Rehabbing or Reschooling?


What is the difference between rehabilitating a horse and reschooling a horse? I tend to use the terms somewhat interchangeably, because there are often elements of both in my work. It’s a bit like asking horse owners what is meant by the term “lame.” Is a horse only considered lame if he’s not bearing weight on a leg? Or is it a continuum that has non-weightbearing as one extreme and tracking a bit short as the other? Depends on whom you ask.

Clearly a horse recovering from a major injury, lameness or surgery is a rehab case. (Here's an example in the case of Prince Charming, a badly foundered ex-racehorse. ) After veterinary treatment concludes, the recovering horse needs physical therapy – specific bodywork and physical therapy to help regain strength, flexibility and range-of-motion in the affected area. He’ll also need work to help him overcome compensatory posture and movement habits.

For example, imagine an experienced performance horse – an equine athlete – injures a hind leg by cutting himself badly enough to require stitches. In guarding the injured area, he has very likely shifted his weight forward, often onto the diagonal foreleg. That shift will show up in several ways. First, he probably has begun to stand heavily on that diagonal foreleg, weighting it more than the other foreleg any time he’s at rest. Second, to stabilize that side to allow this weight imbalance, he has likely braced the entire “diagonal” shoulder, which also affects the neck and back.

Put the horse in motion, and this new standing posture leads to reduced range-of-motion in that diagonal shoulder, so he will be striding shorter, stretching less and perhaps even breaking over differently and so wearing the hoof differently on that side. And heaviness on the diagonal shoulder will also affect the movement of its parallel hind limb. If the shoulder isn’t lifting and swinging normally, the ribs won’t lift and the hind leg on that side won’t have room to step through. And bracing on one shoulder can’t help but affect the way the opposite shoulder moves. So, all four quarters of the horse are affected. And even after the original hind injury has healed, this compensatory movement pattern is likely to remain programmed into the horse’s muscle memory.

Most people have had this same experience. It explains why someone who spends a day hiking in boots that rub a blister on her right heel might wake up the next day with an aching left hip, knee or even shoulder. And even after the boots are broken in and the blister healed, the aching joint might persist simply because the body chose to continue the compensatory posture.


To return to work without risking a cascading cycle of unsoundness, not to mention a greatly reduced quality of movement and execution, the performance horse who had the hind leg injury will need some help. Just getting back on and riding him as if he were his pre-injury self won’t work because, at a very basic level, he isn’t that horse anymore. Yes, his brain still knows how to run a barrel pattern or jump a fence or cut a steer. But his body has changed, his nervous system has rerouted and reprogrammed. He’ll have to relearn to rock his weight back onto the formerly injured hindquarter and remodel the uneven muscle development caused by his guarding and compensation. He may need to regain proprioception skills and even rebuild lost confidence.

This horse needs a coordinated combination of bodywork to release tight muscles and a progression of ground and mounted exercises that specifically works through the layers of compensation. And it’s important at each stage in his rehab to monitor his soundness, to ensure he is physically and mentally ready for each new challenge.

Re-schooling for New Owners or New Jobs
Injured horses aren’t the only ones who develop postural and movement habits that inhibit their ability to move in the most biomechanically efficient way. Horses ridden to meet some disciplines’ fads or “frames,” horses who have not been taught to or developed enough strength to achieve self-carriage while carrying a rider, and horses worked with restrictive training aids often develop compensatory movement patterns that interfere with balance, flexibility and even soundness.

The resulting loss of freedom and range-of-motion might not fit everyone’s idea of lameness, so it might make more sense to consider these horses candidates for re-schooling. (Read the story of Anne for an example.) Lots of second- and third-career horses can benefit from a regimen of bodywork and ground and mounted exercises that help unwind their old bracing and holding patterns, preparing them to learn their new work with strong, supple and stable bodies and minds.

Let’s consider, for example, a calf- or team-roping horse, a nice, quiet gelding who has been there, done that, who is purchased by someone hoping to turn him in to a smooth-moving trail horse or a competitive 4-H show horse. The challenge is, he has probably been ridden in a tie-down, which leads to a very distinctive upside-down neck development (and accompanying shoulder stiffness, tight back and short striding gaits) that will need to be addressed before he can succeed at his second career. He needs to have his muscle memory retrained and his muscles remodeled.

Why does working in a tie-down necessitate this re-schooling? Like most training “aids,” the tie-down really serves to work the muscle group opposing the one the rider thinks he is training the horse to favor. Biomechanically, its action strengthens the muscles that raise the head, not those that allow the neck to drop down and stretch forward. So by restricting the ability of the horse to raise his head, he is forced into a bracing pattern where he is contracting the muscles over the top of the neck in continuous opposition to the downward pull. This places the horse in a head-high, hollow-backed posture that forces him onto the forehand. In this video of a calf roper, notice how he bumps the horse’s head up as he backs into the box. This horse actually has to pop up in front to initiate forward motion to leave the box and to get under himself enough to stop and work the rope.    


Let’s assume our nice, quiet gelding is a bit short-necked and his neck is set on his shoulders relatively high, a pretty classic conformation for a rope horse. Most ropers will tell you they ride with a tie-down to keep the horse’s head out of the way of the rope or to help him stop or turn better. They also ride with a short roping rein snugged up, keeping their horse’s neck upright and the head up as far as the tie-down allows. (Watch the team ropers in this video, especially noting the position of the heelers’ left hands, pulling up and back on the rein to lift the horses’ heads throughout the run.)

Want to experience this feeling in your own body? Just place your hands on the back of your head, fingers interlocked, and bring your forearms in toward your temples while letting your elbows hang down heavy. What is the first thing you feel the back of your neck do, go soft and elastic or tense up? Push a little harder. More release or more tension? Now try to walk. More tension? Does this contract and strengthen the muscles in the front of your neck that must shorten for you to lower your chin toward your chest? Could you run like this and feel in balance? Do you feel your back hollow as you try to find a way to move?

Common sense tells us that, like us, a horse can only find optimum balance when he can move his head and neck freely in a position based on his conformation, adjusting each time something happens to change or challenge his balance. So we know from the start that our reschooling prospect is going to come with some major neck and shoulder tension we'll need to address before he can drop his head and achieve a relaxed, swinging gait.

To help our quiet gelding learn move more comfortably and naturally, we’ll have to even out his lopsided development by building some strength in the muscles that lower the head and create some elasticity in the topline. Then, he’ll be able to start lifting and swinging his back to carry himself and his rider in better balance. This process will involve bodywork to start relaxing the tight topline and specifically designed movements to help him relearn how to telescope his neck, lift his back and reach with his shoulders. Not that much different from the program we designed for the injured performance horse in the rehab example, including the need to monitor the horse’s progress along the way so he doesn’t become overly sore from using his muscles in different ways.

What other horses might be candidates for reschooling? Here are a few situations that might benefit from some intentional and experienced retraining:

    A horse whose rider is habitually off balance in some way – heavier on one seatbone, chronically dropped shoulder, leaning forward or back – will mirror the rider in his own balance, muscle development and movement patterns. This horse will need help to return to straightness and self-carriage for a new rider or in an ongoing situation in which the rider has become more aware of her asymmetries and is working to correct them.
    A horse who has worked in chronic discomfort. This could include a sore back from an ill-fitting saddle, mouth pain from dental imbalances or front-limb issues (often diagnosed as founder or navicular) from being habitually worked on the forehand. Without bodywork and a re-education program to help the horse learn to work off the hindquarters in a relaxed way, these horses can end up in a spiral of increasing unsoundness.
    A horse whose lack of training leads him to carry a rider in a way that seems like he is disconnected back to front or side to side. A lot of racetrack Thoroughbreds need to be “put together” under saddle, helping them strengthen the “bridge” between hind- and forequarters and learn the muscle movements for bending and lateral work under saddle.




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