I had a great conversation with a friend today that reminded me of something we horse people often overlook.
You know all of those things you ask your horse to do while under saddle? They’re hard work. If you’ve ever given anyone a piggy back ride you know that just walking around with another creature on your shoulders is challenging and physically tiring. Add to that the fact that regardless of your discipline, we want our horses to be balanced, forward, and willing to immediately turn, speed up, or slow down as soon as we ask for it. Oh, and if they could please look pretty and make it a smooth ride while they’re at it?
Basically we’re asking our horses to dance like a professional ballerina while carrying another creature on their shoulders. And some of us would like them to run (really fast, around tight turns, or both together, please!) or jump over obstacles (and make it look pretty), again all while carrying us on their shoulders and compensating for any faults in balance or control we might be personally experiencing while up there.
Many times when there is a performance or behavior issue while under saddle, I look for pain. As a veterinarian and an equine bodyworker this is always my first instinct. Look for painful physical abnormalities, saddle fit problems, or consistent and detrimental rider error. However, not every performance issue is pain related, and most are not just horses with bad attitudes either!
Honestly, this is something that I thought about, but didn’t really understand in my bones until I met Neyya.
Neyya was a green five year old when we met. She was a good little girl, but when she turned to face you she disappeared: She had virtually no shoulder or chest muscle when we met.
Regardless, I got on with my job of putting miles on her and polishing up her training. She’d had the basics, so when I got on the first time, I expected to be able to easily get three gaits out of her. Well, that is not what happened. I spent the first four months of our relationship having a fight with her about cantering, especially on the left lead, every time I rode. For months, after looking for any sources of pain, I was convinced she was just a grumpy mare who was mostly refusing to listen and do what I knew she understood I was asking for. We’re talking all out, crowhop down the arena fights. It was not fun for either of us. I knew she had a fitness issue and was convinced the best way to get her better at left lead canter was to make her do it until she could do it well.
Finally something softened in me after I read an article about athletic discomfort in horses. Athletic discomfort is a way of talking about the discomfort that happens when you work out. If you’ve ever gone for a long hike, done yoga, lifted weights, gone for a run, you know what this is. The thing is, when we decide to work out, we’re in control. We know why we’re doing it. Horses aren’t in control (mostly), and they don’t really know why we’re doing something. Even if they love what we’re asking them to do, I can tell you that my mare does not understand why we need to do all the extra work of engaging the core and going round when we’re just going to be jumping anyway.
I decided the best approach was to just work on trot for 6 months. It paid off. We spent 6 months working on circles that were circular (not a strength at this point in her career), leg yields, and other exercises to help strengthen her core and improve her overall athleticism. Six months later when I asked her for a left lead canter, she leapt right into it in the most balanced way she ever had. It was worth every second, and we had six months of pleasant rides together while we made it there.
The moral of the story? Remember that your horse is a crazy amazing athlete. Building athleticism, strength, flexibility, and coordination takes time. When you’re sure your horse is refusing to do something because they don’t have a good attitude, take a step back. If there’s no pain and nothing to be afraid of, there’s a good chance what you’re asking is just too athletically challenging for them to do easily or comfortably and they need more strengthening at a basic level. Conditioning takes time, and even something we think should be easy, like a simple trot to canter transition, requires a huge amount of strength and flexibility to be able to do it easily with a human on board.
When in doubt, call me out. We’ll discuss the issues, look for sources of pain, and talk about core strengthening exercises that are within your horse’s reach and will help them make it to the next level of performance. The big bonus? Spending the time to create that conditioning will build an incredible relationship with your horse and let them know it’s safe to trust you with their body because you will not force them to give more than they can easily offer.
As always, if you have questions email me! I love blogging, especially when I know it’s answering my tribe’s questions.
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