Thursday, December 10, 2015

Is your horse's lower back tight?

   Horses in regular work tend to have occasional soreness and muscle tension. In order to prevent these issues from becoming injuries, or creating behavioral problems, we have to help the horse work out the knots and move forward freely and evenly. But sometimes, it's difficult to find the root of the problem, especially since any discomfort can quickly lead to inversion and crookedness and thus a whole list of body parts being used incorrectly. Here are four telltale signs that your horse's lower back is tight, and preventing him from carrying himself (and you) comfortably in good balance.

1) A hollow appearance behind the saddle:

   The area of the horse's back directly behind the saddle is called the loin, and it is vulnerable to stress because it is unsupported; it has no ribs underneath it like the middle of the back does. When your horse is being ridden, if he is using his body correctly, the loin should appear full, and be at the same height as the croup. However, if the horse is tight in this area, it will appear low behind the saddle, and will slope upwards towards the croup.

2) He's dragging his nose on the ground while longeing:

   When you longe your horse, if he is comfortable and relaxed, he will carry his head such that his eye is no higher than his withers, and no lower than the point of his shoulder. However, if his lower back is tight, he may seek to release it by stretching his neck down so far that his lip is practically dragging in the dirt. At the same time, he'll be taking small strides with his hind feet. If your horse does this frequently, and especially if he gets grumpy at you when you get after him to pick up his head and move forward, it is very likely that his lower back is the culprit.

3) He has a flat neck when asked to stretch out and down:

 In an effort to lengthen our horses' toplines, we often do exercises on the ground and under saddle to encourage horses to reach through the neck, telescoping into the contact and lifting the base of the neck in a graceful arch. If, despite correct training techniques, your horse consistently has a flat neck; if his response to you combing the line or lengthening your reins is to extend his forehead away from his body while refusing to lift the base of the neck, his lower back may be too tight to allow him to lift his front end and thus shift his weight back onto his hind end.

4) He is unable to release at the poll:

   Many horses benefit from being asked to flex slightly left and right at the poll. When done correctly, without the horse twisting its head sideways, this exercise promotes softness through the whole topline. This is usually where I start when asking horses to begin releasing and rebalancing, and I have discovered that horses who are tight in their lower backs also have a very hard time releasing behind their ears. Frequently, I have to address this lower back tension before horses can respond correctly to the request that they release at the poll.

Now what?

    If your horse has one or more of these symptoms of lower back tension, don't panic! You can help. There are many methods of bodywork which can relieve muscle tension.  I recommend Connected Groundwork exercises, especially Pelvic Tilt and Sacral Rock. TTouch can also be very helpful, as can stretching the horse's hind legs. Experiment with different methods to find what works for you and your horse.
     In addition to incorporating a little bodywork into your warmup and cool down, take steps to teach your horse to use his lower back correctly. Do groundwork before riding and ask the horse to reach his hind legs underneath him with his belly lifted, instead of with his back down. Then have someone watch you ride, and tell you whether your horse is hollow, or lifted, in the loin. If he's hollow, try releasing tension in your own lower back and hips. Give your leg aids with your joints free and active, instead of bracing or locking. And of course, make sure your saddle fits!
    Learning to care for your horse's lower back will help ensure that you and your horse can enjoy healthy, happy riding time for many years to come!


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Horse-Human Mind-Body Connection Clinic

You can now register for the clinic by visiting Eventbrite! Follow this link to reserve your space now!

I invite you to my upcoming clinic, on October 25 from 9-4! View the flyer at the bottom of this post.

To register
(1) Download and print the waiver and registration forms.

(2) Make check payable to:
J&L Equine

(3) Send check and forms to: 
107 Brookline ave, Holyoke, MA 01040

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Try This At Home!

This article first appeared on the articles page of my website. I'm rearranging things and decided to post it to the blog for those of you who haven't seen it yet. Give it a try and post a comment or drop me a line!

Below are three 'lessons' you can do on your own or with the help of a friend. After doing all three, you should have a better sense of how to create good movement and attitude in your horse by working together with him, instead of against him, when giving your aids.  Please feel free to email me about your experience!

All of these concepts are a combination of Connected Riding, created by Peggy Cummings; TTeam, created by Linda Tellington-Jones; and things I've learned from the horses and students I've worked with over the years.

Day 1: Have someone lead you around the arena or field, or down a fairly level trail, at a brisk walk. If you don't have someone who can lead you, walk your horse on a long rein with minimal aids.

Feel your seatbones underneath you. Try to sit with your whole body stacked over your seatbones, without arching your back or slouching.

Close your eyes. Every time your horse takes a step, allow your whole upper body to rock forward gently on your seatbones. Instead of allowing your body to bend at the waist to absorb the shock, let your upper body be one unit. Buoy* forward gently with each step.

If buoying takes effort, try relaxing your lower back and allowing your seatbones to sink just a little bit deeper underneath you.You may also need to float your sternum forward just slightly so you are not behind the motion. For those of you who are accustomed to an equitation position, this may feel slightly slouched. Allow yourself to find the position in which it is easy to buoy, even if it's not what you're used to.

Now allow your thighs to completely relax and roll away from the horse. Take a few deep breaths and melt any tension or muscle engagement in your hips, your inner thighs, and the backs of your legs. You will feel your knee come away from the saddle slightly. (This is a good thing!)

Feel how every time the horse takes a step, he rolls one of your thighs up and out, and then the other. Allow this motion. Encourage it with your mind, but don't use your muscles to 'do' it; let the horse do it for you.

Now go back to feeling the buoy in your upper body. If you feel unsteady, exhale firmly and feel your core strengthen. These are your stabilizing muscles. Any time you feel unsteady, repeat this breath to engage your core, but don't forget to inhale! Next release your back and hips again to allow you to keep buoying forward with every step.

Go back and forth between feeling the upper body buoying forward effortlessly with each step of the horse, and feeling your thigh roll and your knee swing outwards on one side and then the other. Notice your horse's response. Has his walk changed? What about his attitude?

Keep going for about ten minutes with this exercise, closing your eyes periodically, then continue on with the rest of your ride as normal.

Day 2: Begin by walking your horse on a long rein. Find your buoy and allow your legs to follow the rolling of your horse's barrel, just like Day 1.

After you've found the rhythm, experiment with turning up the volume in your buoy just slightly for a maximum of three seconds, then relax back into following mode. If you feel yourself start to become loose in your middle, use your exhaling muscles to stabilize. What happens to your horse's walk when you turn up the volume in your buoy?

Next try quieting your buoy. Don't resist the forward motion or get behind the rhythm, but imagine your horse is buoying you forward with less energy than he actually is. Feel this for only a few seconds, then release it. How does your horse respond?

Next try turning up the volume in the rolling motion in your legs. Be aware of not using your muscles to create the motion; just imagine your horse was flexing your hip, knee and ankle joints more exuberantly than he is, for a maximum of three seconds. Relax completely, then try it a few more times. What is your horse's response?

If you feel your lower leg start to swing forward and back when you do this, take a deep breath and release through your hip and thigh, allowing your knee to fall away from the saddle again. Be aware of allowing the back of your thigh (your hamstring) to stay soft, even when you're turning up the volume in your leg.

Now try quieting the motion in your legs. Allow your lower leg to continue resting gently against your horse's barrel, and continue following his motion with your joints, but imagine your legs are full of molasses. How does this affect your horse's walk?

Continue these experiments for the first ten minutes of your ride, and note any changes in your horse's demeanor. Then continue on with your ride as normal.

Day 3: By now you're probably starting to feel how subtly you can influence your horse's motion, especially when you first take a moment to become part of it. On this final day, you'll use this ability to start helping your horse make a greater connection from his front end to his hind end.

Begin by finding your buoy and allowing your leg to follow the rolling motion of the horse. Remember that your seatbones need to be on the bottom, your lower back and hips need to be relaxed, and your knee should be slightly away from the saddle, or at least not gripping onto it.

Pick up your contact gently. Allow your elbows to rest at your sides, and allow your wrists to be at the same height as your elbows, or slightly higher. Quietly follow the motion of the horse's head and neck, so your elbows 'swish' back and forth at your sides, but don't allow your elbow to go further forward than the front of your belly. Take a deep breath into your back.

Experiment with thinking 'up' through the wrists for a couple of seconds, then relaxing. Don't 'drop' the contact when you relax, just melt any tension in your arms. Allow your elbows and shoulder blades to stay down as you think up only through the contact. Be sure to continue participating in the walk with the rest of your body as you invisibly connect with your horse through the reins. Try this a few times; if your horse wants to stretch his neck down afterwards, allow him to. After thinking 'up' through the contact while continuing to buoy through the body and roll through the legs, then releasing, a few times, does the walk feel different?

The next time you ride a corner or a bend, try combining the elements you've been practicing: turn up the volume in your leg, turn up the volume in your buoy, and think gently 'up' in your wrists as you look around the corner. Be sure to release all of these sensations after a maximum of three seconds, and take a moment to soften your hips and lower back again.

Try this again in the next corner. Look around the corner with your upper body, slightly increase the energy in the walk, and think 'up' through your wrists while staying grounded in your seat and elbows. Release, and feel your horse soften as you come out of the turn. Did you feel him bend in the corner? What is the quality of his walk now?

If you feel comfortable, try doing this exercise while looking to the outside of the ring or circle for a few seconds, to get a counter-bend.

After each moment of looking around the bend, asking for more walk, and thinking 'up,' your horse may want to stretch his neck. This is a really good thing! It means that he is responding correctly to your aids, and is feeling inspired to lengthen his topline. Be sure to let him slide the reins through your fingers at this moment. You can gather them up again when he's done.

Spend about ten minutes on this exercise at the walk, then continue with your ride. Throughout the workout, when you give your aids, think about using as little effort as possible. Give each aid for a maximum of three seconds, then release.

After the ride, think about how your horse responded. Was he lighter? More supple? More responsive? Take note of your experience, and feel free to share it here!

*"buoy" forward in the saddle is a Connected Riding trademark concept, created by Peggy Cummings. Find out more at!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Tips for riding downhill

It's trail season and that means... Hills!

Hills are a great way to condition your horse. They work all the muscles involved in self-carriage and teach the horse to shift his weight longitudinally (from front to back). Moreover, they are an inevitable part of riding in New England, and many other parts of the world as well.

Riding uphill is pretty easy. You bend forward a bit at the hip to get out of the horse's way, grab mane if it's really steep, and the horse learns pretty readily to engage his hind end.

But going downhill, the horses don't balance quite as naturally, and frankly, neither do the riders. Tripping, slipping, rushing, jigging, fussing, and crookedness are common. Here's an explanation of why, as well as four tips for how to help your horse carry himself, and you, gracefully down a hill.

When a horse is going down a hill, he naturally inverts, dropping the base of his neck and his rib cage and taking short steps with his hind end. This is not a huge problem when he's riderless, but creates significant balance issues when the weight of the rider is added. When the horse is inverted, he can't shift weight very effectively from front to back, because his spine is locked. Only when he is using the muscles on the underside of his body to lift his spine, (a posture known as bascule, or self-carriage,) can he safely and gracefully navigate downhill while carrying weight.

As riders, it is our job to encourage the horse to balance properly. Here are the four most important things you can do to facilitate a balanced descent:

1: Lean forward.
I know, I know, sounds crazy, right?! We were all taught years ago to lean BACK when going downhill. And if you're the Man from Snowy River, this is probably a good idea. But for your average, everyday hill, if you want to keep your horse free through his spine, your spine must stay perpendicular to his, or slightly ahead of that line. When you lean back, you jam your seat bones into your horse's back, preventing him from lifting. You also tighten the muscles in your back, hips and knees, to hold yourself there. This makes it completely impossible for the horse to have flexibility in his back. What you want to do instead is find your seat bones, then float your upper 
body forward as a unit until you are perpendicular to your horse or slightly ahead, right where you would be if your horse was on the level. Don't bend at the waist, just come forward at the hip, like two-point position. Make sure your thighs are relaxed and not gripping the saddle.  Use your exhaling muscles to support you and to keep your spine long and stacked, just like you would if you were riding on flat ground. Allow your shoulder blades to stay active in your back to prevent hunching. If the hill is really steep, rest your hands on the horse, the pommel, or the horn.

By bending at the hip so completely, you allow your hips and thighs to continue following the motion of the horse's barrel, instead of locking and blocking the horse's ability to shift his weight.

2: Keep your legs active.
The other benefit of breaking down at the hip is that it allows your leg to stay elastic and wrapped around the horse's barrel, instead of pushing down into the stirrup to keep you up. Just like on flat ground, your hip, knee and ankle should bend in concert, absorbing the movement of the horse every stride. This can not be achieved if you are leaning back and bracing your knees and hips against the motion. 

With your free, active leg, you can encourage your horse to reach underneath himself with his hind legs. Just keep your calves resting gently against his sides as you bend at the hip, and occasionally turn up the volume slightly in the upward movement already happening in your thighs. As long as you stay long and tall in your spine, this motion in your legs will help your horse step deeply under himself and carry you surefootedly down the hill.

3: Maintain a light contact.

When traveling down a hill, a horse is relying on his longitudinal balance; his ability to balance from front to back. As a rider, we can help the horse create an awareness of the connection from his front end to his hind end by maintaining contact in the reins. It doesn't matter if your horse is wearing a bit, a side pull, a bosal, a hackamore, or a halter; if you're providing a contact he can comfortably stretch his neck into, you will help your horse elongate his spine into a better balance.

To be supportive and soft, allow your elbows to rest under your ears, next to your body. Bend your elbows and think of your wrists as light and buoyant. As the horse moves his head, maintain the contact by opening or closing your elbow. Keeping your wrists up will help your horse keep his front end light, and keeping your elbows next to your body will help you keep from bracing in your back and shoulders.

4. If your horse is still making mistakes under saddle down a hill, try doing some groundwork. Walk your horse down the hill in hand, asking him to halt and back up frequently. Tap him gently on the chest or under the base of his neck with a dressage whip in the halt transition if he has a tendency to pull or run through you. Slalom left and right to get him to bend, release his spine, and thus learn to stay loose coming down the hill.

Taking the time to teach your horse to balance properly down the hill will go a long way towards improving his musculature, his behavior, and his confidence. Most importantly, it will make trail riding a lot more fun!

If you have questions, don't hesitate to email me. Happy trail riding!


Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A thought for Tuesday morning...

Lately I've been going to yoga class more often, and last night I was musing about a particular movement that is difficult for me. At first, I was thinking, 'I've got to try harder to get that right.' But as I thought about it more, I realized that if I obsessed about it, I'd get more and more tense as that movement approached in the sequence. What I need to do instead is learn to breathe through it. Let the breath be my guide, and let it help my body figure out how to do what I'm asking it to do.

It's the same with the horses. By fitting your aids into the rhythm of their breath and other natural movements, you can teach them to do anything. It's when they (we) stop breathing deeply that they become stiff, resistant, uncoordinated, and often, scared.

Having a clear picture of what you want your horse's body to do is also crucial. If you aren't sure how a particular movement should be performed, you should watch as many training sessions as you can at all levels with many different horses. Especially when performed with a trainer who knows how to teach the horse to breathe.

Lately I've taken my training sessions with my Thoroughbred, Julian, back to square one for this reason. He does everything I ask him to do, promptly, but he isn't present. He isn't breathing. (As you can imagine, this can devolve pretty quickly for both of us if something stressful happens.) So we're working on the ground (either in hand, on the longe, or at liberty) at walk and a little trot. We halt frequently so that I can ask him to tune in to me, soften, take a deep breath. He holds a lot of tension in his neck while working, so I'm helping him to learn to release it. We had reached a plateau with our work a couple of years ago, and now I realize, this is why. He wasn't breathing. It might sound boring to go back to basics like this, but I'm loving it, and I think he is too. It's not about results anymore; we are both more in the moment. We are becoming closer with every breath.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

   This past Saturday I had some especially enjoyable lessons. 3 out of 4 were mounted, and all 4 began with in-hand work. We weren't doing anything fancy; just establishing soft flexion in each direction, showing them how to correctly respond to the contact. In-hand work also gave me and my students the opportunity to help the horses keep their shoulders organized, instead of dropping them in or out.
    With the more advanced, well-balanced horses, we were asking for a bend in the direction we were traveling, then releasing it and asking for it again. With the greener, weaker horses, we would switch the bend frequently, walking a very shallow 's'. Each horse had a tougher side and an easier side, so every time the rider would switch directions or switch sides, s/he would have to tweak the approach in order to continue achieving softness. 
    This technique of asking for flexion and a slight bend, then releasing the request and asking either for the same bend again or for the opposite bend, allowed the horses to start learning how to release and re-release over the topline while moving. This allowed them to push from their hind ends and have the energy flow all the way through their bodies without getting stuck.
     The need for softness in the neck in order to promote correct forward motion was the most striking with one particular horse. Maxx, a 4 year old (almost five!) gaited gelding, has a tendency to pop his shoulder to the left under saddle. On the ground, this manifests as a tendency to lock his jaw and upper neck to the right, meaning that instead of gently turning his head right and shifting his ribcage left when the handler lightly lifts the right rein, he instead likes to pop his neck right and his shoulder left, overbending at the base of the neck and staying tense behind his ears. This, of course, completely disconnects his hind end, so that at first, whenever we asked him to track right in the warmup, he would take a few steps and then stop. In order to work through this pattern, his rider, Greg, would have to bend him left just before he got stuck, then go right again, over and over, to show him how not to lock on that side. (Oscillation releases tension - I learned this from Peggy Cummings, creator of Connected Riding™ .) We also did some cheek presses (a Connected Groundwork™ technique) to help him release at the poll, and Greg had to be aware of supporting the horse through the left rein while asking him to bend right to prevent him from bowing out through the shoulder. What was so incredible was how quickly Maxx  learned. Once Greg was able to identify the balance mistake that Maxx was making, and help him correct it, he was more than happy to keep walking. We didn't have to 'get after him'; we just had to show him how to do what we were asking him to do.
    The exciting thing about each and every lesson was the change in the horse's attitude once the rider helped them become softer in the neck and more balanced through the body. Each and every horse dropped their head, breathed deeper, and became less spooky. Furthermore, these changes carried through to the rides. It was a windy day, and though each horse came to the riding area alert and slightly nervous, each horse stayed focused as long as their rider was asking them to release and lengthen into the contact.
     Kolbra, a 15 year old Icelandic mare, took to in-hand work very quickly this season, and has learned a lot from it. Her conformation lends itself to being heavy in the sternum and base of the neck, but after only a couple weeks of groundwork (and, truth be told, a winter of bodywork), she was ready to take that lesson directly to riding. Here's a picture of her reaching into the contact under saddle:

    This weekend really reinforced for me the importance of three things: consistency, ground training, and prioritizing softness. By working with their horses almost daily, in a few short weeks, Greg and Kara were able to transform the way their horses responded to the aids. By explaining to the horses what they wanted in hand, they were able to easily achieve it under saddle. And by asking them repeatedly to release and re-release their top lines, gently and softly, they were able to get them moving from the hind end, without chasing or intimidating them. It was truly inspiring to see four very different horses agree on one thing; when your rider helps you let go of your tension and find balance, it feels really nice!

Have an idea for a blog post or article? Email me!

Friday, March 27, 2015

This week's word to the wise is rotate.

If you're familiar with Connected Riding, then right now you're picturing a rider, gently rotating her whole upper body, to encourage the horse to bend in that direction, thus releasing the spine. And yes, that's partly what I mean. But today I'd like to expand on that concept and apply it to other areas.

When we ride, it is important to rotate frequently. It releases tension in both the rider's and horse's spine, and encourages the horse to use the serratus muscles to gently lift and shift the ribcage, allowing room for the inside hind to come under the barrel and for the horse's weight to shift to the outside hind, creating engagement and balance. Rotating keeps us from getting stuck, especially if we remember to rotate in both directions. It's also a great way to evaluate your body; if you go to rotate and you can't, or your horse falls in instead of bending, chances are you're out of alignment, and have tensed up somewhere. It can help us remember to breathe, release our backs, and find a neutral pelvis, right when we need it most.

Likewise, it is important to rotate your focus frequently. When riding or training our horses, we often get narrowly focused on one aid, or one skill, or one outcome. We ask over and over again. First the horse gets it, or doesn't, but gradually he gets duller and duller. Maybe he responds beautifully at first, but then we keep asking, and the response weakens. If we're not careful, we get tense and frustrated, and then so does the horse.

Humans are capable of intense, long-lasting focus. This is partly because we evolved as carnivores, all of whom evolved to have their eyes and ears pointed forward to allow them to focus on their prey. But humans have also evolved an incredibly long attention span. We track prey for long distances, build elaborate structures, cook our food.... these activities have only come about because our brains evolved to be capable of seeing from the beginning of the task to the end. We can conceptualize of abstract ideas, of narratives, with an end result that results directly from our conscious action.

Horses, meanwhile, evolved to have an attention span of about three seconds. Sure, they might seem singularly focused on that pile of hay. But if you watch closely, you'll notice that their eyes and ears scan the horizon, or the barn, about every 3-5 seconds, if not more. They are constantly distracted. They have to be; they evolved to notice immediately if something in their environment changed, so that they could evaluate whether or not the change represented danger, and if so, react quickly.

I'm not saying we have to treat the horse as if we've just started a new conversation with him every three seconds. For one thing, many horses learn to focus a huge percentage of their attention on their rider/handler; they meet us more than halfway. But we can meet them there. We can learn to allow our own focus to be a little more open. Ask for something once, twice, maybe three times, then move on. Take a breath in-between each repetition. Allow some fresh air in to our awareness. In so doing, we might find we learn more quickly to be better riders, because we allow subtle cues from the horse to guide our second and third request. We can become more precise when we are more open to feedback.

The same can be said about our day to day existence. Many of us do something, and it seems to work, so we do it over and over and over again. Sometimes it continues to work, sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it never did, we just didn't take the time to test the theory. Try rotating your activities, your routines, the things you focus on. Try taking a breath in-between engagements, interactions, or tasks. Try subtly changing the aids you give yourself. You might find your life is giving you useful feedback.

Have an idea for an article or a blog post? Email me!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Check out this beautiful image Maggie Madole created to go on my new business cards!

Maggie paints evocative and compelling images of animals and the natural world. She also has a gift for making art which resonates with the person she's creating it for.

If you're looking for artwork for your home, or to have something designed, hit her up. She's incredibly talented and a pleasure to work with.

Also visit her Etsy page for great gift ideas.

Happy Tuesday!


Friday, March 6, 2015

It's freezing again...

It's getting down into the single digits again tonight, and with four foot snowdrifts everywhere, it's hard to imagine working our horses in the sun in a few short months.

But Spring is coming, I promise! And with it, riding weather! Here are three things you can do now to make sure you and your horse are ready to ride when the winter is finally over.

1) Schedule some barn time

Let's face it; single digit temps and scary road conditions have cut into everyone's barn time this winter. Other projects rushed in to fill the void. Suddenly you find you've been stopping by to feed carrots or muck stalls, but you haven't done any training in quite a while... It's time to get out the calendar and set aside some horse time. By scheduling a 15 minute barn visit this week, and two extra visits next week, and three the week after that, you'll have yourself back in the swing of things by the time the snow melts.Your horse will remember your name, and his manners, and when the warmer weather hits, you won't be elsewhere wishing you were riding; you'll already be at the barn! If you have barn buddies, surprise them by being the first to call this year to set up a pony date.

During these pre-thaw visits, you can groom your horse, check your equipment, and complete steps 2 and 3:

2) Check your saddle fit

The shape of a horse's back and withers change dramatically with his fitness level. If your horse has been out of work for weeks or months, he may need to have his saddle adjusted before starting up again. Even if you're lucky enough to have an indoor, saddle fit should be rechecked every six months, so spring is a great time to do it.

Horses will usually tell us when a saddle feels right. If your horse is relaxed and comfortable during grooming, but changes his tune when you put on his girth or cinch, suspect a poorly fitting saddle.  Signs of discomfort include moving his feet, swishing his tail, laying his ears back, wrinkling the skin around his eyes, head shaking, nipping, or any other behavior which your gut tells you just isn't right.

Of course there are other reasons why your horse might object to being saddled and girthed, including health problems. If your horse's behavior doesn't improve after having the saddle fitted, seek the advice of a qualified horse health care professional.

On the other hand, if your horse lowers his head, breathes deeply, and appears thoughtful or sleepy after you gently tighten his girth, this is a good indication that the saddle fits him.

If you're not sure, here are some things to look for in a well-fitting saddle:

The panels should match the shape of his back/upper ribs:
Place your saddle on your horse's back without the pad or saddle blanket. Press down firmly on the seat with one hand, and with the other, reach under the saddle and feel all the areas in which it makes direct contact. The pressure should be even and constant from back to front (unless you have a flared tree, which is slightly wider at the front and the back) and on both sides . The angles should match from the gullet all the way down, instead of digging in or flaring out at the top or the bottom. Under no circumstances should your saddle 'bridge,' meaning that there is more pressure at the front and back than in the middle. This will prevent your horse from using his shoulders and his hind end comfortably.

The pommel and gullet should allow plenty of room for the vertebrae:
The pommel of the saddle should be high enough that you can fit four fingers, stacked upright, between it and the withers. When you stand behind your horse, you should be able see daylight all the way through the gullet. The gullet should also be wide enough to not interfere with the spine when the horse bends. You may need to stand on a bucket behind your horse to see this; be sure to have someone help you hold your horse steady and straight while you're up there!

The saddle shouldn't be too long:
Any part of the saddle which is directly in contact with the horse's back should not extend beyond the last rib of the horse. To check this, find his last rib on the side of his barrel where he's widest, then follow it up to the spine with your hand. If the back of the saddle goes beyond this point, it will prevent him from easily engaging his psoas muscles, which are crucial to the correct use of the hind end. Next take a look at the seat of the saddle. The center (the flattest part), where your seatbones will naturally go, should be just ahead of the anticlinal vertebra. This is the vertebra which points directly up towards the sky; in most horses it's the 16th thoracic vertebra. (To put this in context, the last rib connects to the 18th thoracic vertebra.)

If any of these things are not true, or you're still not sure, have a professional evaluate the saddle's fit before riding your horse.

3) Bodywork/groundwork

Putting your hands on your horse isn't just fun, it helps his nervous system stay aware of that body part. This can improve circulation and muscle tone, and even promote healing. If you take it one step further and learn a few simple bodywork and groundwork techniques, you can improve flexibility, body awareness, and performance.

If you already know some exercises, it's time to get out there and do them!

When learning bodywork and groundwork techniques, it's important to follow methods which have been proven to yield results safely. Always learn new techniques from a professional, and follow instructions carefully.

Have you ever heard of Linda Tellington-Jones? She is the creator of TTeam/TTouch, a system of bodywork and groundwork techniques for horses (and other animals) which can improve physical and mental health, heal trauma, increase athleticism and coordination, and correct behavioral issues. These methods have been tested on thousands of horses all over the world for years, and the best part is, they are surprisingly easy to learn!

If you don't already have it, treat yourself to a little this-winter-has-gone-on-forever gift and purchase the book The Ultimate Horse Behavior and Training Book. I don't usually like to tell people how to spend their money, but every barn should have this thorough and easy-to-use guide.

TTouch bodywork can be done in the stall or on crossties, and many TTeam groundwork exercises can be done in the barn aisle or in a small paddock or barnyard.

Some TTouch exercises which are great for horses who are not moving around much include leg circles, lick of the cow's tongue, python leg lifts, belly lifts, back lifts, and tail work. (Are you curious yet?)

So there's your homework for March - get yourself and your horse ready to rock and roll when riding weather hits! Happy horse time everyone!

That's all for now. If you have questions, or ideas for future blog posts and articles, email me!


Thursday, February 26, 2015

    I'm feeling inspired today because I'm in Cedar Creek, TX, at Hycourt Farm, visiting my mentor, Jillian Kreinbring. Jill is an incredible horsewoman because of her overwhelming love for all equines, and because of her commitment to learning. She knows more about equine anatomy and biomechanics than anyone I've ever met, and indeed she teaches a 4 day workshop on this topic around the world. If you ever have a chance to attend one, don't miss it!!
    Jill implements her incredible knowledge of how horses' bodies function with compassion and patience. This week I have watched her work with all kinds of horses; green horses, traumatized horses, and of course her own two Lusitano horses, who she has been developing for the past few years. I've watched her do liberty work, groundwork, in-hand work, longeing, and riding, depending what each horse needed. The common thread which ran through each workout was Jill's consistency and clarity. With each horse, in each moment, she knew exactly what she was asking them to do, and she was prepared to explain it over and over, calmly and clearly, until the horse got it. And once they did, she rewarded them immediately and lavishly. She walks the fine line between shaping and supporting the horse through the movement, and giving them opportunities to find their own balance. She teaches them to seek the right response, to seek self-carriage, to seek connection.
     Being around Jill always reminds me that we are all a work in progress, and that progress is not always linear. Some days all you can get done is 20 minutes of exercises at the walk. The most important thing is to get out there, as often as you can, and see what you can accomplish. Be proud of the baby steps. And most importantly, teach your horse to be proud of them too.