Saddles!

Visited lovely old Fred.

I was home last weekend which was lovely. Though, my mother’s on-off poorliness may have become something more extreme, which is a worry. Going back up before the end of the month to attend a hospital appointment with her, find out as much as we can. I’ve not got much more to say about that, sickness of loved ones is too real for something like a blog post. 

Coco saying hello to big Diego. Here I’ve painted most of the skeleton, the nuchal ligament, hip flexors, and deep base-of-the-neck muscles so that we could discuss healthy posture with the kids on pony camp.

We also had another pony camp this week at Summerfield. So all-in-all, it came around to Thursday evening and I hadn’t seen my horse in a full seven days. 

Though frequency and consistency matter, horses thankfully don’t seem to process the passage of time in the same way as we do. Skye forgave my absence and came out of the field the same as she always does. The girls had said hello to her once over the weekend and sent me some cute selfies with her, so at least I knew she’d had a bit of pleasant human contact. 

Her posture hadn’t changed either. She seemed fatter again and it’s all on the belly (I swear to god, if this horse is accidentally in foal…), but her back looked as well as it ever does. Did a belly lift and pelvic tuck on the yard, very good. Picked up her feet alright (just sticky on the fronts as it’s still hard for her), and let us tack her up with bridle, cavesson, pad, and saddle. 

Oh, but I had my instructor-friend there… It’s so funny but Skye, bless her heart, always side-eyes her with great suspicion. She clocks her instantly as The Professional and gives the impression of a horse that, every so often, someone new has tried to “sort out”. The reason it tickles me is that this friend is the person I would most trust in the world with my horse. With any horse, in fact. So I’ll be softly laughing and saying, “ah Skye, if only you understood…” whilst the horse is consistently keeping a wary eye on this untrustworthy person quietly and confidently pottering around her. 

Amanda got an insight into her character on the yard. I’d left her holding the horse and some children were playing with a hose pipe. As it uncoiled and sprayed, Skye did a mini-shy, but then rather than want to get away from the scary thing she took a curious step towards it and watched them. This is what she’s like, and it’s why I love her. 

It doesn’t fit and the pad isn’t the prettiest, but I think she has potential to look very smart all tacked up. I think on the next few in-hand-hacks I’ll start leading entirely from the reins (with cavesson/lead just there as back-up) and see how we get on. She can probably have the cavesson off soon, since she’s becoming confident that I’m not going to abuse her with the metal in her mouth.

We tacked her up using my old VSD saddle, which did not fit… But it sat there without squeezing or annoying her, so we thought it would do for a quick lead out just to see what she thought to carrying a girthed-up saddle. She’d been uncertain about being saddled but I think that’s because I tasked the friend to do it whilst I held the lead. Probably should have done it the other way around, as she’s already had me saddle her before and was quite serene about it. Anyway, we went for an in-hand hack along the usual route, quiet roads and a small bridleway. As ever, horse was looky and a bit shy for the first part then perked up once we hit the bridleway. Perhaps it is the softer ground? Perhaps the mud compacting in her feet has a cushioning function even once we’re back on the road? She’s always more forward after the bridleway too, you see. 

She settled to Amanda’s presence, but not 100%, and at one point my friend stumbled in a ditch behind her and the horse spooked forwards shoulder-barging me into the air for a tiny step! It was actually funny more than anything. Skye’s shies are small, leg-splayed, freeze-frames, and they’re getting less and less as she grows in confidence. But here we were with no other horses, a professional, and a saddle on her back. She did great really. 

Despite this face, she actually perked up a lot during the course of the walk and was positively enjoying herself by halfway round.

Halts were attentive as ever, and her walk opened up super-keen at the bridleway. We were struggling to keep up a few times! She seemed very happy and forward (but still very attentive), so I invited trot a couple of times on the road (I’d have sunk in the mud on the bridleway!) and she obliged beautifully. She just loves to explore and have a look around. I was able to halt from body language, vocal cue, and lead or reins, and I was able to pick up and fiddle with the reins (no pressure, just the weight of them bouncing around), and she didn’t care one jot, was very merry in her mouth. Given how she stiffened the first time I put a bridle on I’m really impressed with how quickly she’s relaxed and gone, “oh right, I see, it’s like before but nicer, no need to worry.” This is the experience we need to recreate for every “new/old” thing that she has preconceptions about, and I’m glad that yesterday she carried the saddle happily. She didn’t lift or drop her back, she didn’t mind it moving (it really doesn’t fit), she didn’t even mind when we whipped the pad out from the back (it had almost slipped out itself anyway), and her walk was the same as ever. And she was volunteering trot from eagerness, so she clearly didn’t care that it was there. So pleased with her, and may use the saddle (or a different/cheaper one, I could do with selling this really) just for tacking and untacking every so often to get her chill about the process. 

Friend said that from behind she looked surprisingly straight and that the only thing standing out was the dropped left hip. I will need to think about where this comes from and how to help improve it. The chiro helped, I’m sure, but I’d like to know more and be in a better position to focus my efforts so as to help the horse. 

We pushed our luck upon returning as I wanted to make use of my friend being here and see if we could re-back the horse. 

Saddle off (friend is very confident backing, doesn’t mind doing it bareback), into the arena, touching all over, jumping by her side, legging-up and just holding it a second, plus walking around the mounting block and halting. 

Now, aside from the legging-up, Skye has done all these things with me and has been chill about, but with The Professional, it was a different kettle of fish. “You can’t trust them, these professional sorts, they climb aboard and do all sorts of things to you!” Horse was a sweetheart, but just said “nope!” in the mildest ways possible and got a bit stressed about the whole thing. So we let it be and I may try again with one of my yard buddies in a few weeks, since she sees them more often and knows them a little bit. I’d do it myself (think she’d be happier about that, to be honest), but I’d really rather it was a small/light person given she’s not strong yet, and my friend agreed. Said she thinks she’ll do the job fine once she’s strong (and that may come more swiftly than I expect, if I put the time in) but that for now a smaller load would be better. I may bump the lunging to twice a week (Jec Ballou’s outlines for “bringing into work” suggest this would be fine), but otherwise I think continuing as we are (subtle postural stuff, plus lots of walking, more than we have been doing really) is the thing. I’m looking forward to playing with the gym mat I’ve bought for her. Having stood on it myself I can really see how it would be something like standing on the boat. Firm enough that you are only very slightly destabilised, which should switch on the deepest postural stabilisers. Apparently even 5mins a day is useful. I’m thinking to begin this once we’ve moved yards though. Plenty to get on with in the meantime and if I take it down I’ll only have to move it again before the end of the month and it’s surprisingly bulky! 

Just over 2″ thick and about 6′ long. I’m hoping if it’s just there, in the background, for a while the horse will accept it, then perhaps accidentally walk over it, and ultimately be happy to stand on it.

I finished by doing some free-following, but even that isn’t much fun for Skye. I think she may have had join-up done to her in the past, possibly in a very “effective” way, as although I never send her away when she’s following me off-lead she gets a rather dejected look and subservient posture, as though she’s been made to follow before, and so following has its own associations. “I’d better follow, or she’ll chase me!” After all, she’ll lead at my side fine enough, it’s only when behind me and off-lead that she gets concerned. It’s a very specific set of circumstances, which is what makes me think someone’s drilled the join-up thing at some point. 

Just another thing for me to think creatively about. I need to let her know that she can be alongside or behind or wherever, but that she doesn’t need to blindly follow, that I do welcome participation rather than obedience. I tried to make it interesting yesterday by going over poles and then sort of zigzagging back and forth in-between them. She didn’t perk up, but she did as asked so at least our communication is coming along. 

So horse had a few questions asked of her, perhaps one or two more than I should have asked, but she handled them all great. My friend said she’s coming on really very fast for an animal with so much baggage and I agree. I was sad to have “lost” a week, but her consistency just goes to show how much she’s settled. We were talking about the fact that though she could be easily wound up (and she’s spirited enough to react badly), she’s actually a really easy and sweet beastie. Love her character ever such a lot. 

Delight

Beautiful couple of days with Horse. 

On Wednesday we all did pole work in the jumping field, the girls riding and me, naturally, just leading Skye around at this stage. She’s a good lass. Confident working over, past, and between all manner of obstacles. To some people I’ve met stuff like that is an automatic expectation (horse gets thrashed if it doesn’t comply), not something you would bother spending time training. But I consider it just more small opportunities for confidence-building. Frequency is the thing. Tiny victories stack up, one atop the other, until you have an animal (or person!) who approaches new situations with a subconscious assumption that everything will be fine. Over-facing isn’t just about jump height. 

Before all that though, we popped Monty the cob’s saddle on her back, to see what she thought about girthing, flapping stirrups, walking with the saddle on, all that stuff. The answer she gave was, “urg, this again, I thought you weren’t one of those humans, but okay, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt…” Such an annoyed face! But so obliging. Walked up and down a bit, then took it straight off again, horse was fine and her annoyance disappeared instantly. Assuming nothing physical going on, I’m sure we can change her feelings about the saddle easily enough. Same as with the bridle and bit, I just need to convince her that I won’t do anything mean or frightening just because we’re “working”. 

Skye is now almost like an ordinary “on the forehand” horse, rather than a squiffy rehab version.

After that, had the proprioceptive bandages on Skye again as when I got her in from the field on Wednesday her back looked a little bit improved for the last session we did with them. I need to remember, slow-and-steady as I am going, horses can actually improve very quickly. Had the bridle on beneath the cavesson and though she still closes her mouth against putting it on she was relaxed enough once it was there. It no longer puts her off eating or causes the insta-anxiety face like it used to. She was so chill about it that towards the end of the session I put my lead rope through the bit rings rather than on the cavesson to see how she felt about light touches on her mouth. No bother at all. But this horse, I feel that if you’d thrown tack and a rider on, on day one, and tried to manhandle her head into an “outline” (all too common), she’d have exploded. I’ve only know her explode once and it was because I’d accidentally been rough with her head (and not even via a bit). 

 
But oh, the loveliness continued. We were all standing around whilst the girls chatted about their respective ponies’ progress, and as Skye was so chill I thought I’d try a Masterton Method stroke that I’d been looking at. Just following the bladder meridian from poll as far as the scapula, and looking for responses. I was amazed at how much I got! 

On the right-hand side, she found it relaxing and looked almost surprised by it. About halfway down the neck she would blink, and this response was repeated nearly every time I went over that area. So I thought, “hmm, maybe there is something to these super-light touches after all…” 

An articulated skeleton, for Summerfield Stables. I’ve positioned it a bit like Skye, when I first got her! But she was worse than this, to be honest. This skeleton was modelled on a gelding with uphill build and shorter back, so no matter how much I try to demonstrate a strung out, slumped posture, it’s never going to look quite like her. She’s improved such a lot, I just hope I can help improve her health and happiness further still.

On the left-hand side (the much tighter side, especially along the Superficial Dorsal Line which overlaps with the bladder meridian, hence wanting to try that), the response was huge. She blissed right out. Her eyelids were fluttering and flickering as I stroked along the entire length of the neck. She relaxed, trance-like, for much of it, and at other times turned her head around towards me in an affectionate gesture. It was astounding, actually, and the lighter and more slowly I went with my touch the more it seemed to work. (She also seemed to have what looked like lymphatic drainage lines at the end of the session, which I hadn’t expected. Will need to research that.)

But I shouldn’t be surprised. One reason I thought to try this type of light massage was that my lad John has such magical hands. If I can’t sleep I demand hair strokes because he just has this ability to bliss me out with the least effort. Back of the head/upper-neck is especially good. And where was I stroking Skye? Well then. I thought, if a gentle touch can do so much for me, surely it can do a lot for a beastie too. 

 
So I will try this more, I think, especially this particular stroke since she’s still tight along her topline. But as she’s such a fidget I will have to pick my moments. No point trying it if her mind is elsewhere. 

Then yesterday, I took her out for a walk on the road. Bridle/bit beneath cavesson. Reins on the first, lead rope on the latter. Walk/halt, usual drill. Couple of mini-shies (ooh, those troublesome birds and dogs hiding behind hedgerows!), but otherwise one of her most chill leads out. Confidence growing all the time, didn’t even mind not having other horses with us. Halted with usual cues, then spent some time transferring it over to the reins. Just the lightest bit of pressure. Horse was perfect every time and didn’t worry about the bit once. Spent some time walking whilst holding the reins and just playing with them lightly to see how she felt about that. Answer: fine, not bothered at all. I think she’s going to demand a lot of tact from me, I’ll have to level up as a rider for sure. 

So much fun making these boards and muscles. I’m considering finding a printers to scan in the skeleton board. With some tidying up in Photoshop, it could make a cool poster. With a set of laminated muscles, it could be a really cool beginner anatomy set! Don’t know who’d even want it, but I fancy making it all the same.

These two days, I’ve begun tying her up on the yard too. Since she would previously panic if she reached the end of her rope I’ve been taking that slow. But now, touch wood, when she reaches the end of her rope (which she does, because she fidgets and gets bored and wants to walk off) she just goes, “oh right yeah, I’ll stay here then.” Zero drama. Getting ever better at picking out her feet too, and I’m convinced that’s mostly down to core stability. Oh good posture days it’s easy. On slumped days, it’s hard. 

In other news, I’ve finally finished the stick-on bits-and-bobs for educational playtime at the stables! The articulated skeleton was especially good fun to make. I want to think of more things to make though, am sad to have finished! Laminating was unreasonably good fun, in particular. Greek times. 

We’ve another pony camp next week at Summerfield, so if there are any rainy days we’re prepared! Mind you, it’s slightly irksome that the BHS have removed muscles when creating the new exam pathways. I’ve created a beautiful set of superficial muscles for the girls to teach the youngsters with! Still, even if they’re not used for training up the youngsters they’ll still be good for those of us who are a bit older and want to learn for the sake of it anyway. At the very least, it certainly helps to know which muscles should be big, which should be small, whether they’re over-tight or asymmetric, so on and so forth. 

This set was made to illustrate some fitting and safety issues. Any guesses?

Am now going home for the weekend. Happy to see mum and everyone, but sad to leave horse for four days. 

I think we’re going to pop to the Lowther Horse Trials tomorrow. In the main arena there’s meant to be a display by a falconer on Spanish horses. Imagine that! Birds and beasties! Might see if there are any goodies to be bought too. 

Hindquarters

Today, Skye looked heavier on the forehand, not lighter, and with a weaker backside! Not what we want. I think I’ve not been vigilant enough with the raised poles (and poles in general), as I’ve been favouring the things we both find interesting. Namely, going out for a walk. Which is beneficial, for sure, but it isn’t very hilly here so it doesn’t automatically engage her hind end. Ah well. 

But, excitement, we are moving to the new grazing! I’m hoping I’ll be able to set out some “permanent” logs or raised poles there. If they’re always out it’ll be far easier to incorporate them into Skye’s life every time I see her. If it’s easy we’ll do it (environment matters) and she’ll receive the benefit. She has been getting a little bit bored which I think is even more reason to work it into our routine rather than have it be a focus of some sessions. Let it be second nature. 

Second farrier visit today. Horse perfect when I picked out her feet, then fidgety for the farrier. Ain’t that just the way. She wasn’t bad though and wasn’t worried by it like last time, was just impatient and didn’t see much point in standing around. Like horse, like human, I’m impatient too. 

He started with the hardest foot though! So at least that was over and done with first. Said they were looking a lot better, we’ve almost got the tiny cracks grown out. At one point we were all talking and he said people didn’t realise how much more horses could do than we ask of them. I agree, in terms of general stamina and distance. Posted on Instagram just last night about the distances wild horses cover. Domestic horses do far far less (less than half, usually, and that’s when living out). Little need to travel when food is plentiful. But travelling is to their benefit. So, in terms of replacing what’s lost in domestication, hacking is of great benefit. 

We then waited around for Monty the cob to have his trim and front shoes. Skye really didn’t understand why we were standing on the yard, so dull! She also wasn’t thrilled when we did some lunging with Monty likewise working at the other end of the arena. She did the job though, and I kept trots short and sweet (never more than a circle, but generally only half a circle) as it is the transition I want more than the trot itself, at this stage. 

She was pulling herself along on the forehand in trot, but it was slightly improved from before as today we went back to using the proprioceptive wrapping technique. It looked, to me, as though her cervicothoracic junction was straightened out by the “sling” of bandage around her chest. She didn’t fully go into the beautiful posture we want, but her withers were a bit more up than usual and you could see her trying to figure out her balance. So I must remember to keep trying this when we lunge once a week. 

But yes, I am thinking to get a saddle or someone light on her soon. She’s gained weight again which doesn’t help and I don’t think I’m going to be able to achieve much more in terms of her posture without levelling up the challenge or hours put in. She needs some general fitness now, to keep the belly off and thus help the back, but I don’t want to lunge more than once a week. 

I read some maths on lunging. When you work it out, about twenty-five 20m circles equates to one mile travelled. In one lunge session you could easily do fifty circles, so about two miles. Two miles of trot would be great for fitness, but on a circle?! That’s very intense on the joints, especially if the horse isn’t carrying herself properly yet. So as far as I’m concerned, lunging should be about getting that supple bend (ie: educating) rather than just getting the miles in. If you want to get the miles in, do it in-hand or under saddle. 

It’s a conundrum at the moment, for sure. Progress has gone backwards, a touch. All I can think is that it’s down to this: her belly is pulling her down (bloody rain, bloody rich grass!)… I’ve neglected the raised poles so she’s re-lost a little bit of muscle tone through her thoracic sling… and perhaps her quarters are no less weak than they were, but with the big belly they’re looking it. So, get poles involved again, get her moving for longer periods of time or under a light load, and persist with transitions and focussing on quality when we lunge once a week. 

Openness

I really appreciate Skye’s expressiveness. Getting to know her is proving a pleasure. Nuno Oliveira said:

The horse is the best judge of a good rider, not the spectator. If the horse has a high opinion of the rider, he will let himself be guided, if not, he will resist.

And:

A horse will never tire of a rider who possesses both tact and sensitivity because he will never be pushed beyond his possibilities

Something to aim for then! Not to ride as well as Nuno (impossible) or to have that wealth of knowledge, but to have enough feeling and empathy (enough tact) to be fair with Skye. Because, if a horse could articulate such things, would she also describe getting to know me as a pleasure? It’s worth considering that question. How would the horse describe the handler to its horsey friends? 

Skye had a play-date with my friend’s pony Basil yesterday. He’s like a mini-Skye and is very keen on her, it’s so cute. There was a thunderstorm in the distance, rumbles and cracks of lightning, but the horses did not especially care. As I said to my friend, it’s just weather to them. But it was our first time with both of these horses in a storm, so we decided to let them free in the arena. Basil is a springy and punky little thing, Skye looked rather lumbering by comparison! But they had a bit of a hoon around and I’m hoping that when we all move to the new grazing later this month they’ll enjoy becoming part of a herd on larger, varied terrian, and will keep themselves entertained with regular gallops there too. 

I think Skye is becoming bored in the arena though, and is ready for a bit more variety or challenge. 

I’ve been thinking about enthusiasm and playfulness. In being for +R I’m not against -R. +R is certainly beneficial in many ways, but I imagine you could create a machine-like dead-behind-the-eyes animal with either approach. You could even create a more expressive looking animal with -R or +P, which could be mistaken for enthusiasm. Anyway, what I found myself thinking was this… There are probably plenty of people whose ponies express genuinely intrinsically playful behaviours, with spontaneity and enthusiasm, without the owner ever consciously encouraging it. The owner may even be a purely -R person in terms of training, but if they have tact and a gentle touch (training rather than forcing) the horse can still develop enthusiasm for its working life. Before I had Skye I wasn’t able to implement any +R with the horse I rode as he wasn’t mine. But he would still spring his way over to the gate when I collected him for a lesson, and we had some rides where he gave me far more than I asked for, as though he wanted to impress us all. I think he could feel that I was always pleased with him, whatever he offered or managed. 

With Skye, I haven’t begun actively clicking/rewarding “badass” behaviour just yet (for practicalities sake, farrier/vet/etc., I did want to get basic handling sorted first), but she’s begun volunteering it anyway. Only a step or two at a time as she trots towards me (it’s physically difficult for her to sustain that posture, I think), with a proud neck or a little head toss, when I call her name. Not every time, but more often as the weeks go by. It feels genuine. It feels like it’s coming from nowhere but herself. 

And this is where her openness matters. She’s really educating me. The basic things that we do that she gets rewards for (walking, halting, all that stuff), she picked it up quickly and it’s really useful for getting her attention and focus at the beginning of a session or if she’s distracted. I mean who cares, let her be distracted right? But if there’s cars coming through or a vet to stand still for or any number of other things then I need to have a way to get that obedience (for want of a better term), despite obedience not being something I especially aim for. Togetherness is more the thing. Shared input. 

Anyway. Previously, if we tried something harder and she struggled (eg: backing up) we’d have to drop back down to just walking and halting. Lower the criteria to keep it motivating. But now, if I spend too much time in those lower criteria, she drops her head way down to the ground and performs the task at a crawl. This happened yesterday. She and Basil ran about a bit, then she found her way over to me as though she’d decided she’d like an opportunity for some carrots. We walked, halted, went over a small cross-pole, and her enthusiasm waned. The head dropped lower and lower. The only time she picked up again was when I asked for backing-up. Where normally this task is hard and she gets annoyed after a couple of steps, yesterday she would have just kept on going for as long as I asked. We backed-up on curved lines in both directions, purely off body gestures, no touches or ropes. 

She told me she wanted to work, then she told me it was boring, then she told me the harder task was worth her time. So my job is going to be keeping her interested, keeping her at the edge of her abilities and gently shifting back and forth whenever she needs calm reassurance or something slightly more challenging. Hacking out in-hand is currently the best example of this. She’ll be at the edge of her comfort zone for about 40% of the journey (maybe less), but she’ll be forward and curious to explore. It’s the most keen I’ve seen her. Which is great, because it’s also such good exercise, just walking and walking. 

I need to be careful not to swing up onto her back too soon, but I’m thinking the overlap may work differently to how I’d originally thought. I’d thought, get her “working” with good posture in walk, trot and canter, before putting anyone on her back. Now I’m thinking to possibly take it gait by gait. I’m increasingly feeling that trot is overdone anyway and I don’t want to trot her on circles for weeks just to get her fit. Too much risk to the joints. How else to get fitter then… Walking for longer periods of time, or over varied terrain, or under an additional load. So perhaps in a few weeks it’ll be time to back, then walk her once a week with a light rider, then with me, then more often or over different terrain, and so on, every so often testing the strength of her posture in trot in our free work or when at play. There’s no rule that as soon as the horse is ridden it should be doing all three gaits under the rider. So long as the walk is marching and healthy, it’s great exercise. 

But don’t forget what you learned at a recent lecture… Breathing hard develops the serratus dorsalis, amongst others, which as a secondary benefit strengthens the topline and gives the saddle somewhere to go. So lunging once a week is still a good idea. 

Thoughts on stability

One of the reasons I’m excited for the (possible? impending?) move to new grazing is the landscape. In fact, that’s the main reason. Even if I preferred my current yard, I feel that the horse will benefit from the change and it’s her requirements that matter most. 

The land is undulating. Just gently, but roughly, and enough (I think) to contribute to postural stability and wellness. 

I’ve been inspired by so much of the work Intrinzen are sharing on Instagram, and I’m loving the management ideas and core exercises from people like Gillian Higgins and Hilary Clayton. But some of it is to replace what’s lost in keeping horses in domestic settings. I’m thrilled to have the option of throwing the horse out onto land which will be ever-so-slightly more “natural” and conducive to healthy movement. 

That said, I have ordered a cheap 2″ thick gymnastics mat (as inspired by Intrinzen) to incorporate into Skye’s activities with me. If she fancies it. I can well believe that subtle challenges to balance can have a profound effect deep down, regardless of whether you can “see” it from the outside or not. 

When we moved onto the boat, my right knee (injured three years prior and never quite right) improved dramatically. It’s not perfect, never will be, crunches all the time… But it’s stable enough and has potential to improve further, if only I could make myself get to the gym! And there you have it. Enforced exercise is not motivating, and I’ve never been one who could make myself do something I didn’t want to do. But make it part of your everyday life… part of your natural environment… well, then it happens as a side-effect. The boat sways when you walk through it. So lightly that I forget until a visitor points it out. To board (or leave), I have to extend my stride just slightly to reach from towpath to stern as I don’t have a plank (I’d rather trust my own feet!), and walking through the bedroom and engine room to get out involves a couple of high steps, which helped hugely with the ability of my muscles to support my knees. I’d been feeling weak, feeble, and as though I was on a downwards slope to constant discomfort (in my early thirties!), and the boat changed that just for the tiny bit of extra physical challenge it presented to my deeper stability. Volunteering with horses then improved all that further, and I’m hoping that having Skye will ultimately level up my strength and stability once again. Your environment matters. 

I clocked three miles more than I would have yesterday, on account of taking Skye out for a walk. Would I have gone for a walk by myself to make myself get the exercise? Tired after volunteering and sore from camping on hard ground the week before? No. But there was a fun motivator, so I did. 

So I’m excited for things to come. Some gentle slopes for both horse and human to deal with on a regular basis. The mat, to gently challenge horse’s balance in the way that the boat challenges mine and keeps me ticking over. Environments which will enhance our baseline stability and let the “work” we do together be more productive. 

Tired and happy

After volunteering at Summerfield Stables on Wednesday we took the founder, wonderful Ros, and her great-god-daughter along to meet our three beasties. What a lovely time we had! 

We all groomed and tacked up, introducing each horse to Ros who was very kind and enthusiastic about them all. This is why Summerfield is so lovely, because the founder (and her daughter George who now runs it) have this lovely ethos of sharing the joy of horses with others. Where some may see problems or unnecessary effort, Ros sees potential and an animal that deserves a kind home. She loved Skye (“good strong mare”) and noticed very quickly how attentive the horse is, how well our budding connection is going. Felt very gratified by that. Skye even did perfectly for picking her feet out, with Ros at front to hold and entertain her (more than can be said for the following day, when she really wanted to plant those forefeet and it took us a while to get them picked). 

We all three went up to the dressage field for a play and so that Ros and the kid could see what we were each working on. And ultimately, although we’re all at different stages and approaching it in different ways, we’re all working on the same thing. Self-carriage. We are each trying to encourage healthy movement (or at the very least, trust, confidence, and mental relaxation) in our horses. 

Skye was very stimulated by the rich rye and clover in that field, so we didn’t have as much concentration as usual, but she was still great. 

The kid then rode one of the ponies and we all went into the jumping field. I was just in-hand grazing Skye and chatting, but I did lead her over some ground poles and between jump wings. I realised I hadn’t done that, in that field, since the first week I’d tried it to test the waters. What a difference. She was willing with a little coaxing even in that first week and I imagine, to the outside, it wouldn’t have looked much different. She still looked at them and hesitated when doing it this week. But the feeling I got from her was wildly different. Much more confident. Much more prepared to give me the benefit of the doubt. 

Yesterday, again after volunteering, a couple of us went down and had a walking hack (Skye in-hand) for about an hour. So I’m shattered today, but in a satisfied and happy way. 

Things of note: 

  • She went through the bollards without hesitation (this is only the second time we’ve tackled them). She’s a quick learner. 
  • Slower and less sure at first, think because it was with different horses (her favourite, Monty the cob, wasn’t with us). 
  • Loved the bridleway, once again, and we’re wondering if it’s because it’s softer going? She doesn’t seem footsore, but she is still only a couple of months back into roadwork and her posture/fitness still needs a lot of work, so perhaps her joints or feet feel the road more than the mud of the bridleway. Or perhaps she just finds it more inviting. 
  • Once again, after the bridleway she had more confidence. Our hesitant walk changed into that lovely, “we’re going somewhere with purpose!” walk, so we both got a good little bit of exercise. 
  • She shied a couple of times, doing her splayed leg thing much to the girls’ amusement, and I reflected again that one would probably be safer on her back than beside her. My poor toes were at risk a couple of times! 
  • We even had a tiny bit of trot. It was more of a jog, but… her neck stayed forward, down, and out! A nice horizontal balance. So that’s promising. 
  • Oh, and after I felt that her back looked a bit flatter and up for the exercise. Truly, never underestimate the power of purposeful walking and just getting the miles in. 
Once we got back, the girls had a brief go in the dressage field as they’re both trying to improve their horse’s trots at the moment. It’s the usual story, the horses brace and lift their heads (dropping/bending their cervicothoracic spine) in a protective move. My friend’s pony did it even as soon as he felt like trot would be coming (ie: when the reins were gently shortened to maintain a contact before asking for trot). But he walks lovely and big and swinging, especially after a recent McTimoney visit. So we tried trotting him from a walk on a long rein and oh, an instant improvement! A beautiful looking trot, nicely balanced, which was described as feeling “floaty… and it never has before.” And all because he didn’t feel the need to protect himself from the contact. This is a pony who was previously ridden in a three-ring gag with martingale (logical) and quite inverted. But he’s got such potential. It’s that old thing, we need him to seek out the contact happily, not have it imposed upon him. 
 
Before returning them to the field, I borrowed a friend’s saddle to see how Skye feels about having one near her and put on her back. Answer: fine. She had a “what the…?!” sniff of it, but couldn’t have cared less really. Given how she feels about the bridle, I wasn’t sure if the saddle would have similar associations. Placed it gently, but then moved it around, dropped the girth, reached under, smoothed the numnah and pad, rattled things, and let the girth run across her back when I took it off again. Horse didn’t batt an eyelid, was too interested in stuff happening off up the field. Very pleased. 
 
Back in the field, Skye was pissed off! Her field is rather bare. She’s gotten fatter this last month but even so, she is annoyed that she can’t access the clover on the other side of the fence. It gave rise to some lovely expression though, and it’s a pleasure that she’s starting to tell me these things. She’s starting to consider me as someone worth sharing her feelings with. She wears her heart on her sleeve, as it were. I’m happy that she feels confident enough to express anything except worry! 
 
So a wonderful couple of days. 
 
Oh, I find myself miffed this morning though! I’d collected up my drawings at Summerfield yesterday, thinking to get them photocopied today. Then they need cutting out and laminating. But, stupid Hampshire, I’ve picked up the wrong stuff and all the drawings are still at the stables. Sigh. I’ll need to do it next week as the week after we have another pony camp and I really want to have these bits ready and available incase they’re wanted for teaching. The weather has certainly been unreliable, and these sorts of educational games (selecting bits of tack, sticking superficial muscles onto my diagrams, things like that) are definitely good rainy-day options. 

Curiosity

Lovely day, yesterday. 

Went for a hack-in-hand with a friend and her cob (ridden) to show the way. We ventured further afield! Down the usual lane, then between some scary bollards, down a road, up a drive, along a bridleway, back onto the roads, then back to the bollards and the lane. Skye did great! She’s not bothered by traffic at all really. Likes to have a good look at everything else though, which is where the mild snorting and shying can come from. She gets het up when she can’t take a good look at things, or can’t see stuff well for it being hidden behind hedges. 

Going between the bollards, my friend led the way. But as they were waiting for Skye and I to sum up the courage to follow, the cob got himself alarmed and bolted for home! He does cute mini-bolts and gets himself settled again very quickly, but it was quite funny. Skye was alarmed by it, backed up and reared lightly, but got her feet and mind back down to the ground with some gentle words. Then we led the way through the bollards. It involved edging closer, rewarding, patiently standing whilst she took a long look beyond into the distance… Then she just walked through, no bother. What a good horse. 

It reminded me of discussing water obstacles with another friend. Frustrated kids being told to just wallop or kick or yank their ponies to get them into the water. And her saying, “you might need to just stand there for a while.” For the more sophisticated species, we’ve often a surprising lack of patience and big-picture thinking, especially with horses. 

Skye’s lookiness persisted as we continued down the road. So many things hidden behind hedges, so many suspicious looking gateways! We won’t know until we get there, but you get the impression you’d have an easier time on her back than by her side when out on the roads. Mind you, the clinginess has descreased such a lot over these past two months. Sometimes now, when I’m leading her down the lane, she drifts away from me as her nose curiously reaches out to explore things previously considered scary. 

By the time we got to the driveway which leads to the bridleway, Skye had settled and the lookiness had moved from mild anxiety to joyous, open, curiosity. Her walk opened up, her neck relaxed, and she had the happiest expression on her face. The look and walk of a hacking horse on a mission to explore. How pleasing! Fingers crossed for more of that. And once again her halting to cue was 90% perfect. Consistent and reliable. It only really failed towards the end of the trip when I’d instructed John, who had accompanied us and was eating blackberries from the roadside, to share some of the berries with Skye. After that she somewhat switched off from me, having decided John was her new best friend. I got her attention back though. 

Another tiny thing we pushed yesterday was reins. I lead her out on her cavesson, but with reins clipped to the sides rather than a leadrope. She couldn’t have cared less. Reins being put over her head and taken back down, fine. Leading from one rein or both, fine. Halting with a bilateral squeeze from behind the withers (ie: a simulation of a ridden rein aid), fine. So that was all good. 

After returning the horses to their fields, we went to look at a field for potential 24/7 winter grazing. Ooh, I’m keen… I need to think over a couple of the practicalities and I’ll be staying put for August anyway now, but I’d always said I wanted to keep Skye unstabled if possible and this might be a good option. 

You lose some things when you swap to this sort of land. There’s no arena, electric, or plumbed water. There’s some ragwort that they’re hoping to deal with in one of the main paddocks. 

What a tense neck. We don’t know what started Skye on the path of holding herself in a poor posture, but emotional tension certainly doesn’t help! Hence, all our work together has to be done with relaxation ever in mind. If she’s too tense, I can’t help her. This photo was taken back in June.
Isn’t that starting to look better. More like a horse and less like a giraffe! And that’s just two months of walking in-hand, some poles, some back lifts, and lots of +R rewarded with a long, forward, down neck.

But… there is a shed and stable for storage and emergencies… there is a stream which has been tested safe for horses… there are trees and hedges all around, for both shelter and foraging… there are thistles, nettles, blackberries, and so on, lovely rough browsing options, and though there’s a lot of grass it doesn’t look so rich as to be unmanageable… there’s a flatter field for riding and though it’s overgrown it’s big enough that you could have lovely little faux-hacks in there, in fact it’ll be bigger than most of the nearby bridleways… there are plenty of quiet roads for hacking and, if you go for an hour or so, you’d connect up to the areas I currently have access to… I can get there on public transport slightly faster and easier than the current yard… it’s closer to the stables I volunteer at… there’s eleven other horses currently and, aside from the colts, they live as a herd and all seem very healthy and happy… and [drumroll] it isn’t flat! The land is gently undulating. 

22 or 23 hours of each day, I don’t see Skye. She grazes a flat paddock and in winter would be doing the same for 12 hours a day then standing still in a box for the other 12. Which is fine. But since my current focus is resetting her posture, I figure anything that will help with that mission is a good thing. 

A sand arena, electric, these things are useful for sure, and my current yard is lovely. But for Skye, this winter, she’d benefit more from living in a slightly more “natural” way. Varied terrain, grazing and browsing from varied heights, a younger/larger herd which might encourage more movement/playing, nutritional options other than grass… all of these things equate to a greater variety of challenges to her balance and core stability. All day every day. We’ve done good work together, so far, in improving her posture and relaxation. But how much more effective my small sessions would be if the rest of the time wasn’t spent in poor posture undoing the good work we’ve done? Remember what Sharon May-Davis said about the longus colli and scalenus… Long Slow Distance work. Browsing, moving, varied gradients. 

So I need to have a think, but I’m feeling like it would be a good move for the horse. 

In the co-op on the way home I was reminded of a thought I’d had a while ago. People often expect better manners of their horses than they actually have themselves. Skye gets bored standing on the yard and often begins taking herself off. Doesn’t see why she shouldn’t. I always just gently bring her back or at most give a small correction. It’s not a fight I’m going to pick. Partly because I do the same! And I know that being shouted at or forced never works for me, I just rebel. We’d gone through the co-op checkout and John was dallying around with something or other. I walked off. I don’t like waiting or standing around. I do it all the time and whilst I know it’s bad manners I don’t care enough to force myself. Sometimes I try to be better and exercise more patience. So whilst both horse and human could stand to learn more patience, I’m not going to curse her for it when I’m no better. Left a Facebook group or two recently as I got bored of people posting about their horses being “bastards” and “shits” just for, well, being horses. 

McTimoney visit

So, having been unable to see Skye for four days, I found her today back to being a little more uncertain and skittish. Only a tiny difference, but it was there. A hesitancy about being caught in the field, which has come from no-where. My lead-rope seemed to have gone walk-about too, so I wonder if she’d needed moving or catching without me and got a bit worried by it. At any rate, I brought her in and thought that if we worked before the McTimoney visit it would release some energy and let her relax for the treatment.

Not so much. 

It definitely was a better idea than doing the treatment straight from the field (she’d have been too impatient), but there was such a lot happening on the yard that even though she relaxed quite well she never really switched off her “alert!” setting. There was road surfacing stuff being tipped out of trucks just outside the arena, vehicles, fast motorbikes on the nearby road, and even the sound of a lawnmower, god forbid! Horse wasn’t especially alarmed by these things, just very looky and keen to investigate. Which I mostly let her do. But the lookiness persisted into the bodywork visit. Which wasn’t the end of the world, but I’d have liked it for her if she’d enjoyed the massage a bit more. I’m sure as she becomes more familiar with this stuff she’ll be happier with it. And I’m glad that she showed us what felt strange, by stepping away, fidgeting, or lightly stamping a foot. 

But all that is by-the-by, the real reason the four-day break was mildly frustrating is that her posture seemed to have dropped a touch in the interim. Just goes to show, they really do need that consistent work. I suppose the four days off for her is like me having four days of sitting writing or sewing rather than walking and volunteering. It doesn’t seem a lot, but it has a huge impact on your posture and general feeling of health. 

Anyway, it was an interesting session! Lots of good done, I hope. 

I can’t remember everything, but I’ll make a list of what I can remember for future reference: 

  • Bit of tightness in muscles behind poll, especially on left-hand side. 
  • Struggles to bend to right-hand side, through body and neck. 
  • Trapezius and rhomboid very tight, likewise. I’ve read that over-development or tension of the cervical trapezius can “lock” the scapula somewhat forwards, so this might have contributed to her being so heavy on the forehand. These muscles loosened up as Rachel worked. They’re a place for emotional tension though, which Skye neatly demonstrated today. She wasn’t convinced about the treatment and, as already noted, was having an impatient and slightly tense day, so she stood with her head somewhat up the entire time. Didn’t relax it down like she normally does these days. At any rate, we’ve removed some tension there so hopefully over the next week or so she’ll find it easier and easier to offer that reaching neck posture. She can do it well when standing and walking, but we want it next in trot. 
  • Brachiocephalic and shoulders overdeveloped, obviously, nothing we didn’t know there. 
  • Didn’t learn anything new to explain why she occasionally stumbles on the right fore (the one she seems to put more weight through), though I accidentally caught a bit of video footage of her doing so and it seems to be that the toe goes into the ground too soon. So I guess she sometimes isn’t lifting that leg high enough to accommodate the length of stride. Like when you get tired and drag your feet. I couldn’t say why it happens though. 
  • Dorsal processes of withers into back were laterally curved relative to one another. Like a gentle “S” shape, if you viewed the spine from above. I don’t know enough about it, but I’d guess muscle imbalance pulling things out of alignment? This improved for the session too. 
  • Back wasn’t too bad, though the right-hand side (beneath where a saddle would sit) showed spasm when the loins of the same side were worked on. Was the spasm coming from the top edge of the latissimus dorsi? Or the thoracolumbar fascia? Or the longissimus dorsi beneath? I’m unsure. This eased too. Left-hand side was okay, if I remember right. 
  • Pelvis unlevel, left hip dropped. This levelled up quite well during the session, but I’ll keep an eye on it. 
  • Left hind stepping short, in part due to the above (though which came first, who knows…). She has dragged her left hind toe a few times, so now I know why. Left hamstrings very tight and knotty, think this was the worst area. Which I suppose means that she’s been pushing off with that leg strongly and putting a lot of weight through it, but not been able to let it travel very far under the body, hence the stepping short. This is the leg that has an old injury to the cannon, which could have been related. Hopefully now that it’s been released a bit she’ll be able to step through better, and begin levelling up her musculature. 
  • Right-hand gluteals quite overdeveloped. Left slightly wasted. The muscle imbalance makes the pelvis look uneven still, so I need to look for bony landmarks when keeping an eye on her. 

But, it’s all good news really. There was nothing especially shocking or surprising found, just the usual stuff you might expect from a horse who has been moving on the forehand and in a compensatory way for years. Rachel seemed positive and said I was doing the right kind of work with her. 

So, my task now is to continue as before. 

Walking, straight lines, poles, reflexes, stretches, proprioceptive bandages, a little bit of lunging, etc. Attempt long-lining again, as straight lines and that “seeking” posture really are the thing. It will be very interesting to see if she has a moment where she realises it might be possible to comfortably reach forward and down in trot. I’m hopeful for her. 

Thistles and Circles

I wasn’t at my best yesterday. Wound up (for no apparent reason) but the horse felt it, I think, as she was fidgety and spooky again. My vibes were pressured and, though I told myself to remain chill for the horse’s sake, I’m sure I transmitted some of my annoyance. So I didn’t do well. But at least I was aware of it, and endeavoured to keep the questions I asked of her small. We just went down the lane again, bit of roadwork to slowly toughen up those feet and legs. 

But I did do one thing well yesterday. Walking from the bus stop to the yard I noticed that the thistles have started flowering, so I gathered some for Skye. I think she’d never had them before, judging by her expression. She liked them though. My childhood pony, Freddie, used to love them. During late summer, he’d eat thistleheads, pondweed, and all manner of other things, and he always got especially glossy and muscled then too. Though there is plenty that can be toxic to horses I do think we restrict their browsing and grazing too much. Rich pasture and clover is not good for them really. And my plump horse has access to plenty of clover right now! I’d sooner she were out on some scrubby hills. Alas, this is the West Midlands not Northumberland, so it is what it is. For now. 

Today I did better. Horse was gentle as a lamb, as is her default setting when anxiety is removed, and we had a good session in the arena. It had been raining, so the sand was easier going. Did some leading, lunging, then free-following. Bits of backing up interspersed as usual, though I’m trying to be lighter in my requests. The number of steps and quality we get is variable and isn’t improving right now, so I figure I need to be less annoying in my requests and reward smaller tries. Give her a chance to respond to lightness rather than my usual heavy-handed human ways. 

She did great with the lunging. Only did about 10mins, but I reckon that’s plenty for a horse just coming back into work. Her walk is lovely and her trot isn’t bad but it isn’t good either. She just needs a bit more core stability and mental relaxation, then I think her back will release and allow for a lovely posture in trot. Though she needs the exercise, I’m not going to have her running around in a low quality trot as badly done circles are too hard on the body and I don’t want to damage her. 

So, all we did today was a few transitions and short bits of trot (no more than a circle at a time) to get her happy with the concept. She was improved even just from the other day when my instructor-friend helped. Didn’t try to pull off the circle, didn’t turn in to avoid the work… She did turn in at halt, ears pricked intently, but I can accept that for now. She halted and stayed out on the circle, after all. For a horse that loves to cling to your shoulder, that’s brilliant progress. She’ll halt with her quarters in line soon enough. We changed direction a couple of times, then chilled. And with each change of rein, a little reward and gentle words. 

Then a bit of free-following. As I’ve said before it isn’t “proper” liberty yet, but it’s a start. It’s mostly just a question of her being focused and responsive. There’s no punishment or escalation of negative reinforcement if she doesn’t come with me, only positive reinforcement when she does. She’ll follow, halt, back up, and stand to be stroked all over. She’ll focus on the job as she understands it (of sticking with you), but she’ll also lift her head and watch the world go by which I’m happy about. She doesn’t shut down. It would be too heart-breaking if she did, no matter what method of operant conditioning you used. I think she quite likes the arena now, she knows what’s expected of her there and she knows that it always ends well. 

Whilst in there, a friend brought her cob in to practice a bit of leading. He’s an historic bolter, shall we say. It pops up occasionally, but he’s really very good these days and she’s done a wonderful job with him. He’s also a favourite of Skye’s but, aside from a little hello that we allowed, she didn’t falter once from focussing on the task at hand. Friend said she didn’t think Skye could have ended up in better hands and I’m childish enough to have been deeply pleased that she thinks so. 

Friend’s cob has just had a McTimoney visit (same lady who will be looking at Skye on Saturday) and I loved that the conversation apparently included positivity about the merits of hacking, walking, and straight lines! Ah yes, a woman after my own heart, perhaps. I’m hoping she’ll approve of the slow work we’re doing with Skye, and I’m also massively curious as to what she may find. I hope, at the very least, that Skye will enjoy the massage aspect of it and that I can watch and learn where her sore spots are. 

So, a mixed couple of days, but right now I’m feeling wonderfully pleased and hope my horse is too. I think she’s finding some of the work boring, so I need to think on that… But I hope that overall she goes back to the field each time thinking, “yep, I did well there, conned the human out of many treats and felt confident and strong in my body!” Or something similar but more horsey, haha. 

Don’t underestimate walking (for horses or humans!)

Whenever I do a lot of walking, I feel much fitter and stronger. By comparison, the times in my life where I’ve tried to compensate for sit-down work by exercising harder for shorter spells of time, it hasn’t worked so well. It is “easier” to just be generally active. But that is about as far as my interest in human fitness currently goes. Which is no doubt why I struggle with fitness myself and the best way I have of keeping reasonably sound is just by keeping busy with enjoyable outdoors things like volunteering and ponies. I “trick” myself into being a little bit healther by making it about overall lifestyle rather than focused effort or discipline (which I don’t naturally have). 

Hence, Skye. One of the justifications for having her was the change it would bring to my fitness levels, and it’s working so far. That said, I’ve been very tired the past couple of weeks and have felt at a standstill. I think the extra work is catching up with me! And I think I need more protein. It’s easy to not eat enough, actually, when you’re a plump girl working harder but trying to get smaller. 

Anyway, back to ponies, human stuff is dull. 

As I’ve written frequently, this first few weeks with Skye has been about letting her settle. Physically, it’s been about getting her core a bit more toned, and we’ve done that through the following: 

  • Walking/halting on concrete, sand, and grass. Transitions = engagement and developement of strength, even when in-hand.
  • Slow, raised, walk poles. 
  • Back lifts and pelvic tucks (reflexes). 
  • Backing-up (“collection in reverse”, Gillian Higgins called it). 
  • Decontracting the neck muscles (using the delivery of rewards to encourage a “reaching” neck posture, to relax the sterno- and brachio- cephalic muscles, which are very developed but were even worse when she first came). 
  • And we’ve started with a little bit of lunging, but for now that’s all about understanding and hasn’t had any bearing on her posture or fitness. 

But I think of all of those methods the simplest one is perhaps also one of the most effective. Walking. Striding out. I genuinely think one of the most valuable things we do is go up and down the tarmac lane in-hand once a week. 

  • Dr. Deb Bennett writes about good ridden posture as such: the hind-end coils (by which I think she means the legs and LSJ flex, the hip flexors bringing the pelvis more under the body), the abdominals engage, the withers lift as the topline decontracts (the musculature now functioning passively, almost like tendons or as part of the ligamentary system), and in particular the rhomboid and trapezius release allowing the longus colli and scalenus to engage which straightens out the cervicothoracic junction of the spine. 
  • 4DimensionDressage on Facebook wrote once (or many times!) about allowing the pendulum motion of the neck. “The pendulum motion arises from the hind leg. When the pendulum motion is not visible at the walk, it means that the horse is blocked in the hind leg. That hind leg does not move enough under the body. A retroactive hand ALWAYS blocks the movement of the hind legs.” In early fittening, the horse needs to be allowed to use the pendulum motion to engage the elastic nuchal ligament to aid forwardness and the tendinous qualities/parts of the upper neck muscles. Efficiency. 
  • The nuchal ligament, via the storing of elastic strain energy, does 55% of the work of swinging the head/neck in the walk. The head being used as a pendulum, as noted above, to aid in forward momentum. And in an unfit horse (who may need up to two years of unspectacular work before its topline is really “in”) it is tension from the NL through the ligaments of the back which allow the back to stay somewhat up beneath the rider and thus carry them without discomfort or injury. Imagine that, 55% of the work and an important job in supporting a rider. Take that elastic tension away by shortening the neck, lifting the head too soon, or moving without purpose, and the wrong muscles will brace to support the body instead. 
  • But 55% leaves 45% for the muscles to do, and those muscles will be gently toned by sustained walking. When does a domestic horse take itself for an hour’s bold walk each day? Even thirty minutes? It doesn’t. So those spells of time, striding out with a long neck, are going to gently tone all the muscles you want, including the super-important longus colli and scalenus which may be neglected otherwise. As per Bennett’s papers, the neck topline muscles have to be allowed to develop slowly as employing them too soon overpowers any chance the longus colli and scalenus have of developing. 
  • I read elsewhere (perhaps via Science of Motion) that the splenius’ main job is to resist gravity during movement, giving stability to the range of motion. Ie: that horizontal-ish FORWARD DOWN AND OUT neck posture requires the splenius to work and it will develop accordingly. Bringing them “up” too soon engages the muscles incorrectly and it’s only the upper neck that raises, not the whole forehand from the wither. “Absolute” rather than “relative” elevation, as Gerd Heuschmann would say. 
  • The longus colli and scalenus are deep, aerobic, postural muscles which get little work in most horses. Sharon May-Davis spoke about the benefits of letting horses browse (eat food between knee and chest height) for small amounts of time each day. It requires that reaching neck posture which engages the core and uses these deep, ventral, base-of-the-neck muscles. Even better if they have to slightly reach over some sort of barrier to get the food.
  • Other people recorded the effects of all this, without knowing the science behind it. “By engaging his pelvis under the horse, it lifts his vertebral column, his withers. The importance of the lifting of the withers cannot be overestimated. It is a necessity to the tilting of the pelvis which, otherwise, loses a part of it’s efficiency.” – Jean Claude Racinet. 
  • Denny Emerson, whose Facebook page I thoroughly enjoy, often writes about hours and hours of walking under saddle as being hugely valuable. It shouldn’t be underestimated. And I recently watched a video showing the huge amount of movement through the body during walk. It seems an almost therapeutic gait. 
  • I also wonder if brisk walking, and the small amount of extra work it will make the lungs do (compared to grazing!) is enough to begin developing the muscles that help with respiration. It must be, in a mild way. And remember, Gillian talked about the benefits of getting the breathing going at one of her recent talks. Some of the muscles that aid respiration (and I think she meant mainly the serratus dorsalis, but perhaps the iliocostalis also comes into it?) apparently contribute to the look and integrity of the topline. Which perhaps helps me understand the apparent contradictions in theory about how the topline along the back should function. It needs to be passive in a sense. Toned, but not in contraction, not braced or tense, but functioning almost like tendons. And yet it develops and fills out. Perhaps through static contraction? Perhaps from deeper, in the muscles that aid respiration? Perhaps both? But for sure, plenty of hunting and hacking horses and the like have decent toplines without doing endless dressage, and perhaps this is part of why… Because they move forward on straight lines, with purposeful walks, for long periods of time, interspersed with jolly good canters to blow away the cobwebs. 
  • The scalenus apparently also aids with respiration, being connected to the first rib or two, but Bennett says this is far less significant (since those ribs barely move) than its role in supporting the base of the neck. Even so, it’s another vote in favour of athletic work to get them breathing. 

So, lovely big swinging walks are the way forward, as it were. 

It’ll be great once we get round to actual hacking. She just needs to be a fair bit fitter and stronger in her posture first. Plus, I need to find a saddle for her, ha. But now that we can begin incorporating lunging once a week I’m hoping it’ll help with getting a bit more active (to get the breathing working and build that back topline), a bit more strong behind (transitions), and a bit more confident. Combined with everything else, I think we’re on the right track.