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Women & Horses by Mary D. Midkiff - horseback riding fitness techniques for women

Women & Horses, knowledge for the female equestrian; female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

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The Women & Horses Newsletter - January 2005

Primarily, Resort to the Inside of the Horse

In early December I attended the United States Eventing Association's annual meeting and since then have listened to a variety of trainers discuss their programs with prospective students. Questions related to how to start a young horse, how to solve various training problems, how to handle problem horses, and how to rehab a horse from the track were all answered with training tips, types of equipment, free lunging, gimicks, bringing a horse "through" onto the bit, changing the striding into jumps, and on and on.

I was very disappointed and somewhat surprised that not one expert mentioned the horse's central nervous system, the control center for all of the horse's systems, as the starting point to addressing any issue with a horse. All of the answers from the experts kept coming from what was on the outside and how to physically affect change through training.

It was hard to keep quiet when I felt everyone in the room was missing the whole point, and I was sitting in a huge ballroom full of riders and trainers, many of whom I believe are very conscientious and want to give the best to their horses.

But quiet I stayed, the can of worms was too big, and discussed it over lunch with my close friend whom I knew would understand. She has encouraged me to talk with the convention organizers to speak about this subject at next year's meeting, which I will do.

Please do not think I am singling out one group of horse people. It applies to all uses of horses and is common in every discipline, every breed and with every type of horse person. I will say the awareness is getting better, but we are still a long way away from universally approaching the horse from the inside out.

I saw one example recently of a very talented upper level horse that was in his stall for a year recovering from an injury. Once given the okay to start exercising the horse again from the veterinarian, the owner brought the horse out of the stall, put him in the cross ties and tacked him up. She took him into the arena and walked him for a little while then began working him! Not to my surprise, the horse started rearing, bucking, and leaping into the air with the rider laughing and saying how bad he was. I did not think this was funny or that the horse was misbehaving in any way. The whole situation was just wrong.

This horse needed weeks and weeks of hand walking, hand grazing, and slow physical and mental work to help him recover his long jail term and lack of mobility. It is a wonder neither the horse or rider was hurt that day. She was also a rider that refused to wear a helmet.

Whether a horse is coming off the racetrack, just being started as a youngster, has chronic problems and issues, coming back from an injury, starting over after a long lay off, has a mystery lameness or is a made horse that all of the sudden changes in behavior, we have to look at his or her internal systems first. This is usually the last place a trainer, an instructor, or sometimes even a vet, will look!

Each horse is born, just like any mammal with a nervous system, with his or her temperament handed down from their parents, and from then on learns responses and reactions for self-preservation. It is the rare horse who is lucky and treated fairly and with respect and with consideration in development for who they are innately for their entire life. Considering that he or she is well taken care of physically too, this rare horse is able to maintain a healthy "even" level of chemicals in the nervous system. Being appropriately reactive or non-reactive when life presents danger at various levels and in their interaction with people.

Many horses are mishandled or misunderstood and they become over reactive or under reactive and develop problems early on.

Before any training or education takes place the horse's nervous system must be functioning at a level where he/she can handle input from us and from his/her environment. All of the horses I have been asked to work with are approached in this way. For many young horses the world needs to be slowed down for them to comprehend lessons. Older horses need maintenance and support from all of their systems, maximizing what they have to keep them moving happily. For all horses their world needs to be comfortable and pain-free for them to perform.

There are horses that decide early on they cannot handle what is being asked of them and they check out mentally and become very nervous or high strung, spooky, bolting, dangerous mounts. Others handle stress, fear and miscommunication by shutting down, becoming dull, lifeless, too quiet, unsensitive, "not at home" mentally. All of these defense mechanisms are interpreted as a bad horse, a bad actor, unresponsive, not on the aids, crazy, won't move, rears, doesn't listen to my leg, difficult, a runaway, and the list goes on. I'm sure you've heard them all.

My opinion is always to go back to ground zero, back to nature, back to the origin of the horse's being and stabilize the nervous system. Of course, as a good horseperson you are always going to also check the condition of his mouth, jaw and teeth; whether or not his feet are balanced; the saddle fit; his alignment; take his temperature; check his feed, etc. These are subjects for future newsletters.

This all starts with a deep breath on your part and on the part of the trainer and instructor. It may take a year, it may take only a few months but you have to go back and recover the horse's internal systems that for one reason or another have evolved into problems.

At this same meeting I met a holistic horse therapist with whom I was sharing my views/frustrations and he told me not many people look into the horse's immune system either. He felt the immune system had a great deal to contribute to problems beyond the nervous system. I would have to agree with him on that point too.

After you have made the decision to help your horse resolve his/her problems you must start educating yourself and find a good team of horse healthcare experts. To affect the nervous system you must affect the chemicals in the body, how the body flows and functions and how the horse "thinks" about everything around him and in his work.

I like to start by going over the entire horse with my hands, even carefully up into his mouth and cheeks. Feel for knots, muscle bulge, hot spots, spasms and tension. Make a note of all that you find. Watch the horse's reaction to your touch as you go. Their ears and eyes will tell all.

Stand back from your horse and notice how he or she looks overall. Is it a picture of health and relaxation, flowing muscles from head to tail, or is their compression, tension, what I call "pieces of different horses stuck together" or does it look like all the parts of the horse match and blend. Does he or she hold their head comfortably with a relaxed long neck (even if they are short necked, the neck should extend outward and forward from the shoulders comfortably)with a peaceful (not sleepy) expression on their face? Does he or she have a good bone to muscle ratio or are their deficits with the back looking hollow and the muscles built up in spots but not uniformly distributed?

These are some of the questions you should be asking yourself and discussing with the healthcare people you work with. Your horse should possess a peaceful, happy countenance no matter what breed, how they are used or how fit they are. They should look well balanced and relaxed and feel good within their bodies. They should have good physical fitness and condition, shine to their coat and suppleness in their skin. All of this comes from inner wellness and chemical balance.

If you have holistic horse people you can work with please do. You will need to learn how to perform acupressure and massage on your horse so that you can always be the deliverer of good feelings and release endorphins for your horse, and be aware of when your horse needs professional help beyond your knowledge.

Your horse will need a chiropractic exam, a dental exam (a great deal more than just a simple float), a masseuse, a rolfer or integrated fascial release therapist, an excellent farrier, good healthy protein-adjusted food in the correct amount for your horse's work and weight and type, daily turn out, salt minerals readily available, regular exercise and plenty of good light, air and water. Additionally, I find that magnet therapy is a big help in relaxation and aiding the circulatory system plus aromatherapy can help with focus.

The initial exams are usually the most extensive and expensive and from then on they are only needed occasionally to help your horse maintain a healthy nervous and strong immune system. Talk to a holistic veterinarin about any supplements or herbs that can further support these systems.

Once you get all of this started you will also be working with your horse in the stall and in hand with various exercises encouraging the horse to release his tension through his back and neck, extending his poll and head downward and allowing you to touch him all over without a flinch. Ultimately your horse should feel comfortable with you touching him all over, pulling his tail, lifting his legs and rotating his feet through the ankle joint. All of this manipulation should be fine with your horse.

If your horse is the nervous, flighty type then whenever he reacts to something bring everything back down to a quiet level. Some trainers believe in pushing a horse through these events and making them work harder. I don't believe that does anyone any good and it only releases more adrenaline into the horse's chemical make-up which is counter productive to all of his systems and does not change his mind or behavior. I believe you should not react equally with him. You are his rock and should always be quieting and relaxing to him. Bring him down to a level he can handle then ask him to go back to work again. Let him get his "wits" about him again. Always slow the environment down to where he can handle it and use acupressure and/or mouth massage whenever you can.

I am a big supporter of using your voice as an aid as often as you need to. Some trainers discourage this but I think you need to bring every element you have to communicate effectively with your horse. You can slowly take the voice aspect away over time and show and compete without the voice successfully. But my horses listen very keenly to me and I use it in various tones and with various words to get a message across. I even whistle to my horse when I want him to drop his head and relax. (I also use it to encourage him to urinate in his stall and that works too!) I use the whistle in the saddle too and he relates it to relaxation and release.

I ask my horse with my voice to "wait" when I want him to stand and wait for me to do something, like take his halter off when I turn him out. Occasionally I will tack my horse up in the middle of the arena without being tied and I ask him to "wait" for me as I work around him. These are wonderful mental lessons for anxious horses. I ask him to "stand" when I mount him and ask him to "come" when I want him to walk with me. Just like I train my dog. It is so much better than pulling or jerking on them to get them to mind.

You will see these horses let down day by day, week by week until they are manageable and trainable and sound. By placing this much trust in you, it is your responsibility now to maintain this peaceful, happy presence throughout his or her lifetime.

With the checked out/dull horse that is unresponsive you will be doing similar lessons but you will need to wake him up a bit and get him excited about moving. This means you will need to move a lot yourself. When you have your horse in hand encourage him to trot with you like a dog on a leash out for a walk. Go out into a field or on a dirt road and jog with your horse. He will love it and start feeling good about himself again.

Put the horse on the lunge and while you are standing in the center move your legs according to the gait you are asking for. In the trot, you will trot or march up and down with your legs while encouraging him to move forward on the circle. When you ask for the canter, you canter in place or go with him a bit and keep talking to him to canter and tell him how good he is. These horses need a lot of encouragement because their self-esteem is so low. They need literally to feel again, buck with joy again and learn to enjoy their partnership with a human. Take them in the round pen and literally play with them. Allow them to express themselves. Bucking and rearing and kicking out is okay as long as you are safe. Send them away from you and let them play and run. Then slow them down and wait until they come to you and praise and pet them all over. Take a horse ball with you and start rolling it toward him and picking it up and tossing it around him.

Only after you make this kind of a start with a horse can you go into "training" work with him and asking him to learn a lesson. He is now ready for round pen work, work in hand, work on the lunge or with lines, and I'm not only talking about young horses here. The made horse needs the same experience. After the ground work go ahead and saddle the horse and take him out for a trail ride or just do some light riding in the arena. Make it fun, positive and easy and throw in a little education at a time. Each horse will come around to being happy and comfortable in training in his or her own time according to their individual chemistry. You are recovering the nervous system and the horse's mind no matter what the situation.

I hope this information will serve to send you and your horse to a happpy and safe partnership for the new year and many years ahead.

I am off to the Kentucky Horse Park this month to film another week's worth of equine educational tips for RFD-TV. If you have RFD-TV I hope you will enjoy them. I will be putting some of the tips on my website so stay tuned.

~ Mary

female equestrian fitness training and riding tips

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