, bracing riding habits in me, and incorrect postural habits in me and Harley. It would not be an exaggeration to say that there were way more things to fix than things that were going well, but I remained optimistic in between periods of discouragement and never gave up on my horse. He is just too darn cute and smart and sweet not to tackle every hurdle in our path and, gosh darn-it, he is MY horse. It is moments like the one where my teacher proclaimed him "wonderful" that keep me going and feeling like all our time and hard work has been with purpose and justification. Man, that felt good!
Please allow me to clarify that "wonderful" does not equate with perfect, so there are still improvements to be made. My teacher showed me a spot on his neck on the right side where he is still holding a bit of a brace. This presents itself as a small bulge at the base of his neck. The bulge is actually one of the large, lower vertebrae, indicating that he is also not completely releasing his right shoulder and ribcage. I confirmed that the right is his more convex side under saddle. My teacher showed me how to encourage him to first telescope his neck and then very gently push the bulge back into alignment. We were not adjusting his skeleton like a chiropractor, we were adjusting his posture and this released the muscles he was holding and corrected the problem. After a couple repetitions, Harley could maintain the corrected posture on his own for about ten seconds and then he would "slouch" and the bulge would reappear. With practice and reminders, he can learn to release those muscles with more consistency. Now that I am aware of this, I have been able to feel when they are released under saddle and when he is not carrying his right shoulder or giving in his right rib cage. Ironically, this is the side that is easier to ride and I *thought* was easier for him to collect, but now I am wondering if he was propping himself up with that right shoulder. This happens to be the direction where he is more likely to flip his head going into the canter, an indication that he is dropping that shoulder into the transition. Aha! Now it all makes sense. Since then, I have been asking for a definite release going right when traveling on curved and straight lines and into the transitions. I believe that I am noticing a difference, even though I still find him easier to ride going to the right. I also looked for these things in the long lines.
My teacher worked on Harley's ribcage, asking him to move it from one side to the other and showing him that he can stretch the area between his shoulder and hip, by gently pressing those two points away from one another (especially on the left side). Harley clearly liked this feeling and dropped his neck while enjoying the stretch. This was all done without any kind of tie, so that Harley could move around, object, or express himself, as this feedback is very important information. One of the last "exercises" was asking him to touch the end of his tail with his nose. On the left side this is a piece of cake. That is his concave side! On the right, he could do it, but it was clearly more effortful and he did not really want to reach for his tail. If I ask him to practice, he should get move flexible in his ribcage and stretch his left side more.
Carrot stretches are often the recommended practice for this type of stretch. I just want to mention that I have done some carrot stretches with Harley, but they do not elicit a slow, mindful stretch in him. He is too enthusiastic about food and will wrap his body in a pretzel very quickly to get what he wants. My teachers says that this movement is "spastic" and not really the release we are going for, so I mostly abstain from carrot stretches. Every horse is different. I know they do a lot of good for many horses. We asked him to reach for his tail by holding the noseband on his halter and holding his tail toward his nose. He understands that he is supposed to seek a release from the pressure by reaching in the direction we are asking. He stays calm and relaxed with this technique.
The last thing in my lesson had to do with counter canter, but I will have to share that another time. And, yes, there was counter cantering, but not by Harley!
Wait and see...
|Harley insisted that I tell you that "Carrots do not stretch", but he is still more than willing to reach for them.|