Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Riding as a Therapeutic Activity

This is a follow up to my last post about visiting Beth Ness's facility with my instructor, Audrey last week.  In the previous post I talked about the change in Audrey's horse, Duvessa's back after a lesson with Beth where Beth had Audrey ride Duvessa in such a way as to help her work on using her body correctly for the upper level dressage moves they will be working on as Duvessa continues her training.   What had impressed me the most about watching this lesson was that I had checked Duvessa's back before the lesson and she had a stress point and quite a bit of tension in the left lumbar region of her back.  I mentioned this to Beth before the lesson and then left it at that.  After the lesson, I checked Duvessa's back again and the stress point was still there, but some of the surrounding muscles were less tight and a bit more hydrated and pliable.  These are the changes we aspire to as bodyworkers, and although I don't know enough about training (yet) to know the right physical exercises and drills to have the horse do in training to achieve those results, it is inspiring to see trainers like Beth who do.

I mentioned in the previous post how much it reminds me of myself and my pilates classes and how learning to use different muscles can feel like they don't actually exist when you're first learning how to use your body in a new way.  In the video you can see how Duvessa is struggling to figure out what Audrey is asking her to do at first, but near the end of the video you start to see how she's slowly starting to understand.  By the end of the lesson that day it was like someone had cut loose her hind end and it was moving in a much freer and more relaxed way.

So, it was very exciting to be able to see first hand how a professional trainer such as Beth can teach the rider how to tell the horse to do certain movements that are essentially acting as physical therapy - in that the movements themselves cause some of the same reaction as stretching and body work. I hope to always be learning about training throughout my career and it's always a pleasure to work on a horse who has such a good trainer working with her because the team of trainer/bodyworker can be a very beneficial one.  That said, it can also be challenging for bodyworkers when a horse is in training with someone who doesn't know how to help them use their body most efficiently.  But that is another post and luckily for me not something I've had to deal with yet.  It is a fine line because I know how a horse best moves for certain activities but I'm not a trainer myself, so it's a fine line to tread of what is appropriate for me to advise if I ever do have a client whose trainer's methods were hindering the client's horse's physical well-being. 

Luckily, so far in my experience I've met a lot of people who do things differently from each other but so far everyone has had the horse's best interest at heart and is doing everything to the best of their education and abilities.  For the most part (despite having volunteered at horse rescues and seen the worst of the worst of animal abusers - so I know they exist) the people I meet in the horse world may have different opinions, ideas and views on horse care, but they all appear to care a great deal about their horses and do the best they can for them whatever that looks like.  Whether it's the FEI level trainer with an amazing education on horse anatomy and movement and has a beautiful facility with wonderful comforts for both people and horses, or the backyard owner who knows her fuzzy little ponies are hearty enough not to need blankets in winter  (which is good because she can't afford them) and her fences are propped up and tenuous but her horses seem to be doing great despite her not being able to afford anything other than clean hay, a bareback pad and a decent bridle.  I think we all share a common bond of wanting the best for our horses and I think that's pretty cool.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

How You Ride Your Horse Matters

Today I had the opportunity to go to my riding instructor's riding lesson.  Yes, my riding instructor takes lessons too.   Even Grand Prix trainers I know take lessons at clinics.   Recently, one of my friends, who was riding my Fjord, Geir - the second time in her life she'd been on a horse - asked me why I still take lessons if I already know how to ride, and I realized that the answer is much more complex than just "I have much more to learn" expresses.  Well, yes, I know to a certain degree how to ride the walk, trot and canter, and of course there is a lot more to learn about the upper level moves like piaffe, passage, canter pirouette, etc.  but even more than that there is still so much to learn about the mechanics of how a horse (and rider) can best use their body. 

Imagine if you were watching a ballet and the dancers were straining to do the moves and they were pushing and forcing their way through moves without the proper base strength necessary - you would notice right away.  I'm learning that you can see the difference in horses too and it's not just a matter of how it looks when the horse moves, but of how sustainable it is for the horse to continue as an athlete.

Massage definitely helps a horse, as does chiropractic, but a huge factor in a horse's athletic longevity is how they use their body.  I'm not a horse trainer by any means so I am not the person to ask how to train a horse to use their body properly, but I had the opportunity to watch a trainer today who does know how to do that and as a bodyworker is was really exciting to see how much of a difference a trainer well educated in equine biomechanics can make.

My instructor has done a wonderful job training her Irish Sporthorse so far, but her mare is still young - seven years old - and still growing and she'd reached a little bit of a sticking point in their training.  I checked her mares back before she rode today and I noticed some stiffness in her lumbar region, with a stress point on the left side and the tightest of the muscles on her left side.  I off-handedly mentioned to my instructor's trainer that her mare had a stress point on her left side and was very tight then just sat and watched.  The trainer had her walk for the majority of the lesson and had her side stepping one leg over the other ... over and over again.  It ended up being exhausting to watch because you could tell how much the mare was resisting the movement.  It just wasn't the way she normally moved and trying to understand what she was being asked to do was a challenge, not to mention it was using her body in a way that is different than what she defaulted to doing.

If anyone has taken a private pilates class where the instructor really helps you isolate those core muscles we don't generally use in our modern lifestyles, you'll know what I mean.  You try and try to engage these muscles that you swear don't actually exist in your body, and the pilates trainer (or the reformer machine) helps support your body, or restricts movement of a part of your body so that you are put in a position where you need to use your core and then after enough support and enough instruction you finally find them and suddenly you are moving your body in a completely different way.  Well, that's what happened to my instructor's mare - right in front me as I was watching, I noticed her hips begin to open and get more swing and her back began to loosen up and you could see in her eye that she had discovered the muscles they were asking her to use.  When the lesson was over she stretched her neck out and stretched her back and let out the biggest sighs.  She was so cute, you could tell she'd really had an "a-ha!" moment in how she moved her body and it was all because the trainer knew what kind of repetitions to do and how much to do them (well, and of course my instructor rode them so well!).

After the lesson I checked her mare's back and the stress point was still there, obviously, but the muscles around her lumbar region were so much looser and pliable.  It was really a very cool thing to get to witness.   We're planning on me working on her later this week, and I already know that my plan is to relieve that stress point and give the homework of "do those exercises in the arena every time you work that you did with your trainer on Saturday".

I'll ask permission tomorrow to see if I can use a video from the lesson today and if I can use the name of my instructor's trainer because I think it would be nice to give credit where it is due.  It was a very fun day for me to get to be around such beautiful, sweet horses and watch some really great training.

For now here is a picture of my instructor's mare, waiting to get tacked up for her lesson.  She's a beautiful horse, and I love her big, sensitive eyes.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Case Study Thoughts and Herd Dynamics

Poor J.J. hasn't had a massage for a few weeks since our first one but I'm hoping to be able to do that again soon.  I strained my back a couple weeks ago trying to move one of those 100 pound black rubber stall mats.  I was taking it across the property and had it folded and had hoisted it onto the wheelbarrow, when it started to fall (and take the wheelbarrow with it) and I dove to catch it and wrenched my right QL, external oblique and bicep.  It was a very impatient week for me while I couldn't lift anything waiting for my muscles to heal.

Even though I haven't had a chance to work directly on J.J. I have been thinking about him and have had some ideas.  My old trainer, Kellie posted this article and I found it helpful at explaining why pelvic injuries are so hard to identify and diagnose hind end injuries.   I also took a review course over the weekend in preparation for taking the national equine massage therapist certification test through NBCAAM, and while talking about nervous system pathologies I had an idea.  There is a pathology called Sweeney Shoulder that I had not heard of, which presents with a rapid and severe atrophy of one shoulder and is caused by damage to a nerve.  I did just a little research this afternoon to see if there was anything written about a similar outcome if a nerve in the hind end were damaged, but I couldn't find anything yet.  But I wonder if the injury affected a particular nerve and that is what has caused so much of his problems?  Right now what I would love is to be able to find a vet who would be willing to do this case study with me, but I'm not sure anyone would be willing to do that at no charge.  I'm thinking I may have to ask around though because I am very curious as to the diagnostics of the situation and I am not qualified to form them myself.

I am going to do some research on the physical therapy aspects of treatment for Sweeneys and see if that is something to incorporate into my massage sessions with J.J.  Hopefully, I'll be able to work on him again this weekend and get into a once a week routine.  That is if I can manage to not hurt myself again doing barn chores.  This weekend is going to be busy with removing layers of mud from the paddocks and replacing that with layers of gravel.  My husband and I did some of that today and I made a conscientious effort to use my legs and my core more than my back when shoveling wheel barrels full of gravel from our several ton piles in the driveway.

Speaking of mud, we have a new horse in our heard.  My new friend, Kathleen recently moved off the island and her horse, Raven came to live with us.  Raven is about 27 years old and a very sweet, friendly mare.  We played musical horses throughout the pastures but finally found that keeping the girls on one side of the property and the boys on the other keeps things the most peaceful.  Geir (the Fjord), Frosty (the POA) and Girlfriend (my elderly mare) had really settled in well with each other and all felt like they had their places.  Girl and Frosty lived full time in the three adjoining south pastures and Geir lived with them during the day and then went home to his own paddock across the driveway at dinner time and stayed there through the night.  Geir can be a little bossy and I didn't want to leave him with the other two horses all night, especially not at dinner because he'd chase them away from their food.

Then Raven came last week and it was a madhouse when she first got out of the trailer!  Girlfriend started screaming her head off and tearing around the front pasture at a gallop, and at one point actually kicked her legs way up in the air behind her while running.  I'm sure the poor old girl was really sore the next day.  I tried putting Raven and Girl in the front pasture with Geir and Frosty in the middle pasture, and although initially Raven kicked at Geir through the fence, they quieted down quickly with each other so we opened the gate between the two pastures.  That was a mistake! Within minutes Geir was chasing Raven in and out of all three of the adjoining pastures at a full gallop with the other two horses following in blind excitement.   Raven was working up way too much of a sweat, Girl was slipping in the mud and Geir was completely ignoring me.  So, I caught him, put him across the driveway (amidst much screaming from Girl and Raven) and locked them in the front pasture and Frosty in the middle pasture.

They stayed that way for about twenty four hours, with hopes it would help them all calm down, but that didn't quite work out.  Girlfriend stayed glued to the fence as close to Frosty as possible and if Raven came anywhere near him, Girl would pin her ears flatter than I'd ever see, bare her teeth and charge Raven.  She definitely didn't want Raven playing with her toy pony!  So after twenty-four hours I decided to put Frosty across the driveway with Geir and see how things went if I just took the pony completely out of the equation.  It didn't go so well for Girl.  She ran up and down the fence that runs along the driveway screaming for Frosty - who just wandered off into the woods with Geir and didn't even look back.  She stopped screaming after awhile, but continued to pace, then I think she quieted down for a bit during the night but by the time the sunrose was pacing again.  That was a couple days ago and she has finally relaxed a little bit and is actually interacting with Raven more than just to pin her ears at her.  Yesterday I actually saw them grooming each other!

I think they're finally readjusting to their new herd dynamics and I'm going to keep things the way they are for awhile now.  Girl is so old and her sensitivity and spookiness is much more pronounced than when she was young and I feel like she's very emotionally fragile and it's not good for her to change up her herd very much.  But I also want to be able to take Geir and  Frosty places together and leave her home alone and have her be ok.   And now having Raven here I can do that.

A couple days ago my trainer, Audrey came over and we took both Frosty and Geir down the street to my friend's arena and it went so much better having both of them than just taking one.  I've taken one at a time before and the whole time each of them has been very wound up, and easily distracted and prone to stopping and calling to the other horses just to make sure they could hear someone and know who was around.  But with both of them, Geir paid attention to Audrey and they were both much calmer and easier to work with.

Audrey has started teaching me longlining which looks like it will be beneficial for Geir in helping him engage his hindquarters a little more and use his body correctly.  He has a tendency to pull himself along with his front end and drag his hind legs behind him, but the longlines help him remember to pick up his hind legs a little more and engage his back.  Kind of like when I'm at pilates and Beth will touch my shoulders to remind me to relax them and put her hand on my waist (or wherever) to remind my body to engage those muscles.  It's really interesting how a tactile sensation can activate the part of our brain to help engage a muscle, when just conscious thought is not really doing the trick.  Here's a short video from the other day when Audrey was demonstrating longlining.  Probably good there is no video of me trying it, much like how I felt when I started riding with a double bridle, to go from using one line for lunging to suddenly having two lines, I felt like I was all tangled up in lunge rope and fumbling and dropping stuff everywhere.  But I did start to get the hang of it by the end of the lesson.  I'm looking forward to getting better at that and it got me thinking again how I want to learn driving eventually also.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Case Study - Jasper Junior - Day 1 ... and welcome Rosie!

Before I get into my case study notes, I wanted to say that I'm very excited to have my first ever very own horse transport!  I've been wanting to get a truck and trailer for a long time now because it gets tiresome having to rely on my friends to haul my horses around (I'm sure it's tiresome for them too!).  But it's just not been in our budget to buy both those things.  Yesterday my husband and I went out to look at a horse van and although I - in my impulsive way - wanted to buy it even before the test drive - my husband shockingly also liked it!  There are many upsides to a horse van for me instead of a truck and trailer.  For one thing it will be a smoother ride for my horses and the learning curve to driving one is much much smaller.  I did a test drive yesterday with the seller and my husband and other than almost going in a ditch on one sharp turn off Vashon Highway, I handled her well and felt very comfortable driving her after I got the hang of it.  She's a stick shift so I'm the only one in the family who knows how to drive a stick so I'll be the only one driving, but I'm ok with that.  Her name is Rosie and the seller (who is going above and beyond) is doing some pre-sale repairs and a full maintenance check before she turns her over to me.  So, I will be tootling around the island with her in a couple weeks!

Now, on to Jasper Junior (or JJ as is his nickname).  I went out for his first massage last Tuesday and unfortunately, a lot of things have been happening the last week that I had to deal with immediately so I didn't have time right away to make my first blog post.  First of all, JJ is just about the sweetest guy out there, and so are his friends who were practically right up on top of me the first part of his massage, apparently, wanting to get some of that great back rub action.  We ended up having to lock them out of JJ's pen so that I could focus completely on him and not bump into other mules (literally) ever time I turned around!

This session was mostly a get-to-know-you session for both him and I.  He'd never had any bodywork before so it was a chance to introduce him to what that entails and that it is a nice thing, not a thing one needs to be afraid of or on guard against.  It was also a chance for me to palpate all around and see if I could feel what is going on with him.  It really made me wish that I had a device to look under the skin and see exactly what is going on under there.  Like just lifting the skin and seeing everything exactly as it is.  But then that would be too easy and where would be the fun in investigation, right? (or at least that's what I'm going to keep telling myself  :)

The big thing I noticed that I will investigate further is that he has a very hard lump about two inches in diameter just below his Ischial Tuberosity.  His owner, Dick, said he believes it is scar tissue and I think that is probably an accurate assessment although I couldn't say for sure without veterinarian diagnostics.  Upon initial palpation, the lump felt like bone, and I wondered if it could be his Greater Trochanter, but it doesn't seem like it is in quite the right place to be, and it did start to "melt" a little bit under my hand, which leads me to believe is it some sort of soft/connective tissue. 

Here's a photo as best I could get of that spot on his hip.  It is on the right side where he has so much muscle atrophy.   I'm not sure how well you can see it but it is right below the Ischial Tuberosity which is fairly well visible because of the muscle atrophy.

The other thing I noticed when standing directly behind him looking across the top of his back is that his spine down in the lower Thoracic through Lumbar looks like it has been slightly rolled to the right, as though something has been pulling on it from the top and it still goes straight down his back (mostly) but it looks like it is slightly rolled to the side.  My guess would be this is from the last seven years of compensation movement.  I would love to get a chiropractor out to see what they thought about that.  But I worry that moving his spine back into alignment suddenly would cause a lot of pain in other areas after years of compensation - I guess that is a good question to ask a chiropractor, how that affects the body when making adjustments like that.  Definitely outside my realm of education.

What's interesting is that for range of motion (ROM) on the right leg, JJ walked very stiffly and looks like he is having a lot of trouble bending at the stifle and hock on both legs,  But passive ROM on the right leg showed that it was completely within normal limits.  My education has told me that if passive ROM is within normal limits and active ROM (when he is moving it himself) is not within normal limits, there is a good chance the problem is soft tissue.  Which is good news because that is something I can address over time.

For treatment on Tuesday I mostly just did strokes to increase circulation and in the area where he had the most atrophy I used a light tapotement (tapping) to help increase circulation and stimulate the muscles.  I also worked a little bit on his supraspinous ligament around T14 through T-16 and got an enormous release from him with lots of yawning and stretching and farting.  And I worked out a Stress Point in his Longissimus Dorsi at approximately T18.  JJ was pretty relaxed and happy after the first session and followed me to the gate after it was over (along with all his friends after I opened up the pen again!)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Case Study #1 - Jasper Junior

I finally got around to talking to my neighbor about using one of her mules for a case study and she agreed! Yay!  First off, it turns out the mule is a "he" not a "she" so I'll correct those pronouns right away.  I had to tell her up front, and I will say this here too - I am not in any way saying I can do anything for sure to really change whatever is going on with Jasper Junior that has caused his issues on his right hind end.  Since the vet doesn't have a definitive diagnosis I can only go in and see what I can feel in the soft tissue and see if I can change anything to make him more comfortable.  But I'm not expecting to work miracles and I don't want anyone to think I'm rushing in saying I can fix what a veterinarian can't because that is not the case at all. 

This is Jasper Junior - or JJ as he is often called.   He is twenty-two years old, a gelded male or John mule and he's been retired for seven years after coming up lame after a hunting trip.

His owner, Dick had him out on a hunting trip about seven years ago along with several of his other mules and they were packing an elk off the mountain.  Dick's nephew was riding JJ and when they were passing over a cut JJ decided he was going to jump the cut, and Dick believes that may be when he did something to injure himself.  He said he was a little off the next day, then seemed to be ok again, but then was off again after going up the mountain.  The vet never found out exactly where the lameness was coming from, so they retired him and he's currently got a very pampered life in the pasture with the rest of the mules, well fed and good shelter and they give him a mild pain medication from their vet so he is comfortable.

Let me preface this by saying it is not unusual for a veterinarian to not be able to identify exactly where a lameness is coming from.  This is not because of lack of education by any means, but because lameness is different for every single horse and the causes could be a large number of things that need to be ruled out, and often are only ruled out after extensive, incredibly expensive tests.  I've seen some of these tests and they are fascinating and sometimes extremely informative, but the average horse owner is not going to spend thousands of dollars on ultrasounds, CT scans, X-rays or surgery to pinpoint the cause of lameness in a family horse.  It's just not feasible.  So, I don't by any means think it is odd that there is no definitive veterinary diagnosis in this case.

What I first noticed with JJ is that his right hind end is severely atrophied and his left looks fairly normal.  My first thought is to check his back and his illopsoas area for stress points and scar tissue.  My concern is that if he had some sort of disk injury that compressed some nerves there is nothing I can do to really fix that, but even if that is the case, massage can help the atrophied tissue with increased circulation and if nothing else improve his comfort level.

Here is a photo of JJ from behind.  That isn't shadows or light making it look like his right side dips down dramatically, it really does.  I wanted to take a "before" picture so that I have something to compare to as I work on him.

I didn't do a lot of palpation to start, mostly I just gathered some history on JJ from his owners, Dick and Beth, but I did feel along his back and palpate some of his neck and body, just to say "hi" and get acquainted.  The right side of his neck is very tense and the atrophy seemed to spread almost all the way up to his shoulder.  I didn't have the time to get video of him walking, but I hope to do that before I work on him the first time.  He does have a lot of stiffness in the stifle and hock with that right leg and drags it a little when he walks.   Beth is still waiting to get the refill on his meds from the vet after about a week of not being on them, so I got to see him "at his worst", which really wasn't too bad, but I definitely want to see if I can get him to an even better place with some ideas of what to first try to work on.

I hope to head back over on Tuesday and this is my plan for our first day:  Try to get some video of him walking, take some notes on where I'm seeing the most tension and where he seems the most stuck, and do a full palpation so I can note what I feel.  Then I will make a plan for treatment - either once or twice a week depending on what I find that I can work on.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Not Knowing What You Don't Know ...

There's an expression I hear a lot from instructors in the horse world that a hard place for people to be in when you're teaching them is when the "don't know what they don't know".  I used to not understand that expression because when I got back into horses after several years off I was fully aware of how much I had forgotten, and since I had mostly ridden hunter/jumper and never above training level in dressage as a kid, and suddenly I was hanging out with Grand Prix riders, trainers and judges, it was very obvious to me there was a lot I didn't know.

But as I continue to learn, I am realizing more and more what that phrase means, because there is so much about riding that is complex and non-intuitive when you start getting into the higher levels of riding (no matter what the discipline) that as I look back, I realize I would never have figured a lot of this stuff out on my own.  I was thinking about this while reading this article in Dressage Today about half halts.  Half halts are apparently a big mystery to a lot of people and I do wonder if I just don't understand them as much as I should because at this point they make sense to me and thus I wonder if I just don't know enough for them to be a mystery ...  but that's not the point.  The point is, I realized that I would not have understood what they are talking about in this article two year ago.  I would've wondered what the heck they were talking about "driving with your hips - what???"  You mean like when I see people trying to get their horse to go faster by forcing their hips forward so they're bearing down on the horse and pushing their hips up - which does kind of the opposite because it pushes down on the horse's back in the same way that you use your seat to ask for a stop, but then pushes on their back too, which can't feel good.  But no, they aren't talking about that, and I know that now, but two years ago I would have had no idea what they're talking about.   I imagine from the credentials of the writers of the article that they work mostly with upper level riders, and that is who the article is written for, so the writers weren't thinking of dumbing it down for folks like me two years ago.   It's a different world when you're used to working with beginners (and are still somewhat a beginner yourself in the grand scheme of things).

Speaking of being a beginner, I had a riding lesson with a new instructor last week and since I don't have an arena yet and don't have a trailer to haul my Fjord to the instructor, I rode her horse, who is a beautiful, sweet Friesan trained to fourth level.   I have never worn spurs (riders where them at the higher levels for more precise queues and I have so far not been advanced enough to need them) and the instructor said she would like me to wear them.  I have also never ridden in a double bridle, but that's what she rides her horse in so I got the opportunity to try that too.  It went much better than I expected.  My legs were much quieter than I had anticipated, but still when we were doing the free walk at the end of the lesson I felt the horse twitch a little a couple times and I think I may have let my leg stray a little and touch her with the stirrups - it seems awfully coincidental that a fly would land on her and cause her to twitch right by my right ankle  - twice during the free walk nonetheless.  The double bridle was less of a problem because I just kept contact with the snaffle portion of the bridle and left the other reins loose.  Of course, trying to take up contact with one set of reins while leaving the other set loose while walking or trotting was initially a huge challenge that ended up with me flailing around, reins flying everywhere (ok - it wasn't that bad, but it felt like it).

The thing that was so cool for me was that she's such a well trained horse that she responds to the slightest touch and movement.  For instance, I just needed to tighten the muscles in my butt and inner thighs and she'd stop - without any use of the reins or anything.  And I just needed to move my hips in a slightly faster "driving" pace - I'm not sure how to describe that yet - and she'd speed up without any leg aids or with just the slightest little squeeze with my ankles.  That's the kind of thing that makes it feel like you're dancing with the horse, your slightest movement affects their slightest movement and everything becomes fluid.

In other good news, I met with my neighbor today and she agreed to let me use her outdoor arena to work my horses so I don't have to just try to work them in my backyard until we build our arena.  I took my daughter's little POA, Frosty out for his first session on a lunge line and he's obviously had a little practice with that.  He's had more training at it than my Fjord, Geir had when I got him.  But his "I'll do whatever I want!" attitude did come out on the lunge line a few times where he'd suddenly spin and go the opposite direction or decide he was going to bolt and buck and kick out and then take off at a run.  Thankfully, after over a year of dealing with my OTTB doing that, this little pony doing it was nothing and I didn't end up having to do any water skiing around the arena like I did occasionally with Tuff Toad back in the day when she'd suddenly have a case of the yahoos.

Tomorrow I have plans to go ask my neighbor if I can use her mule for the case study.  Fingers crossed she will agree to it.  I'll update with photos and some history and what I'm going to be working on with her soon, if her owner agrees to it.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Upcoming Case Study

We are settling into our new little farm quite well.  I've been meeting my neighbors, going for hikes in the forest at the end of our road and riding my Fjord, Geir around the yard for lack of any formal arena to ride in at the moment.  

I had the opportunity to donate a gift certificate to the Vashon Maury Island Horse Association's Annual Competitive Trail Ride and I enjoyed meeting lots of horse folks from around the island.  I am excited to say that the woman who won the event whose prize was my gift certificate also has Fjords!  I'm looking forward to working with her.  I also met a neighbor who may allow me to temporarily use her arena until we get our built so I may be able to teach some riding lessons sooner than I'd expected.  And if not that, then at least I will have a place to work my Fjord and my daughter's little POA, Frosty.  They are both in need of a little regimented exercise other than rides around the yard and running around the pasture together.

I have found a neighbor's equine who I am going to ask her if I can do a case study on her.  She's an older mule and has a bad hip, but they don't know why.  The vet did not have an answer for them, but I haven't gotten all the information yet about what tests she did and what ideas she may have had.  It's very obvious that something happened in the mule's back or hip because one flank is severely atrophied in relation to the other.  I talked to my neighbor about working on her as a trade, but I think I'd like to ask her if I can do a case study, working with the vet of course, to see if we can help the ole girl.  I'm at least very interested to see what's going on with her muscles and see if I can bring her some balance and relief.   She appears to be quite happy and not in pain, but it must still be uncomfortable to have one side hyper-developed and one side atrophied.  I'm very curious to hear what the vet thinks and what she's investigated.

Meanwhile, my daughter's love of donkeys has now spread to a love of mules since we have five living in the pasture across the little dirt road in front of our house.  When I let our horses all out together in the morning, they head up to the end of our third pasture out by the street and talk to their mule friends.  The mules are so sweet and so incredibly cute with their big floppy ears and their delicate little donkey hooves!

Here is a photo of the three amigos hanging out in the front pasture together.  Geir (my Fjord) has been keeping Frosty (the POA) in line.  Frosty can be a real butthead about food and attention and left with just my elderly AQHA, Girlfriend, Frosty will threaten with bites and kicks to keep her away from me and food.  I put him in his place, but Girl seems to appreciate it (and follow the lead) more when another horse puts him in his place.  All Geir has to do is twitch an ear and Frosty knows now he's out of line because Geir is so much bigger than him - and so much more dominant than him.  It's been a surprisingly good dynamic having them together.

Friday, August 29, 2014

And now for the science!

The dogs, cats and horses are all settling in well.  My daughter's new little POA, Frosty and my elderly AQHA, Girlfriend are completely herd bound now.   I think they were herd bound the minute they met.  Girl hates to be alone and having had to be alone for about a month before we moved here she has been a bit needy with Frosty but he doesn't seem to mind at all.  Geir is settling in well too and lives in his own paddock across the driveway although today I opened up all the gates in the three connecting pastures and turned them all out together and they seem to be doing fine.  I'm only going to do that for a few hours a day because Geir and Frosty are very (ahem - let's use the polite term) "food motivated" and I don't want to tempt fate having them live together 24/7.  Plus at night I put Frosty and Girl in the front pasture where there are no low hanging branches or large broken branches on the ground, to avoid clumsy horse night time injuries.  And it's just not big enough for the three of them (or Geir and Frosty specifically). 

Other than cursing nature every time I have to pick poop in the grass in the pasture everything is perfectly set up right now.  I realize it's healthy to be able to munch a little fresh grass throughout the day but every time I pick I find myself wishing for a nice two acre gravel pasture which is soooooo much easier to pick poo out of.  That said, it's been nice and summer dry but in the next couple weeks I'm going to need to re-do the footing in the sacrifice areas before it starts to rain and my pastures turn into a mud bog.   I've noticed that you can ask five people about sacrifice and arena footing and get five completely contradictory opinions.  So, I've taken to reading everything I can on bases and footing.  What I've come up with is a plan - now whether or not I can afford this plan for our arena is another question.  But here is the plan so far:  Geir's sacrifice area still has some hogsfuel left in it (most of it has been broken down to dirt after lots of years of use but it's still not as bad as the front pasture) so I'm going to rake out the last of the dried grass tumbleweeds and clumps of dead weed roots, put down a geotextile fabric, then put two inches of 5/8 minus gravel covered with 2 inches of pea gravel.  After reading several different articles that seems like it will work best in this area.  I'm going to do the same in front of the shelter in the front pasture too although I may have to dig it out a little and put in 3 inches of 5/8 minus because it is pure dusty sand back there.  We'll see.  But at Girl's last pasture I boarded her at in Woodinville the ground was the same and they put down geotextile fabric and two inches of 5/8 minus and within a couple months the fabric was all torn up and the gravel had sunk into the mud.  I'm not wanting that to happen.  Sure, it's better than pure mud, but it also feels like a waste of gravel to watch it get squished into the mud.

The arena is a tougher proposition.  For one thing we have to take down some small trees which also involved pulling out their stumps and refilling those holes.   Then flattening it out.  Then I was thinking three inches of 5/8 minus for drainage then add on top of it this stuff - which adds both cushioning and drainage - then I'm wanting to do a sand/rubber combination but I may not be able to afford that.  So, if not then a couple inches of pea gravel.  But it has to be *real* pea gravel, not just small gravel - "hard" or "quartz" pea gravel, because the other can just be broken down to dirt and dust quickly.  

I'm ancy to get started on this project because I want an arena to ride in.  But honestly, at this rate it may be cheaper just to buy an old truck and trailer and haul a couple miles to the equestrian park and use their arena!

I've been slowly starting to put the word about my equine massage business but haven't done much marketing yet.  I've gotten some similiar feedback here as when I was in Woodinville  that the market is already saturated on the island, but then my massage instructor reminds me there are 1100 horses and there is plenty of business to go around for all of us so just keep looking for my niche.   I've donated a prize to this event so I'm hoping that whoever wins it will appreciate it and I'm also looking forward to meeting lots of other local horse folks.  And next year I think I will enter.  I'm also thinking of talking to Cafe Luna and asking if I can come in one afternoon for a couple hours and give some complimentary 5 minute on-site massages to promote my out-call massage business.

Eventually, I am going to make one of our outbuildings into a massage studio but at this rate that may not be for awhile because the mud-abatement strategy is far more important at this point.  But it's a great little building - just the perfect size, with a cute little loft for storage and everything.  At this point with all our projects it would behoove me to get a part-time job to save money to afford all of it but so far I haven't seen anything in my skill set.  For a moment I did consider applying as a school bus driver and my daughter said she thinks I'd make a great bus driver because I'm "so calm" (this is news to me!) but I'm not sure about that.  It would certainly be a fun new experience I suppose and completely outside of anything I've done before.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

The New Farm Learning Curve!

We have officially been at our new farm for two weeks now!  I absolutely love it, although I have to admit I do not absolutely love unpacking.   Hanging curtains, putting together shelving and trying to figure out where everything will go after moving into a house that is 210 square feet smaller than our last house and has no garage at all, after the luxury of a three car garage (which is great for encouraging hanging on to stuff you don't actually need).   I am a little behind where I'd like to be in unpacking too because last week I subbed at pony camp for the last time (probably not the last time to be honest but I'm pretending) and that took up all my time.

The first three days of subbing my daughter (who was attending the volunteer camp for kids who had been volunteer workers during the summer) stayed at my parent's place on Mercer Island because it was much easier to commute to Redmond every day.  But Wednesday night we had to come back to the island because my folks had friends from Colorado coming into town.  So, Thursday morning we got up early to catch ferries and sit in rush hour traffic and Thursday night it took us almost three hours to get home, so Friday (since I didn't have to work) my daughter opted out of going into the last day of camp because the commute was too much.   Yesterday I told my new neighbor who has lived here for several years, "That commute was so brutal. I'm never leaving the island again,"  and she laughed and said, "I know that phase.  Yes, I know that phase well!"

To be honest, the ferry portion of the commute was the easiest.  Even though we waited almost an hour for the ferry, it is much different sitting in your car reading a book or closing your eyes for a few minutes that trying to negotiate a freeway full of cars so packed together you are parked for minutes at a time (but can't read or close your eyes cause any minute you might have to inch forward). Then the bonus is when you get to wait on the ferry dock and then you can just roll down your windows, shut your eyes and relax and smell the salt water and listen to the seagulls.  I think that is pleasant for everyone, but having grown up two blocks from Puget Sound for me it is the sounds and smells of the happiest part of my childhood.

Having the horses at home has been really nice.  My Fjord, Geir won't be home until tomorrow though because he stayed for the last week of camp at the school.  Girlfriend, my elderly horse, and Frosty, my daughter's little POA love each other though and spend most of their time standing close together while grazing and grooming each other.  Although Frosty has become quite a bully about stealing Girl's extra tasty senior grain, so I need to lock him in a stall while I feed them their dinner.  Chasing him away while she ate became an exercise in futility because besides spending over a half hour in the pasture standing between the two of them, even after I chased him away, Girl would walk away from her food as though to say, "But he really wants it ... I just feel too guilty to eat it ... I'm just going to go ..."

I also found out that Frosty's favorite hobby is trying to get into the grain room in their shed in the pasture.  We've got it all rigged up so he can't get in now but it's a pain in the butt so today I'm moving all the grain supplies to the small barn/storage shed outside the pastures.  Geir is going to have to be in a separate pasture anyway because he and Frosty don't get along very well.  They're both too food motivated.  Yes "food motivated" is the nice way to put it for my little Fattie McFattersons.

Picking poop in a pasture full of grass (some quite long) is a horrible, thankless and back-breaking task.  I already knew that but of course the allure of having my horses at home made me not really think about that.   Luckily for me, much of Geir's paddock space is going to be pea gravel because it's in a spot that has much more potential for mud,  but Frosty and Girl are in a small pasture so although I'll be putting pea gravel in front of the shed to avoid too much muddiness, the rest of the pasture will remain grass.  Urgh.   I did learn that if you try to scoop of the poop going the direction the grass is growing, you are more likely to get the pitchfork out with the poop still on it and not break the head off trying to pull it up from the tangle of grass.  And be less likely to jerk the pitchfork trying to get it out and fling horse poop everywhere in the process.  Still, it is not a pleasant type of exercise and I thank god for the last couple years of doing pilates.  Although my shoulder muscles are still sore from it.

I also discovered that you can have good solid fencing with electric fence running along the entire periphery of your just shy of five acres property, but leave an opening at the end of the driveway (which is quite a ways from our house) and your pitbull will still automatically gravitate toward that one small opening at the end of the driveway, instead of the rest of the fully fenced acreage as the place where she wants to go.  Especially if there is a mule across the street who will put his head down to the ground so my dog can stick her head through the fence and lick his face.  So, she's been taking herself for walks and coming home covered in cow manure she's found to roll in, and God knows what else.  Yesterday a black SUV roared down our driveway and who should be sitting in the very back but my pitbull, looking very excited.  My neighbor hopped out and said she had been meaning to come introduce herself anyway and saw my dog walking down the road and figured this was good a time as any.  Guess we'll be putting a gate across the driveway this weekend.  Especially as both my new neighbor and my friend who has lived here for several years have pointed out, people don't know my dog yet and if they see a pitbull roaming around their livestock they're likely to freak out and she runs the risk of getting shot.

We have some apple trees and a plum tree in the front yard that are going crazy with fruit.  I'm thinking I need to learn how to make applesauce and I may try drying some of the plums.  Yes, I know those are prunes but honestly, prunes taste really good and get a bad rap.  So, I'm just going to call them dried plums because they taste good enough to have a better name like that.  So far my attempts at drying fruit hasn't gone to well and it's ended up a weird, unpleasant texture without a lot of taste, so another learning curve.  But I'm going to conquer it - there is no way it is that hard to dry fruit.   I have a dehydrator, I just need to figure out exactly the right way to prep the fruit beforehand and make sure I'm doing it for the right amount of time.

As soon as we're settled I'm going to start trying to promote my massage business.  I've sent out one notice to an email group here on the island and I figure after my daughter starts school and we've gotten fully unpacked I can dive in a little more to promoting myself.  (yes, there is a little procrastination in that sentence - you did not imagine it!  As promoting myself is probably my least favorite thing to do!)

In all, I am over the moon happy with our little farm.  It took years before this property sold and my new neighbor yesterday said she was pleasantly surprised to see it had finally sold and I am amazed by that.  It really is such a wonderful place and the house itself is just so beautiful and comfortable.  And the property is just lovely, with so many trees and deer that come into the front yard and eat the plums and apples off the ground, and so many cool "fairy and gnome dwelling" type areas in the woods on the property.  I like the think the house never sold for years because it was meant to be ours, because I don't see how no one else fell in love with and had to have this place before us.  Regardless, I'm so glad it worked out as it did because we are amazingly lucky to live here.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

New Farm!

In less than two weeks our family is moving to a small farm on Vashon Island and I will be starting my practice out on the island and in neighboring areas (specifically Pierce County and the Pennisula). I'll still come out to King and Snohomish County if necessary but I will be focusing my marketing efforts in the Southend. I'm a little nervous about starting promotion for my equine massage business in this new area. Maybe "a little" is an understatement! I'm having all those usual thoughts I think most people have "What if I don't get any clients? What if the market is already saturated?" etc. Not to mention honestly, marketing myself is not my strongest trait. Several years ago I self-published a novel just for the experience of doing it, and even though I had a wonderful acquaintance at the time, Josh Ortega, giving me great advice, doing anything to try and "sell myself" was painful and about as easy as ripping out my own teeth. Thankfully, I think I have more confidence in my ability as an equine massage therapist than I did in my abilities as a writer.

 So, I need to just power through that all-too-human tendency to listen to the questioning voices in my head that say things like "I don't think they like you" or "don't brag - it's unbecoming!" that keep me from really selling myself. I am on the fence about whether or not I will eventually do rehab boarding. Right now we do not have the facilities at the new farm to do that so it's not something I need to decide soon. We do have the cross fenced pastures, but there are only shelters and grass pasture and for rehab boarding I would want to have stalls and pea-gravel, mud free paddock areas. Oh, and most importantly and arena! We don't have an arena yet and that would be imperative so that I would have proper footing for hand walking and rehab work.

 It is definitely something I feel passionate about, I am just weighing out the liabilities and the big one, whether or not I would be too emotionally connected to the horses in rehab and would be too sad every time they went home. I have always wondered how people could foster puppies and kittens because watching them leave is so hard. Of course, it's very fulfilling to get photos of Toad with her teen owner out in Virginia and hear how happy they still are together or even with Maiden, my mare who recently went to Montana, it's wonderful to hear how she's bonding with her new person and enjoying her new life. I think in the long run it will be worth it, but it's not something I can even start until we have added some major things to the property.

 I have been looking into giving riding lessons again once we are settled in. But once again, I will need to build an arena to do that. I was asked to substitute next week at  the pony camp I used to work at and I was more excited to do that than I thought I would be. I've really missed my students and seeing their excitement every time they come to their lesson and watching them progress. I looked into liability insurance for riding instruction and my first thought was how grateful I am to having the opportunity to work at the pony camp last year because it really prepared me for how much would need to go into even something as small as teaching three or four kids riding lessons per week. There are far more safety and liability issues than I could've ever imagined if I hadn't had the opportunity to learn from the director of the camp.

The moving truck arrives in less than two weeks so my time is going to be all about packing. Then it will be all about getting the pastures ready for my three horses. Then I can think about promoting my equine massage practice. I am open to any and all suggestions on how to best do that too!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Why Consistent Balance is So Important

When I was a kid I thought balance was only important while riding horses so that the rider didn't fall off the horse when the horse moves. It wasn't until I started learning the theory of riding and equine biomechanics that I really began to understand how the rider's balance actually affects the well-being of the horse. I hear a lot of people saying "You're not going to hurt that big ole horse," and figuring the horse is too big and strong for a 5'5" woman to hurt by poor balance. I realize that they mean no harm by that, but as I've been thinking more about the physics of balance and weight distribution and realizing that our balance on a horse's back, no matter how big they are or small we are, can be very important to their physical comfort and well-being.

I mentioned this in an earlier post that I have heard folks say (and this may be a more common belief about riding and balance than I realized) that if you stay fairly straight in the saddle, but let your weight fall to the opposite side of the horse's weak side, then it will "pull them back up straight" if they are falling in to one side.  Like I said before, without really thinking too deeply about it you would think that would make sense.  But then after thinking about what I know of equine biomechanics I realized that wouldn't work at all.  So, I did a little experiment with my daughter to see what would happen if I tried to get her to hold her body in a specific way by using different weight distribution on her back.  This is by no means a truly scientific experiment, we have no control group, the backback is not exactly in the same place it would be on the horse's back and yes, she's walking on two legs instead of four.  But it shows the basic principle of weight distribution and movement in regards to an organic being in a state of self-propulsion.

My daughter weighs about 65 pounds.  To mimic the ratio of rider to horse weight, I put six pounds of weight into a backpack, so roughly the same as a 100 pound rider on a 1200 pound Warmblood.   In this experiment I decided that she would emulate a horse with a weak right side, so a horse who was falling in to the right and needed to bring his right side up to meet his left for balance.   A horse who is falling in on the right side like that is moving in what feels like a natural way for him (or else he wouldn't be doing it).  Bringing up his weak right side and moving in a balanced way feels unnatural to him (or will until he gets stronger).  So, to keep that aspect of the experiment the same, I decided to have my daughter walk normally with the weight evenly distributed on her back, then try to see if I could get her to lean to the left while walking, by bringing more weight to the left side on her back.  See what happens.  Does she lean to the left like I intended by attempting to "pull her down" with the weight distribution?

You see what happened when I tried that - I got exactly the opposite reaction from what I was looking for.  She leaned her weight to the right and when I asked her why she wasn't standing up straight she said she was trying to make up for being off-balance.  Not to mention, if your horse is leaning to the right because of a weak right side, and you put more of your weight on the left side to try and pull him into balance, he is going to work his left side even harder and thus exacerbate and intensify the strength imbalance in his body.

So, stay in the middle of your saddle, keep your weight balanced and encourage your horse to engage his weak side.  But don't try to pull him over or balance him by changing your balance or you will do a great disservice to a horse who - like my daughter - is just trying to move in the most efficient way possible for himself despite an unbalanced weight on his back.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Different types of art

This has nothing to do with riding, but my friend sent me the link this morning and I had to watch it a few times just to try and see how he did it.  An old friend of mine is a glass blower in Maui with a shop called Hot Island Glass so the first thing I did was email it to him and say, "Can you explain how he did this?"  It looks on the surface like it's easy - just turn the rod with the hot glass on it and poke a few things, pull a few things here and there and boom! Cool looking glass horse!  But I guarantee if I tried to do that it would look nothing like a rearing horse!  I feel secure in saying that because my dad is an amazing wood carver and especially likes to make birds and fish and you can find them throughout the greater Seattle area on his friend's mantels and on their desks at their offices.  But when he sat me down with all the fancy tools and showed me how to do it, my little bear figurine looked nothing like his life-like realistic fish and birds.  I guess it's a "feel" that you get from years and years of practice.  Which is actually a lot like riding, come to think of it.  Buck Brannaman talks about a "feel" a lot in his clinics and it's true, you do get to the point where your timing is no longer a conscious decision but based on the sensory feedback you're getting from your experience with the horse.  So, enough rambling, here's the video I was talking about (well, I can't seem to share the original one sent to me but here is another one)

And speaking of the art that goes into riding, I have made it through the initial application process to take an instructor course with a woman I admire quite bit named Peggy Cummings.  She studied with another amazing woman in the horse world named Sally Swift and is focused on what has been a very big thing for me in the process of learning, which is balance and harmony in communication with the horse.  She calls it "connection" with the horse and refers to it both on the ground and under saddle.  I still need to send a video snippet of my riding and teaching before I am officially accepted as a student but I am very hopeful and excited.

I've been thinking as I've been learning about equine massage that it would benefit my practice to either be a veterinarian or a really well educated riding instructor.  The former is just not in the cards for me at this time because of cost and time commitment (my most important commitment right now still is being a mom).  But the riding instructor part is accessible.

One of the things I have already seen in my beginner students is if they have ridden before (ie: they're not getting on a horse for the very first time with me so I can catch them before they develop a negative habit) is that often they "pose" and get rigid.  Very few of my beginner students relax when they sit on a horse.  They brace their back, they force their heels down and they lock their arms.  And then they forget to breathe.  I can completely understand that because like them, that is how I would get on a horse in the beginning as an adult after several years of not riding.  I may have done that when I was a child and riding hunter/jumper too but I don't remember.  One of the things my first instructor as an adult, Sheryl, used to make me do was sing while I was riding and it turned out to be a really great tool because not only does it force you to breathe, but you just can't stay tense when you're up on a horse singing "row row row your boat".  In fact, I tried that with one student during a Leader Ride that I happened to be watching my friend, Terhi teach (that's when the volunteers have their lesson together) and one of the students was feeling very afraid because she was on a new horse to her and he was a little more high strung that the last horse she road.  She was very shy though and when I tried to get her to sing she wouldn't do it with all the other teens around, so I jogged beside her and sang and occasionally said, "I look pretty silly here singing and jogging next to you - will you please sing with me?" and she started to laugh and another great thing - you have to breathe when you're laughing.  So singing is also beneficial even if it's the instructor making herself look silly in front of all the other kids.

You know, though, we as humans tend to do that in our daily life too.  Someone says "sit up straight" or "stand up straight" and often people will pull their shoulders back hard and hold them there, which often causes their back to sway, and then they will forget to breathe, or breathe up high into their chest because they're holding so much tension up in their shoulders, then everything will start to hurt from the pressure of forcing your body in that position, and they'll finally take a deep breath and slump over and think "Ok, this feels better!" and stay that way.  It wasn't until I started taking pilates with a woman named Shelly Gossard in Seattle that I began to really learn what it's like to truly "stand up straight" in a way that supports your body.   She was great pilates instructor but then we moved to the Eastside and it wasn't convenient to go to her anymore.  So, I started taking classes with Beth Glosten and continued my education on what is really means to "stand up straight" and also to "sit up straight" when riding.  And how it does not involve bracing your body or holding anything together in your body.  It's more like stacking things up on your body in the correct way so that everything is supported evenly.  Which if you have been holding yourself in a slumped position (like me for most of my life) you can't do until you strengthen a different set of muscles that can naturally hold your body in that position.  Very similar to how we are training my daughter's horse, Geir.  In fact, I often tell him that I can completely relate to what he's going through learning to use his body correctly because I'm going through the same thing.

This little snippet of Peggy Cummings talking about riding instructor really sums up my own personal goals as an instructor perfectly:

Sunday, June 29, 2014

What is That Popping Thing? Part II

Regarding my previous post I'm going to add a comment from my friend Shelley that she made on Facebook. I was wondering also if it could be something else other than fascia too, though initially I had though something chiropractic because it is so near the C1-C2 joint of the cervical spine. Shelley was a military medic and is now an ER nurse.

""Rice Krispies" in the jaw/throat of people or behind their ear can be a sign that they have perforated their esophagus, tympanic membrane, or even blown a "bleb" in a sinus. Behind the human jaw it can also be that their Eustachian tube has blown (ever blown up a balloon and worked so hard you feel a blow-out behind the ears?)  Interesting to see if this continues to happen with Geir. Could be fascia, but making me wonder..."

This is a good reminder as to why if we have a question, or an issue does not resolve with our massage techniques over time, we always encourage our clients to consult a veterinarian if there could be a chance of a medical issue. 

Here is a story about a good example of this.  My old trainer, Karen has a client who has a wonderful horse that she is riding at low level Dressage, but he was off at least half the time so they kept having to stop training for a mysterious lameness.  She was doing regular chiropractic and massage work and she was using one of our top equine massage therapists in our area.  After a few sessions of working on him, the massage therapist told the client that she was concerned that the work she was doing was not sticking - that he would improve right after the massage and fall apart again soon after, and the massage therapist felt it would be prudent to consult a veterinarian.  So, the owner took her advice, brought a vet out and found out that her horse has a neurological issue - something that we as massage therapists are not at all trained to treat.  

There is no way for us as equine massage therapists to be able to diagnose issues such as neurological issues or even what Shelley is talking about that she sees in humans when such circumstances present themselves.  But we are trained to know when what we can do is not helping and that it might be time to bring in the big guns and see if there is an underlying medical issue.

I'm hoping because he has not been showing any other signs of pain or distress other than stiffness bending at the poll that there isn't anything serious going on with Geir.  But if after what I can do as a massage therapist, the "Rice Krispies" feeling continues I will be bringing out my vet to take a look at him.  And just to throw in a little "product placement" I use Ron Colton's team out of Snohomish and for those of you who live on the Eastside I highly recommend them.  But we are lucky to have a lot of good vets here in the greater Seattle area so there area  lot of good choices. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

What Is That Popping Thing???

This is my daughter's pony, Geir (and yes, I know he is due to have his mane cut).  He worked pretty hard on Thursday with an hour of lessons early in the day, my daughter riding him with friends in the evening and a short training session after that in the evening.  So, yesterday I gave him the day off and checked his back and neck and gave him a short massage.

He had been having issues falling in to the left at the trot and not engaging that side as well, especially on corners.  Last week we achieved a huge release in his left shoulder and he is engaging the left side a little more efficiently, but of course there are still issues because he is now using his body differently than before so he's still struggling a bit for balance.  Thursday during his training ride he was hesitant to  bend at the poll, especially to the right and yesterday I found that when stretching to the right I felt a distinct "pop pop pop" in the area where the purple dot is.  Just to clarify, stretching at the poll to the right is actually a very small movement so it was surprising to feel so much popping (like Rice Krispies) from such a small movement.

This is the kind of stuff I love about being a massage therapist.  Invistigating "What is that popping thing going on?"  I can tell you right now just from knowing horse anatomy that it is in an area with a few different muscle insertions.  And where there are different muscle insertions there is a high probability of fascia getting stuck together.  Fascia (for those who don't know - skip these next few sentences if you already know what it is) is a connective tissue in our body that surrounds all of our muscles.  And it's consistency is a lot like Saran wrap.  The really good kind that sticks to the side of the bowl as soon as you press it against it.  If there is enough hydration and freedom of movement to begin with then the fascia slides over itself just fine.  But fascia also has the propensity to get stuck together and then you have what we would call in layman's terms "a knot".  So, imagine you have some muscle insertions that have gotten dehydrated and are about the consistency of a dried pepperoni stick, then you wrap those in some really good quality plastic wrap, and hold them together in the same position for quite awhile in approximately 99 - 101 degree conditions -
 you're going to get them all tangled up and stuck together.  That is what can commonly happen in our bodies and horse's bodies.  And to clarify, dehydration in muscle tissue doesn't always mean that the horse is not drinking enough water, it can also happen when there is not enough circulation getting to the tissue.

Human and horse bodies are the most amazing mechanical inventions and what is even more amazing is how long we can live when we are the ultimate in planned obselensce.  I believe horses even more so than humans because they are so delicate and can become ill and die so much more easily than humans can.   It's because of this complexity of design that I find massage therapy so fascinating.  I imagine if I were to do my life over again I'd probably go to medical school to become a surgeon or medical researcher because the mystery of what is going on in there where we can't see under the skin is so fascinating.  It's a similar fascination I have with the ocean and this whole different world happening just beyond our reach.

What's even more exciting about learning about and making progress as a massage therapist is that the times of figuring out "what is that popping sound?" and then figuring out what to do to resolve it become more and more frequent.  Sometimes there really aren't any perceivable results right after a massage and my client will either say they feel "relaxed, thanks" and it's not till a couple days later they notice a big change, or the horse will seem their same stoic self through the whole massage and it's not until the next week I hear that the horse was calmer, happier and moving better.  But then there are times when changes are dramatic and those are incredibly cool.

Last weekend I was giving a friend of my husband's an impromptu massage because her shoulders were bothering her.  She spends a lot of time at a desk and like most of us, has one direction that she tends to lean when she's sitting deep in thought.  So, the first thing I noticed from my postural analysis was that one of her shoulders was significantly lower than the other shoulder.  It took well over a half hour of working just on her shoulders, but when I asked her to stand up again and she stretched out her shoulders she said, "Hey! I have shoulders again!" and when she stood still I was able to see that her shoulders were even height! Yay me!  Those kind of results are really cool and make this job very fun and interesting.

As for Geir, I took that photo so I could come home and look up in my anatomy book exactly what is going on in that specific spot.  My assumption is that the insertion points of two superficial muscles Brachiocephalicus and Splenius, possibly along with the deeper muscle Caudal Auricular muscles.  Of interest is that literally just below that spot is the Great Auricular nerve which I wonder if that much of an adhesion that close to the nerve could end causing some compression on the nerve and causing some nerve pain with certain movements?  Another thing thing I like about massaging horses is having to try and figure out what they are telling you by things they do (and do not) do.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Mares Eat Oats and Does Eat Oats ...

Yesterday I went out to look at a horse property with my family and we actually made an offer on it.  We still haven't heard back and the seller has 24 hours left before he lets us know so it's still up in the air, but it did get me thinking about things I haven't had to think about in the last several years that I've been boarding my horses and not keeping them at home.

The one thing that really struck me was keeping control of plants in the pasture.  The place we were looking at was not at all staged (something that's been on my mind a lot since we're preparing our house to be staged ... which means while it's on the market we may as well be living in a department store window ... but I digress ...) ... anyhoo, the field where the horses will eventually live was overgrown and I had to step over a lot of fallen branches and walk through tall grass and brambles and - damnit! A patch of stinging nettles.  Yep, the one time I think "Oh, it's been really dry and I'll just take a quick peak in the horse areas so I can wear my little city-girl slip-ons without socks."   While we were signing the offer paperwork and I was constantly rubbing my ankles where I walked through the nettles I was trying very hard to not worry that that might be a bad sign.

You would think that if a horse eats stinging nettles it will sting its mouth just like it stung my ankles, and after a little bit of research it turns out that is right.  I figured it was but you never know.  Cats and dogs are able to eat some nasty stuff that would practically kill us, but my experience with horses so far is that they are very delicate.  It turns out buttercups are poisonous, unless there isn't much other forage there isn't that much to worry about. Since they have a bitter taste and can cause mouth sores in horses, they tend to stay away from them.  Here's a bit of information about buttercups and livestock.

The other thing I wondered about because there was a chicken coop in the one pasture that was actually move-in ready for horses was "Can horses and chickens safely live together?"  The answer turns out to be no, because horses can get salmonella from chicken poop just like people can and they are, once again, so delicate that it could easily kill them.  Plus they can't throw up.  Something I've always been jealous of horses for, that they can't throw up.  Although last time I had food poisoning I probably would've hated it if I had not been able to throw up.  Although throwing up twelve times in one night was pretty excessive, I probably would've felt worse if I hadn't.

So, move the chicken coop, and dig out all the nettles before I bring my horses again, and thankfully, the area is so well forested there weren't very many buttercups.  But there are still a lot more plants I'm going to need to learn about and make sure are safe for the horses.  Here's a link with a list of toxic plants plus (thank God) photos of them if you don't know what they are.  What's interesting is apples are on the list - but not the fruit part of the apple, the seeds and leaves and bark.  I did not know that, I just figured that since the fruit was fine the rest of the tree would be fine.  But good to know, keep your horse out of the apple orchard.

My other big change will be there is currently no arena on the property (or near the property) so I'll have to get used to riding in a field until we can afford to build one.  I tested that out riding out in the field adjascent to the farm next door to where I keep my daughter's horse, Geir.  I actually really liked working on walk/trot and lateral work out in the sun in the middle of a field surrounded by nothing but rows of crops and the occasional little bird who would hop out from under a plant and scare my fat little pony half to death.

I'm looking forward to a whole new realm of horse ownership, having them live at home with me. My daughter is pretty excited about it too and is even saying she can't wait to move to a farm, even though it will mean having to switch schools.  She's starting to say she hopes she can find more friends who have horses too once we move to a farm.  It's very cute how a girl who was born in the city and never even saw hay until she was two years old (and then she was afraid of it) is now hoping to make more "country friends". 

That just reminded me of a conversation she had with a new friend her first day of preschool daycare (back when we lived in the city) when she was three years old.  They were talking about what they were worried about and my daughter had been worried there would be cows at the preschool.  In fact before we left that morning she had asked me with genuine concern, "Will there be cows there???" and I had to promise her a few times there would be no cows.  And as I was leaving her there that first day I overheard her new friend saying she had been afraid there would be dogs there, and my daughter said, "I'm not afraid of dogs.  I have two dogs.  I'm afraid of cows.  But only a certain type of cow.  A man in a cow suit type of cow."  And with that, I will say good night!

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Horsey Biomechanics Stuff

I was at my job with human massage therapists the other day and I said something about equine massage -  I think it was a remark I said off-handedly that one of my clients had a stress pattern in her back that would cause her to have difficulty with her left lead canter depart (you know, say, if she was a horse) and one of the other LMP's asked, "How can you tell if a horse likes getting a massage?"  It was an interesting question because I've been working so much more on horses than people in the last year that I automatically think that often horses show a lot more emotion and give you a lot more feedback than people do.

Horses do not have a lot of frontal lobe activity, which is fortunate in many ways for them because it means that they don't have the self-consciousness that we do.  They don't worry about being judged for what they are feeling and they don't think twice about expressing those feelings.  They don't worry about how they look or if they are acting within a scope of dignity.   They just react to how they feel in a completely honest manner, no matter what that is.

Some of the ways horses release tension is yawning, licking and chewing, chewing on something close to them, stretching, sighing, and farting.  A couple days ago I was giving my daughter's pony, Geir a massage and I found a very sore, tight spot on his shoulder.   He's pretty stoic so the most I usually get from him is a sigh or some farting and on a rare occasion he might stretch a little bit.  But after I managed to loosen up that stress point on his left shoulder, he practically jumped straight up in the air,  let out a loud whinny, then started dancing around in place.  I closed out the massage and took him to the arena to see if he would roll.  You'll notice he did a lot of rubbing of his left shoulder on the ground.

Today during our training lesson it felt like he was completely discombobulated.  Usually he leans to the left, but today he started leaning to the right to the point where he ran me right into the fence a couple times to the right because I wasn't on my game keeping him straight in that direction.  Usually, I'm trying to encourage him to stop leaning to the left so I had to quickly change some riding habits to help him balance.   I'm not sure I'd say it was an improvement, per se, but it was definitely a change.  He may have opened up that shoulder, but as my trainer, Kellie pointed out, the compensation patterns are still there and now if he is able to use his body correctly in certain movements, there will still be muscles he has not been using correctly that are weak and could become quickly sore.  So, it was a very interesting ride today and luckily by the end of it I felt like I was helping him balance a little better and move a little straighter.

So - balancing your horse.  This is a question that I've been mulling for the last few days.  I'm fascinated by horse biomechanics so I was looking forward to asking Kellie what her answer to this brain teaser is because I wasn't sure if I was coming up with the right solution.  I had heard from a friend that when riding a lesson horse who has an eerily similar imbalance as Geir that her instructor had told her to balance the horse by leaning her weight into the opposite stirrup of the direction the horse was leaning and close the other leg on the horse.  This is something I have commonly heard but I started really thinking about it and I thought, "Now, if I was walking leaning to the left because it hurt or I was too weak to stand up straight, and someone put something heavier on my right side  to pull me up straight, I would brace myself more to the left in order to compensate for that weight, instead of allowing myself to be straight - seeing as it would either hurt or I wouldn't have the physical strength to maintain the straightness."  It's not the first time I'd heard using a weight aid to "pull the horse back over into balance".  In fact, I had been doing it myself until Kellie told me not to.  It sounds good on the surface.  That's what you would do with a static object if you were using weights and pulleys to get something straight.  But biomechanics differ from other types of mechanics because muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints can become stuck to the point that you can't just push or pull them into the position you want them in because it will either result in pain or it will result in injury to the tissue and derail any attempts at work.

Unfortunately, I could not figure out on my own how in the world you get a horse straight if you're not "pushing or pulling**" the horse into balance, so I had to ask Kellie.  She worked with me on riding so that I was encouraging Geir to use the weaker part of his body and engage his left side instead of just falling in.  I needed to keep myself balanced in the middle of the saddle, in the middle of the horse, and just ask him to use his body more efficiently.  Of course that did not mean that he instantly started engaging his left shoulder and holding himself straight, but it meant that for a couple steps after my queue he would engage his left shoulder and I would have a moment of feeling him go straight and balanced.  But he's not strong enough yet to maintain it so it will take awhile and lots of work.  Once Kellie told me that it seemed so obvious I don't know why I didn't think of it.  But I guess if it really were that obvious then I wouldn't hear about so many instructors telling people to use their weight to pull the horse over to balance them.

On that note, I've been rethinking what I want to do in the grand scheme of my equine massage business.  At first I thought I wanted to do rehab boarding and perhaps that is something I would like to eventually do.  But right now I'm thinking I would like to combine riding lessons to teach people how to ride in the most effective way for them but also in the most effective way for their horse's biomechanics.  Peggy Cummings has a good instructor program I'm thinking of applying for in 2015 that might be a good adjunct to my equine massage.  It would be nice to not only be able to help people with their horse's physical issues and help keep their horses in top shape for performance, but also to help the riders use their bodies more efficiently when riding so hopefully the horse has one less strain on them during performances.  It will be a long road of education but I think even the process of the education will be really exciting and interesting.

**I've found the words "Push" and "Pull" are red flags for me when describing an action in riding.  Those words usually don't convey the true essence of riding which is directing the body movement of the horse.  They often end up describing a way of man-handling the horse (no matter how subtle it may look) which results in awkward movement and possibly damaging biomechanics.  I'm not saying every time those words are used that is the case by any means, but when I hear those words in a description of a riding technique I like to dig a little deeper and make sure what's being described is not the latter.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Neurons Looking in Mirrors

Before I go any further, I wanted to say that from now on I'll be posting a link to a forum on my professional webpage if anyone wants to go there to discuss subjects that I talk about here.  You're also welcome to comment here and as for the forum you're welcome to start any topic you'd like regarding horses and the sport of riding (in whatever discipline).  Here is the link if you have something you'd like to weigh in on.  I think healthy debate and discussion is important to continuing to learn in life and I encourage anyone to share their thoughts.  I just ask that you be considerate and respectful and understand that just because you're sure you're right, doesn't mean that a person with a differing opinion isn't equally sure they're right.  But there is so much to learn when we're open to hearing from everyone - not just the folks we agree with.

That said, I had the coolest experience the other day at the pony school I've been working at for the last year.  I took one of my favorite school horses, Pal, out to the pasture to hang out with his friends after a lesson, and realizing I had about a half hour of free time, I decided to stay in the pasture and give him a massage.  Before he came to the school he'd apparently had an accident that crushed his sacrum so he's been very happy about having his back worked on and I have found some scar tissue in that area and some tight muscles from compensation.

Pal is so happy about massage I didn't bother to tie him up and just gave him a massage while he stood in the pasture.  It wasn't long before I noticed his three friends he lives in the pasture with had come to stand around us in a circle.  One of the them, Chip, has had a few massages from me, Charlie has had one and Blaze has never had any.  In fact, Blaze is fairly new and I really don't know him at all, I've never used him in a class or ridden him myself.  But all three of them stood around us in a circle, facing us, and soon they all started to have sleeping eyes.

After a few more minutes all three of their heads started to drop and they would sway a little back and forth as they were dozing off.  Then Blaze started yawning, this big huge yawns, then stretching his back and neck.  Pal seemed to be the one least enjoying his massage!  He would sigh and lick and chew and stretch, but Blaze was yawning and farting and stretching all over the place.

When I was done with Pal's massage I walked over to Blaze and he scooted toward me with his mid-section and began turning his head and tossing it in the direction of his shoulder.  So, I massaged his shoulders for a few minutes and he stretched and contorted so much that I had to push him over a little so he didn't accidentally fall over on top of me.  Then I went over to Chip to check his back, but before I could Charlie came up and bit him in the butt and chased him away and very boldly placed his neck in front of me.  I stood there for a minute just looking at him, wondering if I should reward such rude behavior on his part to Chip, so he turned his head to look at me, nickered and then shoved his neck up against me.  I rubbed his neck for a few minutes, then realized I needed to go get ready for my next student, so I said good-bye, walked past him to get to the gate and he trotted in a big circle so that he could come in just in front of me and stand between me and the gate and shove his neck toward me.  I told him no, moved him away and he looked very sad and wandered off.

It got me thinking about how empathetic horses are to what is going on with their friends.  It makes sense that they would be able to tell when a friend is happy, scared of in pain.   If there is a predator or a friend is sick they need to be on guard, or if a friend has found something good to eat, it is beneficial to the herd that they also are aware there is something good to eat within access to all of them.  But I didn't realize it would apply to something as man-made as massage where a horse is experiencing relaxation by something human (a predator) is doing to them.  That the other horses would also relax and that Blaze even released a lot of tension in his body just standing next to his friend getting a massage was pretty cool.  I can honestly say standing next to a person getting a massage doesn't seem like it would do much for me other than make me a little jealous I wasn't getting one myself.  But I've never had the experience of that helping release tension from my own body just by being next to someone who is relaxing.

I have not done much research on it, but apparently, horses have mirror neurons just like humans, although I imagine (and I will look this up eventually) that they have a whole bunch more than humans do.  Mirror neurons are what cause us to understand by subtle (often consciously unnoticed) body language and voice inflections how people are feeling and what they mean.  It is also referred to as Theory of Mind and it is a comparitively new area of study in neurology.  One noticeable symptom of autism is the lack of mirror neurons so that a person on the autism spectrum has difficulty being able to instinctually know what people are feeling or implying just by their expression or voice inflection.  That difficulty ranges from slight to severe depending on what scale of the spectrum the person is on.  Sheldon on The Big Bang theory is a good example of someone who struggles with Theory of Mind issues.

It wouldn't surprise me if horses do have a much larger supply of mirror neurons than humans and that would explain why they are such important creatures when it comes to therapies for folks struggling with a wide array of issues, from recovering from trauma, to learning disabilities, to mental disabilities.  I've seen how much horses can help a couple of my students who have special needs or severe learning disabilities and it's more amazing than I could express here.  The difference in the student's demeanor and their ability to learn difficult motor skills or concepts for them is far more improved when working with a horse than I would've originally thought.  Perhaps it's the mirror neurons that make horses so special as a species?  It's something I'll definitely do more research into.