Let’s Talk Training Scale! Part 1 – Relaxation

Relaxation: The mental factor

There is much talk about the German ‘Training Scale’ in the context of horse training and in many a barns – especially with dressage focus – we’ll find posters, images or signs on the walls, showing the 6 elements of the training scale or training pyramid.

GermanTrainingScale_RelaxSupple

Before we discuss the mental factors of relaxation, let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the German Training Scale:

The Training Scale (Skala der Ausbildung) first appears as a 6-step concept in the 1937 version of the “H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider”.  At the same time, Siegfried von Haugk – cavalry officer, head of the remount school Oschatz and co-author of the HDV12 – created an updated version of the army hand book on “Teaching Riding to Recruits”, which contained – for the first time – the description of the 6-step systematic training system in sequence as we know it today.  The HDV12 is – essentially – the basis for today’s FN Principles of Riding. The ‘principles’ were altered, however, to meet the needs of today’s recreational riders. In recent years, the panel responsible for the content of these principles has decided on a return to some of the original teachings of the HDV12 to ensure horse welfare.

While ‘Rhythm’ is the first element of the Training Scale and basic foundation in the schooling of the young horse, the late Olympic gold medalist Dr. Reiner Klimke valued Suppleness (Relaxation) above all. We can find suppling exercises in his and his daughter Ingrid’s books (for example Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country) as well as in the HDV12.

But are there preconditions for even getting to suppleness?
Is there a step before the step?

The answer is YES: We need to embark on a ‘Path to Relaxation/Suppleness’, meaning

  1. Eliminate any factors that cause the horse to brace
  2. Release any existing tension in the horse (and rider!)
  3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse

This ‘path’ never ends! It must be introduced before Suppleness can be expected. However, it is not a ‘step’ that we accomplish and then move on. We need to actively and consciously incorporate these three important ‘paths’ into our schooling – and the learning as well as the rewards will never stop.

Let’s look a little closer at these 3 elements on the path to suppleness

1. Eliminate factors that cause the horse to brace

Bracing is a reaction on part of the horse, where the horse protects himself against an external influence causing pain or discomfort. This can also be mental discomfort! In response, the horse will constantly contract muscles, not only fatiguing or even damaging these muscles, but also skeletal elements that these muscles are attached to. Relaxed, supple movement becomes impossible. Here some examples for factors that can cause bracing in the horse:

  • Ill-fitting tack
  • Incorrect use of spurs
  • Tightly adjusted bridles
  • Hard rider hands
  • Rider seat lacking suppleness
  • Inconsistent aids
    RTEmagicC_11_31_Losgelassenheit3.gif
    This horse is bracing in the head-neck junction and the upper neck.

    And more…

The goal: Identify those factors that cause bracing in your horse. Caution: This is not a ‘one fits all’ process, but a very individualized look at what your horse is expressing and an investigation into possible causes. Then eliminate these factors and replace with something that works for horse and rider, but allows the horse to move freely.

Note: Bracing is not always bad… When catching a basketball, you brace against the impact. The key is to be able to let go afterwards! Constant, habitual bracing is the problem.

2. Release existing tension in the horse (and rider)

037small
A simple Masterson Method exercise to release tension in the hind end.

Once certain bracing patterns or negative movement habits are established, the horse carries tension that he is unable to release himself. These tense, constantly contracted muscles, muscle spasms, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion translates into lack of suppleness. To get a fresh start on your Path to Performance™, you need to create a ‘clean slate’ by releasing tension and restriction and thus create the possibility of learning new movement or postural habits. For both rider and horse, this can be accomplished by:

  • Bodywork & massage
  • Guided exercises
  • Active stretching
  • Myiofascial release

And more…

The goal: Find areas where tension & restriction resides and release it through various modalities, enabling the body to find a whole new way of moving in a relaxed way.

3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse

You are strolling down a busy street on a sunny Saturday afternoon – leisurely shopping pleasure. Suddenly, you hear a loud crash only a few yards away. A car accident! How does your body feel? Without any of your conscious doing, your body will show the typical human stress response posture: tucked in chest and abdominals, shoulders rounded forward, knees slightly bent, head moves forward (basically our modern ‘smart phone’ posture…) – and increased blood sugar and blood pressure, heart rate and sweating.

whataface
This rehab horse had a tense facial expression upon arrival.

The horse – as a prey animal – has an even more fine-tuned physical response to stress. These physical responses can be so subtle, that we relatively loud-mouthed, always on the ‘go’ humans, do not even notice. Here a short list of the horse’s physical responses to stress:

  • Hollowed back or braced back
  • Holding abdominals tight (sheath makes wind-sucking noise when trotting)
  • Shallow, fast breath
  • Grinding teeth
  • Tight-lipped muzzle
  • Overall tension and short-striding

An many more….

The key to avoiding these physical stress responses is to eliminate stress. Easier said than done! Are you causing your horse stress? You may not think so. But once you experience truly non-confrontational dialog with your horse, you will see a difference.

The goal: Creating a relaxed mental platform on which horse and rider and interact productively without the barriers of stress response, which always leads to physical tension.

Got it? Got A-B-C covered? Then off you go, enjoy your success with Suppling Exercises!

If you have questions or would like to dive into these topics a little deeper, I recommend my seminar “Path to Performance™ I – Releasing Tension & Restriction”.

Here some more resources:

The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book

Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country

Beyond Horse Massage: A Breakthrough Interactive Method for Alleviating Soreness, Strain, and Tension

H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider

As always – be well and enjoy your horse!

bio2
Stefanie Reinhold
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Riding in Lightness – 5 Steps the Get YOU Started

While generalizing is always a bad idea – I’ll start with a little generalizing in order to keep this blog post at a manageable size. The topic – as you well know – fills many a book!

Fritz Stecken riding according to HDV12
Fritz Stecken on Noble. Perfect Lightness!

After, what seems, several decades of lots of pushing, prodding, pulling, and bracing in main stream equestrian sports – namely dressage – the general consensus seems to be getting back to a more classical approach, i. e. Lightness! Luckily for our horses, there has been increased buzz around classical riding websites and Facebook pages (such as Silvia Loch’s Classical Riding Club or the HDV12 German Cavalry Training Manual. as demonstrated so wonderfully here by Fritz Stecken on Noble). Along with that goes more awareness around so-called ‘modern’ riding techniques that cause bracing, tension and hyperflexion with the respective public criticism (e. g. “Rollkur” type of techniques or tense “circus-like” dressage performances).

But what’s the hype about?

Why Lightness is Necessary

And here King William on a noble steed on a loose rein!

Lightness is to touch what whispering is to voice. Just as pushing, pulling, prodding is to touch what shouting is to voice. As we become more enlightened about the nature of the horse, we learn that our silent, sensitive partners respond better to whispering than to shouting. As ‘loud’ interaction (whether via touch or voice) creates bracing in our horses, ‘soft’ interaction is the key to suppleness. Suppleness is the highest goal and basis for any schooling of the horse, no matter the school (French, Spanish or German).

So we (those of us, who put the horse’s wellbeing first) are looking for ways to become lighter. Lighter in our aids, lighter in our influences, lighter in our interactions with our sensitive equine partners.

Where Does Lightness Start?

Most riders spontaneously think of the reins. Indeed, sensitive, light rein contact is an expression of lightness. However, lightness starts at a deeper level: The mental and physical relaxation and suppleness of the rider, which can then find its expression in riding in lightness, developed through careful and systematic training (and ‘un’training!).

Getting Started With Lightness – Before Climbing in the Saddle

You don’t have to wait until you sit on the horse to work on your lightness. As a matter of fact, once you climb aboard, it’s hard to work on yourself. Mental & physical suppleness, which finds its expression in lightness, is best started in our every day activities.

5 Tips on How To Develop Lightness

  1. Practice Mindfulness – While this sounds like something out of a Buddhist retreat manual, it’s rather simple. 10 minutes a day of focusing on the ‘here & now’ won’t turn you into a meditation expert, but can do much for your ability to relax and be in the presence, a useful skill for riders living in the information age. Do this at home, at the office (but not while driving!)  (Resources: The UCLA offers free online meditation audio OR Guided Mindfulness Meditation: A Complete Guided Mindfulness Meditation Program from Jon Kabat-Zinn)
  2. Use Mental Imagery – day-dreaming with a purpose! Research shows that what we mentally train, we have an easier time realizing in ‘real life’. So day-dream away, but with a plan! Imagine yourself riding, then imagine yourself riding in lightness. Isolate various areas of your body, then put the picture together. Tackle anxiety, confidence issues, and limiting beliefs, we well. Do this while waiting at the doctor’s office or on an airplane, for example. (Resources: More about mental imagery for athletes here OR The Art of Mental Training: A Guide to Performance Excellence (Collector’s Edition))
  3. A Little Stretching – goes a long way! Find a good time of day to incorporate some stretching exercises. 5 minutes in the morning and 5 minutes at night can make all the difference! Many stretching exercises can be done during breaks at work, too! (Resources: Free fitness videos by FitnessBlender OR The Anatomy of Stretching, Second Edition: Your Illustrated Guide to Flexibility and Injury Rehabilitation)
  4. Improve Mobility – suppleness starts with your mobility. Overcome aches and restrictions that we accumulate through our every day or work activities. (Resources: Speak to someone at your gym about foam rolling OR The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body)
  5. Last not Least – ditch unnecessary stress! Mental stressors cause tension in the body. Take a conscious look at what stresses you in your life and see what you can eliminate (e. g. the dog walker, who is always late; the hairdresser, who just can’t get it quite right; possible overcommittments, etc.)

Hope you will feel inspired to create Lightness in your life. It’s bound to make Riding with Lightness so much easier!

Enjoy your horse & be well!

A light touch in all your interaction with your horse.
Have a light touch in all your interaction with your horse.

Stefanie Reinhold

What Lies Beneath the Rider’s Seat: The Horse’s Psoas Muscles!

I remember a certain television show for children that explained ‘how things work’. I always found this type of information fascinating and encouraged my kids to watch this show (with me… ). This resulted in my son’s obsession with taking apart everything from  lawn mowers over radios to kitchen appliances and requiring his own workshop at age 10. But we won’t go there…

When looking at the horse, it’s good to develop that type of curiosity as well. Understanding how the horse works can help enable us to better understand what the horse needs, in order to do the job we ask him to do or – and this is a whole topic on its own – how we unintentionally prevent him from doing what we are asking our horse to do.

horse running

It’s always fascinating to me – in life in general – who is behind it all, who pulls the strings? One of those little ‘string pullers’ the equine (and human) anatomy cannot do without, is the psoas muscle or rather muscles. Before we get into where it is and how we can help it do its job well, let’s see what the psoas muscle does:

Have you ever asked your horse to

  • Step under
  • Round the back
  • Lower the pelvis
  • Brace the spine
  • Develop impulsion

If you answer ‘yes’ to any of the above, you have had a direct request line to the psoas muscles. They pull the strings in all of the above. However, the tricky part is, you cannot see or feel them on the horse. There is no way to palpate them to see whether they are tense or hardened or reactive. Therefore, massaging  them for example, is not an option.

Dr. Joyce Harmann: “The psoas muscle flexes the hip joint; you cannot reach this muscle to treat it or massage it, because it is too deep within the body. “ (From Good Horse Keeping article)

Where exactly are these elusive psoas muscles located?

As Dr. Harmann describes “The psoas muscles [pronounced so-as] connects to the front of the femur and travels across the hip to the bottom of the ribs as far as the 14th thoracic vertebrae underneath the center of the rider’s seat.”

psoas muscles
The psoas muscles are deep inside the horse's anatomy.

What happens when these muscles are rigid, permanently contracted, restricted?

  • Horse has difficulty stepping under and rounding the back
  • Horse develops rigidity in the back
  • Horse loses impulsion
  • Horse is unable or reluctant to lift hind leg for cleaning or for farrier
  • Horse develops back pain
    “The psoas muscle in the hind end is a particularly important muscle in dealing with back pain.  A downward pull on this muscle … creates pain in the back directly under the rearmost area of the saddle.”
    (Dr. Joyce Harmann)

So we see from this very small glimpse at the complicated world of the equine psoas muscles, that they are incredibly important to the functionality of the horse’s anatomy and his ability to perform the tasks we ask of him.

What can we do to keep this muscle supple?

The first and foremost  aspect surely must be proper gymnastistizing. If this element is neglected, all other efforts will be rewarded by only temporary results. There are good books, DVDs and instruction available around the topic of gymnasticizing, from the classic “Gymnasium of the Horse” to books and videos by Klaus Ferndinand Hempfling, Mark Russell and others. I don’t want to present any gymnasticizing techniques in this article, but encourage you to explore the topic further.

The second aspect is eliminating everything that can impede the free range of motion of the horse, such as improperly fitting tack (especially ill fitting saddles), improper angles of limbs resulting from improper angles in the coffin bone due to inappropriate hoof trimming (see this article) and the influence of unbalanced riding.

Proper trimming and hoof care is also important, since a faulty angle can put a strain on the psoas muscles.

What to do, if the psoas muscles are restricted?

As Dr. Harmann explained above, massage is not an option, since one cannot reach these muscles deep inside the horse’s body. The only way to release tension there, is to have the horse actively release it. Jim Masterson, equine massage therapist for the US equestrian team (endurance),  has developed a bodywork technique that engages the horse’s help and cooperation in releasing tension in deeper junctions of the horse’s anatomy, such as the psoas muscles. This method of bodywork is called the Masterson Method™ (Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork™). Here, the practitioner or horse owner learns to engage the horse in a series of exercises, that release tensions deep inside the horse’s body.

Every time I teach a Masterson Method™ student how to release tension in the hind end, I see my son’s face when he used to figure out how things work. It’s one thing to read a book about it, it’s another to actually take the alarm clock apart! Feeling tension dissolve under your hands is an incredibly rewarding experience.

The equine body is a complicated machine, but the principals under which it operates and functions can be easily learned and so can techniques to restore suppleness and performance to horses that suffer from muscular restrictions.

The first step is curiosity to learn what it’s all about. I hope I could get you a little curious…

To learn more about Masterson Method™ or Hands-On Horse Mechanics™ seminars go here.

Horizontal meets vertical: the rider’s role in keeping the horse sound.

During my equine bodywork practice, I occasionally encounter horses with unexplained lameness or restrictions. Vet, farrier and saddle fitter have exhausted their possibilities and the owner is faced with the horse’s recurring unsoundness without explanation. In these cases, bodywork provides relief, but often does not result in lasting change alone.

This leads the focus to the missing piece in the puzzle: the horse/rider interaction or rider biomechanics and how the rider affects the horse’s soundness.

There are two undeniable basic facts about using horses as riding animals:

1)      our vertical spine meets the horse’s horizontal spine in various levels of impact during a sequence of motions of two separate yet attached bodies and

2)      “there is nothing natural about horse back riding”, since horses were not by nature designed to carry a rider.

From this we can conclude:

a) yes, riding a horse implies the possibility of doing the animal harm, simply based on the biomechanical parameters and

b) riding therefore needs to be a factor, when considering what in the horse’s environment can keep him sound or potentially make him unsound.

Rider biomechanics have been on my mind for a long time, not just since a young man offered me a seat on the bus the other day. Thinking about your own flexibility as a rider and ability to stay out of the horse’s way during our – hopefully – harmonious movement together, is not a question one starts asking when approaching 50 or so. It’s a basic requirement whenever we want to do the right thing for the horse.

This is a vast topic and good books have been written by very knowledgeable folks (e.g. “The Rider Forms the Horse” by Udo Burger). I can only highlight a few aspects and hope to enthuse you for the subject.

As bipeds, we often naturally move contrary to the horse’s quadruped movement.

As an example: The walk, the ‘easiest’ of all gaits to ride. We bipeds move our arms diagonally to the legs during the walk, meaning when our right hip moves forward, our right arm moves back. When we ride and hold the reins, we will tend to do the same: move the right hip forward, and the right arm back (even if ever so slightly). Try it on a chair! This directly counteracts the movement of the horse and means, that if we do not want to jar the horse’s mouth with every step, we need to make a conscious effort to develop an independent seat, where hip can move independent of arm.

Let’s take this example one step further – a fictional case study: A rider who has not yet developed an independent seat rides a willing and compliant horse for several years, jarring his mouth with every step in the walk. Soon the horse will develop a ‘dead mouth’, possibly leading the rider to believe the horse needs a sharper bit. After using the sharper bit for some time – which works wonders with the ‘stoppability’ – the horse starts shortening the stride and refuses to take the right lead. He develops an unwillingness to bend in the neck and an ornery temperament. The rider (possibly in unison with the trainer) attributes this to a number of factors unrelated to his/her riding and continues to ride until the horse develops unexplained front leg lameness. A journey through farriers and vets begins with no result.

This is a fictitious scenario, a combination of different cases I’ve experienced. Similarities to real, living horses are merely coincidental ;-).

What happened here? Causing the horse discomfort in the mouth by moving like a biped on the back of this quadruped causes the horse to carry himself in a way that compensates and allows him to avoid the discomfort as much as possible. Instead of swinging his head lightly from side to side during the walk, he will hold his head still, and his neck stiff, in anticipation of the next jarring feeling in the jaw. Over time, the ‘head neck muscle’ (bracchiocephalicus) and related muscles become permanently contracted. This muscle’s job is to move the front leg forward. Through the restriction, the horse’s stride becomes shortened. Soon the tension will expand into the upper neck musculature and muscles that are responsible for the movement of the shoulder blade (scapula). The shoulder becomes tight and unyielding. Since it is the ‘shock absorber’ for the front legs, it now loses its function as such and the front legs have to bear most of the impact with every step. The trot becomes choppy, the strides restricted. Discomfort and restriction leads the horse to get stiff in the neck and possibly refuse to take one lead or another.

By the time the symptoms become loud, this has been going on for a while. Often it’s hard to make the connection. It’s not easy to ask oneself ‘how could my riding be a factor’?  Nevertheless, it’s the right question to ask.

There is an excellent website with in depth information regarding rider biomechanics http://nicholnl.wcp.muohio.edu/dingosBreakfastClub/BioMech/BioMechRideContent.html.  You can also order a book on this website about the same topic.

Even small changes in your riding can make a big difference for your horse’s soundness. As a non-ambitious rider who doesn’t show, I personally have to make a conscious effort of working on my seat. Having seen quite a bit of damage to horses by unskilled riders, I am painfully aware of what my riding can do to my horse and do what I can to get guidance and feedback, to keep myself fit and flexible and to stay aware of my short-comings as a rider.

If you have a story to share or tips or experiences regarding Biomechanics of Riding, please email me stef@reinholdshorsewellness.com or share your comment.

Have a harmonious ride!

The trainer blues: Dare to create a vacuum!

I’ve spoken to several horse owners lately who had the same depressing condition: The Trainer Blues. See this list to check yourself for symptoms:

  • When your trainer interacts with your horse, you frequently cringe inside or feel like apologizing to your horse
  • You’ve been working on the same issues over and over, feeling like things are getting worse rather than better
  • Your horse wants to ‘hit the road’ when he sees the trainer coming, you reassure him ‘it’ll be ok’
  • You are really interested in exploring different riding philosophies, but your trainer will hear nothing of it
  • You are afraid to ask questions, your trainer is ‘untouchable’
  • You are not sure what’s going on, but you don’t look forward to your riding lessons any more. You want out, but this seems to be the best trainer in the area.

If more than one of the above applies to you, you’ve got the Trainer Blues! We all want the best for our horses and it’s hard to resist a reputable trainer, one that everyone in the barn uses or that was recommended to us by our best friend.

On the other hand, there is no licensing requirement for horse trainers and riding instructors in the US and the industry doesn’t have a homogenous self-regulating mechanism. In other words, there trainers of all sorts of backgrounds, philosophies, methods and angles out there, with widely varying degrees of experience and qualification.

How does one bring light into the jungle? I believe it starts with asking yourselves the right questions:

  • What is the riding philosophy that most appeals to me? Or, if i am unsure:  Is there a rider I look up to, who inspires me? (Can be someone like Rainer Klimke or Tom Dorrance.) What was their philosophy?
  • What kind of riding do I want to do?
  • What’s my skill level? (that’s a tough one…)
  • What type of trainer –> horse interaction would I most appreciate?
  • Do I know what my horse’s potential is? What is his skill level?

After honestly and bravely (especially in regard to your own riding skills and the abilities of your horse…) answering these questions, you can move on to the next set of questions:

  • Does my trainer meet most of my criteria? (This is a tough one, especially if you really like your trainer personally.)

If yes, you don’t have the Trainer Blues… If No, move on to asking:

  • Which points could I compromise on?
  • Do I know of a trainer – near or far – who represents the philosophy I am interested in?
  • Is there a way I can observe this person? Can I reach out to this person to recommend someone in my area?
  • Is there an organization that can recommend a trainer? (This can be an organization like CHA, NARHA, USDF or a local endurance/distance riding club, etc.)
  • Am I prepared to do what it takes to find the right trainer?

If yes, all you now have to come up with is:

THE COURAGE TO CREATE A VACUUM

This is the number one reason I observed, why people stick with trainers that they are not in agreement with. It seems to feel ‘safer’ to do ‘something’ (as in working with the wrong trainer) than doing ‘nothing’ (as in allowing a period without trainer).

Well, let’s ask another stakeholder in this scenario: What would your horse say about this?

Our horses are much smarter, more intuitive and sensitive than many of us think. Every time you cringe while watching the trainer work with your horse, your horse cringes, too! He knows there is something not quite right. He doesn’t feel safe, if you feel worried about something. How could your horse now make any progress?

I know how hard it is to find someone qualified, who we like personally and who teaches us our riding philosophy of choice in a pleasant and non-confrontational way. I’d like to encourage you to say NO to what feels wrong to you, create this trainer-vacuum and open the door for the right professional.