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.