Helping Lady Through Her Resistances: A Lesson in Rehabbing Horses.
Recently I gave a lesson to Emma and her mare Lady.
Lady can be described briefly as a horse with physical issues who was subjected to training that worked against her body before being purchased by Emma. Lady's muscles are tight and her coat is dull. She easily becomes resistant in work if she thinks she will be uncomfortable. She says no before even trying. The challenge is to help her see that working will make her feel good, not bad, and we are not asking anything she cannot do. We have to rebuild her trust and her desire to work.
Lady is a horse that needs help and luckily, she has a beautiful owner who despite her own rehabilitation issues, is trying her best to help her become healthy and happy.
At the beginning of the lesson, I asked Emma to show me some of her work with Lady.
What did I see?
Emma did some of the basic In-hand work from Manolo's In-Hand DVD with Lady. I noticed that while Emma was doing a good job, she had difficulties getting Lady to move away from her. Lady stuck to Emma and did not want to get on a bigger circle and move her body. To ask Lady to do some trot work, Emma ran alongside Lady while she trotted. The trot work didn’t last too long but I too would not be able to trot alongside my horse for too long! That is why it is good to be able to mix circles and ovals with long lines and be able to work close or away from the horse when lunging and doing in-hand work.
I also noticed that when Lady was working both to the right side and the left side, her nose was always positioned in line with her right shoulder which resulted in her head being tilted to the right. This told me she has some blockages and crookedness in her body that are contributing to her muscles being stiff and are making her sore. Loosening the body so she can become straighter and work her body more evenly is key to her future soundness and work.
How can we make Lady feel better?
Firstly, in order to lose the bad muscles and build good muscles we need to work her body in a correct posture: forward, down and out with eye between hip and stifle and an open throat latch. We cannot build good muscles from no physical exercise so Lady needs to learn how to lunge since she is not able to be ridden at the moment.
For a horse like Lady, even if she was able to work under saddle, I would not recommend it. I would instead spend the time needed developing her fitness on the lunge line, helping her develop a new healthy posture and strong body before asking her to carry a rider.
Lady was quite happy to stay glued to me while doing In-hand work, she was quite respectful with my space and did not crowd me until I asked her to move out and away from me. At that moment, she came right into my space with her ears back, eyes glaring and a not so nice look happening with her mouth. She became quite anxious and resistant when she knew she was going to be asked to move onto a large circle and to work a little more actively without a handler by her side.
While I sympathized with Lady, I had to help her through this anxiety so she realized that she could work comfortably. I had to help her through this mind block and help her become more confident in herself and me. To do so, I acted decidedly and gave her very clear signals.
I placed the bamboo quickly in between Lady and myself at chest level and once she took one step sideways away from the bamboo putting a 1 to 2 metres distance between us, I moved the bamboo quickly again, and placed it vertically on her withers. The bamboo leaned against her body which she moved away from me again. The bamboo acted as a barrier but also as a connection between Lady and I, making it easier for her to step away from me.
Once there was 3 meters or more between us Lady was happy to work on the circle and I was able to slowly allow the circle to get a little larger, and larger...
Once Lady walked happily on the lunge it was important that she learned it was ok to work a little. She really did not want to work, partly because she had not had to work for quite some time and her associations with work were negative and secondly because I believe she was physically uncomfortable and sore.
It is important Lady exercises in walk and trot in short chunks to help her become physically comfortable and to help build up her trust and confidence with work.
There was no point in working her hard during the lesson because she would have refused to work even more the next day, making Emma's job more difficult.
Instead of being pushy and greedy, we had to be encouraging. When I saw that Lady was going nicely in trot, I asked her to walk. When I saw Lady puffing a little, I asked her to walk. I wanted Lady to be happy to work, and she will only be happy to work if she is rewarded for the good work she does and if she can rest when she starts to get tired.
It is very important to watch and make sure we don’t push past her boundaries at this early stage and create more resistance.
I only asked Lady to trot a few times in both directions and did not ask for any canter. I will not canter a horse who is rehabbing until it can trot soundly, in a healthy posture, moving evenly, using its whole body.
I did not worry too much at this point if Lady was traveling with her neck and head too high. I know she will bring her neck down and move in better posture and balance once she is a little more fit and the muscles over her back, croup and down her hindquarters soften and develop properly.
Touching Lady’s body was a gift from her to me. She did not want to be touched anywhere even though I was very gentle. Lady was very sore and her muscles were very hard.
I showed Emma how to gently move Lady's neck evenly so she can stretch in the correct bend in both directions. I positioned one hand in the scoop of Lady’s shoulder and pressed against the area where the sixth and seventh vertebras live while gently bringing Lady’s head towards me with my other hand. Lady moved her head without flexioning her jaw correctly as you can see in the photo but here and there she was able to stretch her neck and head correctly.
NOTE * The photo number 4 shows incorrect jaw flexion, how can we tell? The right ear is higher than the left ear. If the flexion was correct Lady’s right ear should be lower than the left.
I encouraged Emma to learn some of the Equinology massage techniques so she is able to massage lady before, during and after work.A combination of correct exercise and massage will help Lady to become a healthy horse once again.
Too often, we come across horses who need to be rehabilitated and as I have said, in the past with other rehabilitation horses I have worked with, we need to put in the TIME, allow them to regain their TRUST and we ourselves need to have PATIENCE.
It will take as long as it takes for a horse to gain confidence and trust again in its mind and body but it will be time well invested.