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.