Resisting the temptation of doing too much, too fast

After last week's rides I suffered from new pains in my back, the result of trying to change my riding posture. My new way of getting my shoulders in the right place works very well, but I got sore muscles in places that I did not realize I had muscles. Not only my back, but my hips and all of the muscles in front and to the outside of my thighs. After a few days of hobbling around I realized that I was being totally unrealistic about my physical fitness and my body's ability to quickly adjust to new movements. I then decided that I should go as slow with getting my body fitter for riding as I go with getting Mia stronger. Yes, I sould be as patient with myself as I am with Mia. This worked, I did not get sore at all from this week's ride.


Last week, reading Gustav Steinbrecht's "The Gymnasium of the Horse" I finally understood in detail how dressage riders can strengthen their horse's hind legs enough so the horse can do collected work. Being a Forward Seat rider collected work has little appeal to me, but acting as a riding physical therapist for an elderly arthritic and physically weak mare I am very interested in strengthening her hind legs. So I read and re-read Steinbrecht's descriptions of the exercises for the first steps of strengthening the hind legs and decided that I could do the first exercise in a Forward Seat manner. I also read and re-read Steinbrecht's warnings about how hard this work is for a horse, and how sore a horse can get working in a new way. The last thing I want to do is make Mia hurt more!


Steinbrecht uses curved lines (circles or arcs of circles) to get the inside hindleg to come forward enough to support some of the horse's weight, to get the inside hind leg to move closer to the track of the outside hind leg, and to get the joints of the inside hind leg to bend more. After much thought I decided that the best aids for my purposes was to use an advancing outside hand (which turns the inside rein into one of direct opposition without the pulling which can shorten the horse's stride,) and using my inside leg when the horse's hind leg swings forward (instead of using my outside leg when the horse's inside fore leg swings forward.)


Luckily this week I had a lesson with Debbie so I had someone to tell me if I got the results I wanted. After explaining what I wanted to do, how I was going to do it, what I wanted the results to be, and my worries about overdoing it and causing Mia pain, Debbie and I decided that it would not hurt Mia if I did just three strides at a walk in an arc, straighten out for a few steps, and then do another three strides turning in the other direction. After warming Mia up for around 15 minutes with regular and slightly extended walks, and with some work at the three speeds of the trot we were ready for our experiment.


Mia responded like she had been doing this all her life. Her inside hind leg came forward more under the mass of her body, and it moved closer to the track of her outside hind leg. It felt like her rib cage was flexing around my inside legs. So smooth, so effortless, such a temptation to keep on doing this new, improved movement. Then I thought of Mia's spavined hock on her right hind, and her arthritic fetlock joint on her left hind and reminded myself of all the pain I had been in from doing something slightly different, and went back to riding all the rest of the time using my old aids for the turns. She was somewhat slower, like doing something new had tired her out, so I mostly walked and did the sitting trot in the FS position for Slow Equitation for the rest of the lesson. She had done well, and on horseback when things go well it can be a good time to stop and do something else.


One unfortunate error in Steinbrecht's book is that he held the view that the horse's rib cage and spine can flex and replicate the curve of the circle. After all, it FEELS like the spine and rib cage flex. But this is one of the many cases in which what the rider THINKS he (or she) feels is totally impossible because of the horse's anatomy. The horse's spine is very rigid, it has to be to support the weight of all the horse's internal organs not to mention the weight of a rider. Except for the neck and tail vertebrae, each of the spinal vertabrae is tightly tied to the next one by many ligaments. The lumbar vertabrae, which support the horse's gut, have wide transverse processes (spurs of bone growing out to the side) which are several inches long. If these vertabrae flexed from side to side the tips of these transverse processes would run into each other. Throughout the horse's evolution, as the horse became a faster runner, the horse's spine lost flexibility. Eohippus's spine looks as flexible as a dog's, able to curl from side to side and up and down. Equus Caballus' spine on the other hand is quite stiff, this was one of the tradeoffs the horse species had to make to become FAST and BIG.


So what was my inside leg doing to get the feeling of a flexing rib cage? After much study, I think that the action of my inside leg when the horse's inside hind moves forward, moves the horse's rib cage to the outside, out of the way of the advancing inside hind leg, which then can move forward under the mass of the horse and closer to the path of the outside hind leg. This is why doing a circle using my inside leg felt so much smoother, the horse's inside hind leg was not blocked by its rib cage and could move forward freely. The illusion of the rib cage flexing comes from the horse's inside shoulder coming back and the inside thigh coming forward, both able to slide smoothly over the rib cage that is no longer blocking their movements. I know that this goes against a lot of what the dressage books say, and that the flexible spine paradigm is centuries old. This is not the first time that ancient visualizations have had to be changed to reflect reality, just study the history of science.


So next week I will have to limit myself in what I ask my body and Mia's body to do. Working little by little, just maybe both Mia and I will get strong enough to do normal riding, me in keeping a proper position while moving with the horse, and Mia able to canter without feeling like she is falling apart. It is so TEMPTING to just rush ahead, and try to do everything all at once, but in the long run the only way to get where you want to go with a horse is to GO SLOW.


Have a great ride.





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Comment by Elizabeth Gormley on March 1, 2010 at 2:30pm
Jackie that was really good to read. When ppl use forced training shortcuts and drugs on horses or themselves it masks the pain but the injury still increases in severity and permanence when work continues during the time needed for healing. in Steinbrecht's time there was no bute and a horse was needed long term. Understanding of the methods used effectively before modern technology allows us to work our horses safely without doping them.Thank you for writing this
Comment by Jennifer Lamm on March 1, 2010 at 11:02am
Hello Jackie... thanks for the good read!! :)

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