Sorry I've Been Gone

I have not ridden much lately because I just cannot deal with the heat, the polluted air, and the humidity, all of which affect my ability to write as well as my ability to ride a horse.

There were other reasons I did not get many lessons lately, Debbie had her summer camp one week, my husband had to have a procedure done at the hospital (minor, no problems, he is fine), my well broke down late one Tuesday night, rain, this week Debbie's back was bothering her big time, and the fact when I open my front door it is like going into a sauna.

I did have one lesson this month. I told Debbie that I was not going to go faster than the walk because of the heat, humidity and the polluted air. MJ was fine with that, he did not feel like working in the heat either. It was a nice boring lesson walking around asking MJ to do the three speeds of the walk with gradual turns and turns in place while we meandered around the ring. MJ did not want to do an extended walk, in response to my leg aids he just stretched out a little bit, sort of “I have noticed your aid, I am responding to your aid, but lady, darn it, the air pollution makes breathing deeply a bad idea so this is all you will get.” OK MJ.

One of the times I slowed MJ down using my leg aids (applying the leg as the horse's barrel starts pushing my leg to the side) I asked Debbie what she saw when I did this. She told me that by now she can always tell when I am using this particular leg aid, and that MJ has started to collect himself a little bit. This is good, it means that MJ is getting it together as far as walking united at a slow speed, proceeding with purpose rather than just dragging his feet and leaving grooves in the sand. Around 25 minutes into my lesson the heat and humidity were really getting to me and I got off shortly thereafter.

The days that I was not able to do my scheduled rides I rode my Home Horse in the comfort of my air conditioned home. I do not last for long on it even though I am in the air conditioning. Lately I have just kept my feet flat on the platform, working mostly on my balance. I do some “walking”, some 2-point and some posting, and after 7 minutes my body is tired. Still seven minutes moving in a saddle is a lot better than not getting in a saddle at all.

While hiding from the heat and pollution I have been spending a lot of time studying horse anatomy. It started when I told Debbie that Udo Burger in his excellent book “The Rider Forms the Horse” in Chapter 2 discusses how the rider needs to work on strengthening the horse's UPPER NECK muscles so that the horse gets strong enough to carry its rider without hurting its back. I told Debbie, she asked me which muscles Udo Burger was talking about and how to ride to strengthen them. He writes on p. 26 “The rider must sit as far forward as possible and, in the case of young horses, further lighten the load on the horse's back by slightly inclining the upper body forward. With this extra help the young horse will soon learn to balance the weight with the as yet untrained muscles of the upper neck and allow its neck to drop....the horse should balance the weight of the rider with the weight of its head and neck—like a set of scales.” Debbie wanted to know which neck muscles were involved and how to get them stronger. At that time all I could answer was I was not sure exactly which neck muscles were involved, and as for how that I saw no reason to ride in any other than my Forward Seat with light responsive hands that let the horse dictate where and how it carries its head and neck.

I dug out the few books I have on horse anatomy and started looking at the neck muscles. These books did not give me quite enough information to answer Debbie's question. I got on line to see which horse anatomy books are available and started buying several, I even ordered what looked to be veterinary school level books on horse anatomy. I also learned about and bought the Biosphera 3-D Horse Anatomy computer program which is marvelous, I can go down layers and isolate various systems like muscles, the skeleton and nerves. I can rotate the image around, I can turn the image upside down if I so desire, I can make it larger, and I am learning a whole lot from this program. For once I can SEE the anatomy and how it all hangs together. I have spent hours and hours on this program and even more hours looking at the pictures in the horse anatomy books.

One day I decided to see exactly which nerves and muscles are affected by me using my lower leg aids. This was eye opening for me. There is no direct nerve or muscle connection between where I use my lower legs and the horse's hind end. I found two nerves, the long thoracic nerve that goes back to somewhere like under my knee and the lateral thoracic nerve that starts really low on the side of the horse and sort of curls up the side of the horse right behind where I hold my lower leg. Both of these nerves do NOT extend back to the hind quarters, instead they extend FORWARD to the brachial plexus right above the middle of the horse's scapula (shoulder). The later nerve, the lateral thoracic is right under the skin so it is ideal for leg aids. There are also the many lateral cutaneous nerve branches of the rib cage that end up under the skin around where my lower calf and heels operate, these nerves go directly to the spinal cord. The nerve impulses from my leg aids therefore do NOT go directly to the hindquarters and any sensation from them must take detours up to the spinal cord where the nerve impulse finally can go to the nerves and muscles of the hind quarters.

When I give a leg aid I expect the horse to give me an IMMEDIATE response with no lag time. These nerves obviously do not give the immediate response from my legs that I get from a trained horse. There had to be another mechanism that got the hind end responding immediately to my lower leg.

This got me into a rather modern knowledge system of the fascia, the connective tissues that hold the horse's body together. This is complicated and I need to study it more, but apparently what affects part of the fascia can immediately affect more distant parts of the fascia which extends all over the horse's body.

My immediate conclusion is that when we train the horse we are training the horse's brain, nerves and muscles AND we are training the horse's fascia to our aids. The fascia is like an unseen ghost that lies in part under the skin, sensitive, capable of great pain, and which also affects the quality of movement of the horse in part by helping the coordination of the various areas of the horse's body. Right now it seems to me that it is the fascia that we affect when we apply our aids, and that the muscles and main nerves get the message later. It is also the fascia that we injure when we are brutal with the bit, when we hit the horse hard with the whip (especially the thin whippy dressage whips) and when we gouge the horse's sides with our spurs.

It is going to take me a lot of time to “build” a realistic model of horse anatomy in my brain. At least I have not been overwhelmed by guilt for unknowingly abusing my horse and causing them incessant pain when I ride them. I am SO GLAD I ride Forward Seat because I am so much less likely to cause the horse I ride pain in his back, ribs and mouth. I do not make the horse anxious by blocking their forward motion either. I will make some refinements to my riding as I learn more of the particulars of horse anatomy but the creator and horsemen who developed the Forward Seat listened to the horses they rode and developed a system of riding that abuses the horse the least with preventable pain.

As I learn more about horse anatomy I will give you, my wonderful readers, more details. Right now I am so glad that I refused to abuse the horse I rode when my riding teachers told me to abuse them with my hands, legs, whip and spurs.

I am probably not going to ride a live horse again for a few weeks. This heat is brutal and it really messes up my nervous system, and since I am old the air pollution is not very good for my lungs. Meanwhile I will “ride” my Home Horse a few times a week and go on studying horse anatomy. I am still waiting on a few books including the one that is apparently used by veterinary schools.

Have a great ride!

Jackie Cochran


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