Working with a friend and her horse this morning gave me a great feeling. I initially just went into the barn to tell her how exciting it was for me to have heard her voice and known it while I was working with one of my horses. I could picture in my mind both her and her horse and remember their names, as well. All while being present enough in my own body to work with my super-sensitive gelding at the same time.
Not a great achievement for a normal adult, but given the weird couple years I have had – with a total breakdown of body and brain – it felt wonderful. I went in to tell her and she gave me another memory exercise, asking me to watch her horse’s movement and tell me if he looked a bit unsound.
The horse is a very sensitive thoroughbred gelding who had been pushed around and forced into work he wasn’t really physically or mentally prepared for by a past owner. The signatures of his inevitable resistance still remain, giving him a tendency to lock his back and overweight his forelegs – the classic heavy on the forehand posture. His preference is to brace most on the left fore, very common because horses are typically handled most from the left side. When I started exploring biomechanics, it was rare for a person to even lead a horse other than from the left because that’s what we were all taught.
The woman does not have the ideal body type for a rider, with a small stature that gives her a slightly long torso compared to short legs. That makes it very easy for her to get her balance tipped too far forward like her horse. And, having been taught to lead her horse from the left, her imbalance was strongest to the left, as well.
Hmm. Chicken/Egg here, right?
Happily, I don’t care which imbalance came first because the only way to rebalance the team is to make the human aware of both asymetries and then help her work mentally and physically to overcome both simultaneously. The horse’s body will follow the human’s by instinct and long practice, though it can take many, many repetitions to build a solid new pattern.
This morning she just asked me to look at her horse, who had been sore and unhappy. As I had taught her years ago, she stood on her horse’s left side and hooked a couple of fingers of her right hand onto the noseband of his halter just in front of the cheekpiece. She took a nice breath, wiggle-waggled her body side to side and asked the horse to step forward with her in the barn aisle, then turned her torso left and asked him to bend and turn and walk on.
I could see her leaning just a bit forward and left and the horse following her postural lead. I had her stop and reminded her to breathe deep into her butt and wait to feel the horse release to go with her so she didn’t give him any brace excuse by pulling. She took a few moments to do that and repeated the walk and bend left and the horse was much more even, stepping through better with both hind legs and bending a couple degrees more to make the turn feel easier for both of them. She could feel the difference in her own body and the slight easing in her horse’s body that allowed him to step under himself enough to balance the bend from his back instead of his shoulders.
Then she asked me to watch him walk over the threshold into his stall, another longstanding issue when he tends to dump on the forehand and whack his front feet on the three-inch-high line of concrete. He demonstrated that habit quite clearly on the first go. Again, I reminded the handler to organize her body to intentionally bend the horse for the turn into the stall, then to equally intentionally straighten him while remembering to breathe and drop her core deeply into balance so she could easily lift her own feet to step across the concrete. She stepped cleanly into the stall and so did her horse – one, two, three, four without a sound. She repeated the exercise a couple times to remind herself and the horse to take those important few seconds that make the difference between feeding the habit in both bodies or making a conscious choice not to perpetuate the unwanted.
Building new movement habits in human and equine bodies can take months or even years because like the cliché, old habits die hard. But if the human can stay mentally organized and physically present, the horse is instinctively programmed to try to match. If you’re in a herd and your movements make you stand out for some reason, you draw the focus of the predators. If the whole herd blends into one unit much bigger than the predator, every member is safer.
It was really great both to be able to really see the horse and human at a deep level that used to seem easy to me and to process what I was seeing to both understand the problem and formulate a solution. All the while I was holding my Sport, who used to be so super-sensitive that he wouldn’t have been able to cope with me dividing my attention between him and the horse/handler pair. He had a moment of the old “Oh my gosh, I can’t take this” when we first went into the enclosed space of the barn, but when I softened my contact, breathed and found balance and confidence, he read and understood. I reminded him again that he’s my senior assistant now, so he’s got to make some changes too. His answer was to go with the program and I even got a lick/chew, so I guess we’ve all learned some interesting things.
Love these moments when I really know I’m making progress back to health. Thanks to the horses, I feel fully confident that I’ll get my body and my brain back at some point in 2017, both in a version that will serve me well for many years to come. And until then, I’m being patient and enjoying the simple pleasure of being able to do a bit more each week.