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!