Saturday, December 26, 2015

Dawn Teaches Me: Channeling and Mirroring

I’m still learning from my horses, and expect that will never stop.  Dawn’s been teaching me some important things again, that I can take and apply to my rides with my other three horses.  As usual, my learning is all about how I ride, and how I can more effectively present myself to my horses so they can more effectively do what I want.

I’ve been riding Dawn now for over 7 years, and we have a very close partnership.  She’s a good teacher because she’s so profoundly sensitive and responsive - she gives great feedback.  We’ve been thinking/feeling together about some important things lately, that I believe will further transform my riding and how I think about my partnership with my horses.  The more softly and with thought I ride, the better my horses go - funny how that works.

Dawn’s been teaching me some important things about what I can “mirroring”.  But, before we get to that, a few words on the difference between directing/channeling and bracing/blocking, and on the relationship between directing with thought/intention and physical aids/cues.

Before I started learning about how to ride with softness and thought, I thought of myself as a pretty effective rider, and in some ways I was.  I could get the horses I was riding to do most anything I wanted, but, although I wasn’t rough or punitive, I basically muscled/pushed/pulled my horses into doing what I wanted.  It never really occurred to me that there was another way to ride.  The way I ride now bears little resemblance to the way I used to ride.  It used to be that all my cues and aids were braces, my contact with the horse through the reins was a brace, and much of what I did with my body blocked/interfered with the horse’s motion.  My horses got the job done for me, but I made things a lot harder for them.

Here’s how I think about things now.  My body, and its position and actions (including breathing and where I focus my eyes), serves to direct the horse’s motion.  My thoughts and intention lead/direct the horse’s thoughts and intention.  My body - arms, legs, seat and the position of my torso and head - provides a channel that the horse moves inside of - they provide shape and limits.  I try to avoid bracing - if the horse encounters any of the physical limits I’m setting, I want to offer softness while still giving definition to the boundary of the channel.

My internal energy, intention and focus direct the horse’s energy level, rhythm and destination.  Increasingly, this also takes the place of physical cues, but the “channel” of my body provides the cues the horse may need if my thought and focus aren’t clear enough.  Essentially, the horse only encounters a physical cue if it’s needed as a backup, and even then, it isn’t really a cue, it’s shaping of the horse’s motion by the boundaries of the “channel”.

Hope that isn’t too confusing.  Now, on to mirroring.  Think of a horse’s body, from tip of nose all the way to where each foot contacts the ground.  Now rotate a horse’s body vertically, and you’ve got an equivalent of the human body.  When I ride, I think/feel my body as merging with the horse’s body, with the equivalent body parts being as one.  This has two aspects - my body forms a physical channel for the equivalent part of the horse, and my intention for my horse to do something with a body part - say, step under and over with a hind leg - becomes a thought for my body part and the horse’s body part to do the motion together, as one.  If there’s any disconnect between my thought and what the horse derives from it, the channel of my body comes into play, effectively as an aid - although I’m not “applying” any aid or cue.  Since there’s no “putting on” of an aid, the opportunity to brace is reduced and it’s easier to stay soft and relaxed together.

Another way the mirroring concept is very helpful to me (and my horses) is that it gives me a way to position myself in space so that I don’t block the horse’s motion.  I’m a pro at blocking motion - most of my problems with bend and/or horses falling on the forehand have come from my blocking a shoulder.  Most of it comes from my using rein aids that block or bracing in my shoulder rather than mirroring the motion I want to create a soft channel. Dawn’s been helping me figure out how not to do that any more.  

Perhaps a couple of examples would help.  Using mirroring, together with thought and intention, here’s how we bend through a corner, or turn off the rail.  As we come into the corner or initiate a turn (tracking right) - all of this happens simultaneously - I turn my head slightly (keeping my head and eyes up and not tilting my head to the inside) and direct my eyes around the corner, open my right shoulder slightly (which means my right hand comes back towards my hip slightly), and think our two right hind legs (her right hind, my right leg) stepping under and slightly to the outside.

If it’s really working, what I do and what the horse does are one and the same and they occur at exactly the same time - there’s no separation and the horse and I just do the movement together - there’s no ask and response, just us together as one.  This is the true mirror - where we mirror each other with no separation between us in time or space. This is how Dawn and I are operating now, and almost all the time there’s really nothing more to it.  If there were any separation, the horse would in the instant and softly encounter the boundaries of the channel, which would serve to direct the horse’s motion.  If I’m doing all these things (or more importantly, not “doing”), if you were watching you’d see me doing almost nothing or perhaps nothing at all.  When Dawn and I go around a corner or start a turn, if you watched really closely you might see my eyes move but that’s about all.  If my inside hand came back a fraction, it was simultaneous with her bending her head, neck and shoulder slightly. And my eyes and hand are just “going with” what Dawn and I are already doing.

The ask is the response is the release - it's all one thing.  How cool is that?

Dawn gets the “excellent teacher” award, and my other horses say they appreciate her efforts.  I still have more moments of separation with my other three, where the channel providing shaping/boundaries comes into play, but those occasions are getting fewer and fewer and smaller and smaller, and the improvement will come all from me - my horses are ready and able to respond if I offer clear intention with my thought and focus and soft channeling by mirroring with my body.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Bracing, Pulling and Rooting

Horses that pull or brace on your hands, or that root, are looking for a release.  Horses don't come braced, they get made that way by people.  The horse that pulls and braces, and is heavy in your hands likely has learned this by being pulled on and never getting a release.  The horse that roots has also likely been pulled on and has learned to get a temporary release through rooting.

The solution in all these cases is to teach the horse that there is a release to be found - a consistent, reliable, soft spot where everything's in balance and the contact is the merest whisper.  But it's up to the rider to define and deliver that soft spot every time.  When this happens, and the horse believes that the release is always there to find, all of the pulling, leaning, bracing and rooting behavior goes away, just like that.  It's that simple.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

More Simple - On Bending

More on the concept of simple (see this post if you don't know what I'm talking about).

One thing I've struggled with in my riding is a tendency to block the horse's motion, either by bracing - with hand, leg or seat - or by focussing on the wrong things.

I find it very helpful to think of bending, not as changing the orientation of the horse's neck or body - thinking this way often leads directly to blocking the motion - but as influencing/directing the horse's leg (or legs).  Bend then results, without blocking or bracing, from the feet upwards, rather than from the body downwards.  The resulting feel is much better - the power comes up from the feet.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Missy's Hock Fusion

Missy was quite sound when she came to me this past January.  I noticed as we were working together over the next several months that she had some difficulty bending left and was often slightly stiff tracking left when we were warming up at the trot.  But she always warmed up out of it and remained sound.  This made me think that she probably had some arthritis, most likely in her hocks, which is quite common in horses in their teens - Red also has some hock arthritis and starts out stiff in trot but loosens up as he works.  My general rule for this sort of thing is: if the horse improves during a work session and ends up moving sound, then the work is likely helping the horse stay mobile with some degree of arthritis.

But, if the horse either comes out worse off the next day, or doesn't improve during a work session, then it's time for a rethink.  Over the past several months, Missy's soundness at the trot was becoming questionable.  We'd have a good day, but sometimes she'd come out stiffer the next day.  Or she'd trot fine tracking right, but then be somewhat off tracking left, and not warm up out of it.  I'd give her a few days off, with some bute, and she'd be fine again for a bit, but would be off again once we started working again.

There was never any swelling or heat nor any signs of footsoreness.  It was pretty clear that the issue was somewhere in the right front/left hind pair, but it was hard for me to determine precisely what it was.  So it was time to have the vet out for a look, to determine exactly what was going on, so that we'd know what we should be doing or not doing.  My vet is really excellent at lameness evaluations. She takes her time and is very systematic and thorough.  For example, when she does flex tests, she does all the major joints, not just the one that seems to be the problem.

On the lunge, Missy was slightly off at the trot in both directions on the right front/left hind pair, more so when tracking left.  Cantering on the lunge was very difficult for her.  On the left lead, she would tend to "bunny hop" behind, bringing both hinds down very close in time, and would counterbend to the outside - to protect the left hind.  Tracking right, she wanted to stop cantering or switch leads behind.  This was consistent with my experience in the canter work we'd done under saddle.

Flex tests showed soreness in the left hock, some slighter soreness in the right hock, and on palpation she had some soreness in her right neck and shoulder and sternal area - due to compensating for the left hind.  (Fortunately, we were able to get the chiropractor out within a few days, and she's a lot less muscle sore.)  She was also positive for hock soreness using the Churchill test, which is more specific for hock pain than flex tests.  We agreed that hock x-rays to confirm what we suspected were the next thing to do - the left hock was clearly the bigger issue.

For reference, here's an x-ray of a normal hock:

The hock is a complex joint, with many small bones, and is anatomically equivalent to our ankle.  Look at the stacked bones in the middle.  There are three joints there running from front (left) to back (right) of the hock.  From a functional point of view, only the topmost of the three horizontal joints is necessary for the horse to flex the hock joint - the lower two joints are what are known as low-motion joints.  These lower joints are the ones most prone to arthritis.

Here's Missy's right hock (the one giving her only a little bit of trouble) - the second view is frontal:

When the vet saw these images, she said "yep, hock arthritis".  The right hock's middle joint is basically 100% fused - there's no joint space left and bone has filled in.  The lower joint is also pretty much fused as well.  In the frontal image (the second one of the two above), the lump on the right overlapping the bottom joint is a bony bridge - a bone spavin - this lump has always been there, which means this joint has probably been fused for quite some time.  The shadow on the x-ray indicates some irritation of the bone, due to strain on this hock in compensation for the left one.

And here's the troublesome left hock joint:

Both lower joints on the left hock are well on the way to fusing as well - my vet says they're about 75% fused, with the middle joint further along than the lowest one.  The fact that Missy's fairly recently developed obvious soreness means that the arthritic changes are progressing, probably to full fusion in this hock as well.

Many horses have some hock arthritis, but not all horses progress to fusion - many don't.  Hocks fusing can be a result of a combination of genetics, conformation and how the horse is used.  Fusion can happen quickly, or can take quite a while - even years.

Now this may sound bad, but it's actually good news.  If and when the left hock fuses, the pain and inflammation should go away and it's quite likely she'll be completely sound in both her hocks, losing only about 10% of the flexion in the hocks.  It's also good news that she's only slightly off and not seriously gimpy (some horses apparently become severely lame during hock fusion) - this means that she can stay in light work so long as she doesn't get worse.  Joint injections in the two lower joints are not recommended due to no joint space existing or being so minimal that getting a needle in would be too difficult.  The upper of the three joints of both hocks are in good shape, which is good news.

So our objective is to keep her moving but also keep her as comfortable as possible, while waiting for the fusion to progress.  Sometimes fusion happens quickly, and sometimes it takes a long time, but it's far enough advanced that it should happen at some point, and her soreness indicates the process is active.  My vet will come back in 6 months or so to take another set of x-rays to see how things are doing, and in the meantime Missy stays in full all-day herd turnout - she moves around just fine out there - and we'll do light work.  I've been riding her bareback (to reduce excess weight) for about 15 minutes at walk and a few minutes of trotting.  We do 5 minutes of "ambling around" walk, and then 10 minutes of marching walk.  Then we trot a few lengths of the arena - no turns.  We're also doing topical anti-inflammatories (Surpass ointment) on both hocks for a few weeks, and then she'll go back on daily aspirin.  If she doesn't seem uncomfortable, we can slowly add a bit more straight-line trotting.  I'm also keeping an eye on the height of the inner (medial) edges of her hind hooves and slightly rasping them down if they start to get longer to take some of the pressure off the inside surfaces of her hocks.

And she's also on a diet - she's a hay-eating machine and has gotten a bit heavy lately (no, we won't use the "fat" word . . .).