A spa day for your horsey

Remember the last time you treated yourself to some good thorough pampering?

Maybe you went to a spa hotel and spent the day swimming, resting, being massaged and doing some yoga, pilates or meditation – or you ran yourself a nice hot bath at home, read a book and had a nice cup of tea with it.

Why do we do this?
Because it is important for body and mind to properly relax every now and then, it keeps us healthy and sane.
This gets even more important for sports people, and our horses definitely are sports people!

Sports horses get pampered regularly, of course, they have baths and solariums after, they have regular appointments with their physiotherapists and osteopaths and most importantly, they get gymnasticised well.

Of course, this is not really practical or financially doable for many pleasure riders.

If you are, however, interested in alleviating your buddy from tensions and supporting your training with treatments, there are many things you can do yourself without having to worry about harming your horse.

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These practices are, of course, in no way a replacement for your vet and schooled osteopath if there’s severe physical problems or injuries.

I myself have been reading lots of books, articles and blogs about alternative treatments for horses such as massage, the Masterson Method, TTouch and stretching techniques and have developed my own little layman’s routine to release tensions and improve flexibility in my old horse as well as the ones’ I work with for my clients.

It’s a mixture of Jim Masterson’s Meridian technique to diagnose soreness and tension, Linda Tellington’s TTouch, several traditional massage methods as well as stretches and lifts I do with the horses.

(Since autumn 2016 I’ve been studying to become a physiotherapist and osteopath for horses myself, so watch this space. More tips to come…)

This in combination with specific ground training exercises to make the horses more limber and supple and dressage exercises according to the “Gymnasium of the Horse” – adapted to riding without a bit or spores, makes for well-rounded, relaxed and strong horses that are well balanced on their legs and have a strong neck, back and hindquarters in order to carry their riders even to a very old age.

First of all, you’ll want to have a good look at your horse:

  • Does it stand square on all four legs or does it lean forward with its front legs tilted?
    Hint: Your horse should stand balanced and square with all four legs perpendicular to the ground.
  • Does it favour one leg frequently? (Compare some pics on your phone)
  • Are its jaws relaxed or tight?
  • Does it clench its lower lip or is it hanging relaxed?
  • Is its neck relaxed and soft with strong muscles along the topline or is there unwanted muscle on the underside?
  • Is its skin easy to move around when rubbing it or are there tense areas?
  • Does it shy away or push against the light touch of your hand anywhere?
  • Does your horse walk relaxed and with rhythm or is it rather stiff, does it take short steps?
  • Does it step underneath its belly well and flex its hips and knee joints in its hind legs?
  • Does it bend well in each direction? Which one is better?
  • Does it fall onto its inside foreleg when you walk it into a tight circle line?
  • How does it carry its tail? Is it tight and up or tight and down or relaxed?
  • Check how it moves on the lunge, get someone else to lunge it and watch from the outside with some distance. This is what it should look like:

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As a second step I use the Masterson Bladder Meridian technique to diagnose tensions, this way horses often release their tensions simply by concentrating on the sore spot and letting go themselves. This is clearly visible by chewing and licking, snorting, shifting weight from leg to leg, shuddering or even yawning. Because your horse has to work with you doing this, make sure its in a calm place without food or other distractions.

Here’s where you can find Jim Masterson’s video instructions on how to do this: https://www.mastersonmethod.com/training-videos.html

After going along the entire meridian from poll to hinlegs, leaving my hand at the spots where the horse shows it has a problem until it releases visibly, I continue going back to the sore spots from front to back and massaging them. The only important thing here is to start with soft rubbing and only increasing intensity if the horse doesn’t push back or evade, meaning its relaxed and letting you massage the knots out. Usually, after doing this a few times they get the hang of it and even direct you towards the soreness.

Its quite useful to start massaging a spot by using the TTouch method as it loosens up the tense area and prepares the horse for more invasive massaging.

Wesley is quite used to his spa days by now and relaxes quickly – in these pictures you can see his soft eyes, relaxed jaw and lower lip, the lazy ears and the fact that he lowers his neck so I don’t need a ladder…

… five seconds before taking these pictures he yawned 5 times in a row – wouldn’t let us catch him on camera though!

My stretch and release routine

Once he’s soft and relaxed I do some full-body stretches with him. These stretches I do every day while grooming before a ride or in the arena before I get on – a great way of establishing a connection and prepare for work together. And I see how he’s feeling today.

Neck stretches or carrot stretches:

  • Vertical stretch
    vertical stretch
    With this stretch you can mimic an intense forward downward movement. Best to use is a piece of carrot that you dangle in front of your horse nose to encourage it into a forward extension, then slowly move it down to the ground and inbetween its front hooves, hold it for a few seconds, then let it take it.
    Lengthen time of holding each time until your horse can hold the position for 20 seconds.
  • Lateral – left and right
    lateral stretch
    This one requires the same procedure, but with you standing next to its shoulder, encouraging it to wrap its long extended neck around you. A healthy horse should be able to reach its flank without moving its body.
    Go as far as it can, lengthening the stretches and hold times before it gets the piece of carrot each time, until it can hold for 20 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

 

Leg releases and stretches:

With the legs, I work diagonally – i.e. left front, right back, right front, left back. These help your horse to get a better sense of balance and it squares itself out. Take care that your head and toes are out of reach, there might be some resistance in the beginning.

  • Front leg release (after Jim Masterson)
    With this one you can release your horse’s shoulder – most horses hold a lot of tension there and you can encourage them to let go. Its important to hold the leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is backwards-downwards.
    You should see the shoulder dropping.
  • Front leg stretch
    This stretches your horses leg, shoulder and back muscles and ligaments – all horses really enjoy this one once they’ve gotten the hang of it and cease resistance. It is important to have the leg joints stretched through. Do not to force it, you will clearly feel a little push and release when your horse lets go and lets the stretch happen. Should your horse move backwards, stop and have someone help him into a forward movement by gentle pulling the halter forward and down while you are stretching its leg.
  • Back leg release (after Jim Masterson)
    This release technique helps your horse to let go tension in the lumbar region, hip, knee and hock joints – when done correctly this greatly relaxes your horse.
    Watch out to hold the hind leg so that the toe hangs loose, the movement is downward – some soft wriggling might help. You want your horse to show signs of relaxation, lower its hip and croup towards this side and loosely put the hoof on its toe.
  • Back leg stretch backward
    This way you can stretch your buddies belly, stifle, front muscles of the hind quarter and back. You pull the relaxed leg backwards, around the hight of its hocks until it gives and stretches back. Make sure not to stand directly behind when you pull, it can happen that a nerve makes the leg push back rapidly.

 

  • Back leg stretch forward
    After the hind leg is relaxed, you can gently pull the hoof underneath its belly. The movement is forward, close to the ground – towards the corresponding front leg. The toe should hang loose and the stretch is complete when the horse releases the heel to the ground. You might want to help by slightly lifting the toe up with a finger – just make sure to get your fingers out before it hits the ground!
  • Hip opener – left and right

    Stand behind your horses left back leg, gently push your right hand underneath its tail and feel with the base of your thumb (pointing up) until you find a good handhold – the Ischium (No 17 in the image below) joint between the pelvis and femur.

Horse_anatomy_posterior_view

Then you start pushing gently, increasing up until you have your entire weight against it. The horse will push back. Hold it for 10 – 20 seconds, then release relatively suddenly. Not too suddenly if your horse is new to it, it might fall over! Repeat on the other side.

  • These exercises can be complemented by belly and back lifts that strengthen your horse’s core muscles – if you aren’t familiar with those, there’s lots of instructions on how to properly do those on youtube.

I can only recommend to make this little stretch and release routine part of your grooming or exercise session every time – you will soon notice how your horse enjoys it and it improves flexibility and blood circulation in the muscles you are trying to build.

Have fun with your horse!

 

 

An ode to the the mature horse

… or the folly of buying youngsters.

Growing up in equestrian sports stables, I took it as a given – almost an unwritten rule – that less experienced riders, leisure riders and especially beginners start out on a mature horse, a so-called “school master”, and only very good riders who were naturally calm leadership personalities would start and train a young horse.
It was unthinkable even for a passable rider to buy a young horse…

Nowadays I’ve noticed a lot of okay leisure riders and even beginners are buying young, sometimes even green horses. Sure, sometimes a horse just comes along, they are rescued or inherited or somehow fall into their owner’s lap – that’s not the ones I’m talking about, I’m talking about the conscious decision to buy a green 3-year old.

In my new world of open-paddock herd stables and trail riding I meet many riders who would probably be a lot happier in their hobby with a mature horse, rather than the youngster they are often struggling with.

Training a young horse requires not only skill, but also infinite patience, true and natural calmness and quite a bit of fearlessness at times.

Should you be thinking of buying a young horse, ask yourself:

  • Am I really skilled enough for the job? Can I gymnasticise a horse enough in hand, on the lunge and later under saddle so it will be strong enough to carry me for many years to come?
  • Am I a patient and calm person? Can I explain the same point over and over again without getting angry? Will I lose my temper at inexplicable jumpiness or lack of concentration?
  • Am I brave enough? Can I handle the occasional bucking, dashing and jumping?

I know I talk about Wesley a lot, my apologies should I bore you with it, but even my human partner knows that this horse is the love of my life, as it had been for my mother before me. People around me know I can’t help and (to be perfectly honest) love to brag about him.
He is such a good boy, so motivated and he’s managed to rekindle the little flame I was hardly aware of over the 6 years I hadn’t sat on horseback, in fact he turned it into a raging fire.
The fire of passion, a fiercely burning love for these graceful, proud and sensitive animals.

After breaking Wesley out of retirement and having him like my own horse (I can hear my mum protesting here: “but he’s MY precious!”) for the past two years, it now burns inside again with an almost child-like intensity.

I have this old boy to thank for that.

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He makes me laugh when he starts completely overacting because I seemingly don’t get the hint that he would much prefer to munch on that patch of grass before we start doing anything, as if I were not only dumb but also deaf and blind.

He actually figured out to get the entire stable to work for him.
There’s Gundi, our stable’s good soul, he directs her to whatever location he’d like to take this morning’s hay, preferably away from the others so he can eat in peace and quiet.
Then there’s Gaby, his best buddy’s human, who he swindles whenever she looks his way, complaining he hasn’t had any oats at all for ages – so long until she gives in and feeds him, too.

This one works with almost anyone. Why?

Because he’s such a good communicator! In his long life with humans he’s figured us out and knows how to get his point across, even to us insensitive and obviously slightly challenged beings on two legs. He simply shouts a bit louder at us.

And that’s my point exactly. An older horse can bridge the communication gap human and horse inevitably encounter and will do so, because it has worked in his favour in the past.

A young horse still isn’t sure what to think of us and all these things we ask of him, he has no idea, why we don’t seem to understand if he’s trying to say, “I can’t concentrate any more.”, “I miss my herd.”, “I am tired.” or “My teeth are growing and my mouth hurts.” – and of course, there is the famous “Oh look, a butterfly!”.

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That same butterfly will be serenely ignored by an older horse who is currently on the job with his human.

Now, let me define what I mean by “young” and “older” for you:
When I say “young” horse I am talking about anything up to 6 or 7 years old, a mature horse would be between 8 and 14years old – that’s when horses are usually the most expensive because they are fully trained and have usually quieted down enough to make for easy companions.

In the sports world, a 10 – 12year old horse would probably be at the peak of its performance years and therefore the most valuable.

An older horse, and this depends heavily on size, breed and work load, will be around 17 – 20+. Many horses can be ridden well into their twenties, we share our stable with a 34year old Icelandic pony who is still happy to go on trail rides.

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Our oldest senior Bangsi at 34 (Happy Birthday!) still enjoys going on rides.

A well cared-for horse will live up to 25 – 35 years, usually the smaller – the longer they live.

Sure, old horses get some common health issues such as arthritis in the legs rather often, but that’s not a “no riding” diagnosis at all (unless your horse shows arthritis in the back). In fact, an arthritic horse needs regular exercise to keep him from pain. They do need a little longer for their warm-up phase, however, 20 – 30 minutes of walking will loosen them up and then they’ll be as fresh as they used to be.

Another common issue in an older horse – usually north of 20 – is that their hearts aren’t as strong any more and that they dehydrate easily. Both issues show themselves on hot days, which means to let them rest that day and not ride or taking them on a round in the cool of the early morning hours instead. For the weakened heart there’s herbs that can help, for example hawthorn or rose hip and your vet has ways to supplement your older buddy.

An older horse needs to get its teeth checked (and with some also filed) each year and with some oldies digestion gets less efficient and they might need to eat more hay simply because they also eat slower. You might need to start feeding fatteners, such as corn.

And what can definitely be said is that there’s a lot of brushing with an oldie in winter! Their coats get thick and shaggy and they take longer to shed it in spring.

After the warning, here come the benefits of an older horse:

What’s probably the biggest advantage is that older horses are more gentle and sensitive towards others, especially us humans and they know how to figure us out.
A horse with some grey showing around their eyes will be calmer and much more reliable out in the country. This makes them predestined for beginners, fearful riders or junior riders.
All oldies I know are great with children, they watch out for them when the little ones groom them, they are patient under saddle with their light-weight riders and they don’t mind the noise and general hubbub that comes with kids.

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With some, like Wesley, I suspect they really love all the attention they get from children.

Out of their prime ex-athletes come cheap and superbly trained. It is a privilege to sit on a well-ridden horse, even if you mostly go out on trail rides. You will notice how much easier it is to manoeuvre them, change gaits and speed or stop them when necessary. And for the rider who is looking to improve his/her riding skills, those old schoolmasters will make you better at giving your aids at the right time and with the right dosage.

An older horse will give its all just to show he still wants to be picked up for a ride, I notice this often, not only with my oldie, but with all of them. The ones that don’t get picked any more would still try to smuggle themselves out with us or volunteer to do stretching exercises when I do them with Wesley in the paddock. They actually queue up!

A horse is made to move and even when they’re older and stiffer, they still want to stretch their legs, get some exercise and most importantly some intellectual stimuli. The joy of movement, pride in work and a sense of being important doesn’t go away.
It is a shame that so many ex-competition horses just get put away on some meadow when they could have a fun second career as a leisure horse with someone who gives them the attention they deserve.

A horse that has passed their 20th birthday isn’t necessarily “old” yet, in fact, a horse that has been kept and exercised well all its life will still be strong and athletic.

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At Vienna riding school they start their horses at 4 or 5 years old, then slowly but systematically train them to become the top-performers we see showing the famous “airs above the ground”.
Their Lippizaner stallions are only fully trained at 10 years old – the starting point of their pro career and do not reach retirement age before they are 25 – 28.
After they move back to their birthplace in the Austrian Alps, many still get ridden then.

I can only recommend an older horse, spending time with an animal that has been trained superbly, can communicate effortlessly with you and is absolutely bullet-proof is an absolute joy and a privilege every single day.

There’s so much older horses can teach us, they become so-called schoolmasters and subtely train us to be better riders and better horse-people in general. They have the grace and understanding to forgive mistakes their riders make, something a young horse simply can’t – it doesn’t even know you just made a mistake.

An older horse is not only wise, but also confident and patient with their human – and in the end, isn’t that what we all want from our equestrian companions?

To recap: For most beginners and many pleasure riders (the ones I’ve met anyway) the best buying age of their companion would be 15 years of age. Don’t listen to people that tell you a horse is only worth anything under the age of 15, in fact that’s when they get really good!