Tag Archives: Back Lift

How to Nail the Free Walk

Package Warning and Disclaimer: This subject popped into my head yesterday as I sat and watched horse after horse bungle the Free Walk. I am not a dressage expert. I haven’t gotten on a horse in more than two months and I could not score even a 7 in beginner novice after bribing the judge with chocolate cake and an all-expenses-paid trip to China. The following is written by someone who watches and listens to trainers, riders and horses, and thinks about how things could be changed so that everyone involved gets more of what they want, and horses get what they need.

In an earlier post, Why Aren’t Horses and Riders Any Better at the Free Walk? I wrote about a dressage judge who told me that she views the Free Walk portion of a test

as a kind of double-exposure snapshot of the horse: its present way of going superimposed over its development and early training.

Once past a certain stage in a horse’s age and development, merely training a horse to lower its head at the free walk will not cut the mustard. In order to mail the Free Walk, you have to do some work on your horse. The good news is you have a huge tool belt full of goodies to work with for making a change. A rider can effect real, positive change in its horse’s topline without the use of draconian tools, dominance or expensive therapists or trainers. You get to spend some quality time with the horse, too.

I like Tellington TTouch® for bodywork because it calms the horse and makes it more receptive to learning. I like it so much that I quit working as an equine massage therapist to use it. Non-invasive and requiring no recovery time, TTouch® can be used in conjunction with most training methods. If anyone out there would like to bring about a change in not only the Free Walk, but also the general demeanor and learning capabilities of the horse, give the following ideas a try and let me know what happens. They don’t take nearly as much time to do as they do to read!

1. Lowering the head
You have to start somewhere, and the head is a good place.
Here’s why: Lowering the head so that the poll lies around 4 inches below the height of the withers overrides what Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) calls “emotional hijacking” of the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs automatic responses. Horse people call it the fight, flight or freeze reflex. Lowering the head allows the horse the critical space both to stop and think as well as to relax the muscles along the topline, releasing tension from the poll, crest, back and through the croup to the tail. Once you’ve got the head low, you’ve got it made for a lot of things. (Yup, you’ve already started making a list of the favorable side effects, I bet: bridle path clipping, haltering and bridling, etc.)

For even more details on the beneficial effects of lowering the head, see the work of horse gentler and people trainer Frank Bell and professor of classical dressage Manolo Mendez.

If you can trust the horse not to run you down, start by standing in front of (do not cross-tie), and grasp the halter gently with one hand while asking with verylight pressure on the poll for the horse to drop his head.
Use the Clouded Leopard TTouch¹ while asking for the downward movement.
The moment you get the slightest movement in a downward direction, release your pressure (but not the hold on the halter).
If you don’t trust the horse not to flatten you, stand at about a 45 degree angle from the horse’s head, out of striking range and try it from there. Not many horses will do this at first without some coaxing, because it feels like a pretty dangerous surrender. But once they trust you, and you trust them, it’s a done deal.
Tellington TTouch® has several simple techniques for asking a horse to lower the head. All are simple and effective. Try one out and see. (Careful: lower the head too much, and you will get a drooling, snoozing horse. Hold the head too high, and you will be enabling a high-headed, reflexively reactive horse who won’t learn to stretch out.)

2. Working the crest and neck: forelock circles, mane slides, inchworm
It’s all connected! Relaxation of the neck, shoulders, and back has lasting effects. Stimulation of blood flow and lymph circulation provide long lasting benefits for horses working in collection. Forelock and Mane Slides feel as good to the horse as it feels to us when someone plays with our hair. Granted, there are a few people who detest the feeling, but most report a relaxation response to having sections of the hair gently lifted and “stroked” from root to tip. Remember when you were little and your mother soothed you in this way?
In addition to being a practical preparation for mane-pulling and braiding, forelock and mane slides soothe and relax the muscles of the poll, neck shoulders and back.

3. Lifting the Back
I think this is the single most powerful tool in the entire tool belt. Sometimes I feel like making a stealth run around the barn, doing back lifts on every horse there. If discovered, I’d probably get sued, but I know I’d make a difference, at least temporarily, in at least one horse.

Here’s what Linda Tellington-Jones, founder of Tellington TTouch® has to say on the subject:

How a horse carries his back is central to his ability to carry a rider and perform his job, whether it’s cutting cows, jumping fences, dressage or trail riding. One of the keys to developing a strong, supple back is the ability of the belly muscles to contract effectively and provide strength so that the horse can move in self-carriage.”²

4. Lick of the Cow’s Tongue over the rib area
The area from the girth to the hind leg is just plain neglected. We don’t even notice it when we crank down the girth before hopping on. Yet this portion of the horse’s anatomy is the cradle of its suspension and self-carriage. It pays to give it some love. Simple firm and loving touch here can release tension and free the midsection muscles to move fluidly. The TTouch called “Lick of the Cow’s Tongue” gives a horse a stronger sense of connection between the belly and the back. In addition to helping to raise the back, soften the muscles and increase awareness, Lick of the Cow’s Tongue is unbeatable when it comes to helping girthy horses.

5. Tail TTouch
The tail is part of the horse’s spine. It’s not just there for looks, and it’s not an evolutionary leftover. Horses use their tails. We can help them with their balance, extension, and collection by working their tails. Most horses love it. You’ve seen them out in the pasture, nibbling one another’s tails, rubbing them around. Tails are a big part of horses’ lives. Let’s get at ‘em.

I know some horsepeople who do these exercises and more each day either before or after riding. I think it beats lungeing. The work of Linda Tellington-Jones is so simple it’s revolutionary: Touch your horse and change your horse. The simple act of getting on and riding around becomes a pleasure shared by horse and rider.

But wait…there’s more!
I have by no means been exhaustive in my descriptions of what you can do to loosen and lengthen the horse for the Free Walk. I’ve taken you from poll to tail, but there are many more exercises than these. I learned these techniques for varying equine applications; however, enabling a horse to move freely in rhythm while walking is the pinnacle of any form of bodywork or horsemanship.

At some point after I go with my miracle child to visit colleges, I will add some photos of this work, along with a detailed post of some groundwork exercises to help with the Free Walk. I like the Tellington Equine Awareness Method (TTEAM) groundwork because it does not involve dominance, even in a sneaky way, as many other training methods do. It allows horses a breathing space to think and go beyond their instincts, which is, after all, what we are trying to do when we are riding them in the first place. Let’s face it, Mother Nature did not plan for horses to carry humans on their backs. And while the combination of human and rider may at times feel divinely inspired, we have certain hurdles to overcome if riding a horse is not going to harm it.

¹ Clouded Leopard TTouch: The original, basic TTouch. Hold your hand gently curved and using the pads of your fingers to make contact, softly push the skin in a circle and a quarter (clockwise). Hold your fingers more or less together, but allow fluid movement. Keep your joints rounded–holding them stiffly is uncomfortable for the horse. Keep your other hand grounded softly on the underside of the horse’s neck or back.

² The Ultimate Horse Behavior and Training Book: Enlightened and Revolutionary Solutions for the 21st Century Linda Tellington-Jones with Bobbie Lieberman, page 36.

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How to Become Your Farrier’s Best Friend

How to Become Your Farrier’s Best Friend

Ever since a good old boy farrier lost his patience with my nervous Palomino quarter horse gelding and slapped him in the ribs with a rasp, I’ve been very interested in barefoot farriery. I had to be, because there was no way that knuckle-dragger was going near my horses again, and what I saw of local farriers’ work did not impress me. I don’t mean to make out like I’m a hoof expert. Oh no far from it. Or that I disapprove of shoeing horses. I don’t. I have as good a grasp as anybody of the interior hoof mechanism and the exterior hoof anatomy, and I can spot a crappy shoeing job from a mile away.

After scrabbling around for someone to put shoes on my horse and finding no one I’d trust, shoes were pulled and Mother Nature’s horse shoes (the natural hooves) were allowed to do the job she designed them for. I was very lucky that another boarder at the stables located Anne Buteau, the lovely and very patient woman who now trims Maira’s hooves every five weeks. Anne is a hoof care instructor for the Association for the Advancement of Natural Horse Care Practices. Under her care, my horses’ feet have become healthy, tough, and able to withstand the rigors of fox hunting and trail riding. After a couple of years’ good fortune with barefoot and healthy horses, I don’t think I’ll ever go back to shoeing, but that’s not the subject of this post.

While Anne trims Maira’s feet, we often chat about horses and the different ways people expect their horses to behave for the farrier. When Maira first came to me in October of 2007, she was unable to lift her feet for more than a few seconds without fearing for her balance. Slamming a foot down was not an act of disobedience, but her effort to stay balanced. Horses, like people seem to prefer standing in balance. Raising and holding a leg off the ground is not a natural movement for them, and it’s only natural that it takes some practice to perfect. I have seen owners “get after” their horses for failing to stand stock still with a foot raised. I have seen farriers do worse things to horses than that guy did to my Palomino. After taking care of the pre-farriery basics every horse owner should do to ensure a safe experience for the horse and the farrier, it has been surprisingly easy to help Maira stand for trimming, and thus to be a thoughtful farriery client.

Most of what we ought to do to prepare our horses for the visit from the farrier/trimmer amounts to common good manners.

• First, I always make sure the horse is brushed and that I apply fly spray so that Maira will not be tempted to kick at a fly and accidentally take Anne out. Or swish her tail in Anne’s face. It’s basic good manners.

• More in the good manners department is to clean the exterior hoof wall, wipe off the fetlocks, and pick out the horse’s feet carefully so you don’t add that task to the long list of things your farrier has to do. I don’t hose them off, because it’s harder to rasp and file wet hoof than dry. Also, it’s nice to tie your horse’s tail up so that your farrier does not have to dodge it as she does the hind feet.

• I always have someone present to hold the horse for the farrier. I think it’s really rude to ask your farrier to hold your horse and do their job at the same time. Having a horse trimmed in cross-ties is fine if he’s an old hand at standing in balance for long periods without interaction with his front end. But not all horses are. A halter and a short lead can provide just enough stimulation and contact to keep your horse occupied. Having his head free will also allow him to use his neck and head to balance himself better, hopefully cutting down on those slam-downs.

If a horse needs it, there are many things you can do to help your horse stay in balance and behave quietly while getting a trim while you are there. I consider myself a part of the farriery team, and my trimmer considers me a thoughtful client.

Sometimes basic preparation is not enough, and you need to take a careful look at the reasons your horse is snatching his foot away, losing his balance, dropping his head, etc. Most often, it comes down to trying to maintain balance. Here’s what I have done to begin helping Maira stand quietly for the trimmer:

• Stroking with the TTouch Wand Since Maira appears to have little awareness of her hind legs and feet when anxious, and trimming time is anxiety time, I use the Tellington TTouch® wand on her legs to both calm her and bring her awareness to her legs. Research has shown that moderately firm stroking with the wand from throatlatch to hoof has a calming effect. Regular stroking with the wand (wanding) helps increase a horse’s awareness of her body. During trimming, wanding her legs had the effect of “grounding” Maira, of connecting her feet to the ground, and focusing her attention on her front legs while her hind feet were being trimmed, and vice versa. Distraction via focus! This was the first TTouch tool I used on her, and the first time I did it, it cut trimming time almost in half. I can’t say how it cut Anne’s frustration, but I know she left smiling, whereas the previous time, she was frowning and stiff from wrangling with Maira’s legs.

• Hoof Tapping According to Linda Tellington-Jones, Maira’s hind legs have poor neurological connection and she lacks significant awareness of her hind legs and feet, both proprioceptively and in space. Part of my “befriending the farrier” campaign will be to do daily hoof tapping. With the ball end of the wand, I will tap firmly all around Maira’s coronary band and hoof walls. I would like to remind her that her hooves are there. I would like to remind her how her hooves feel when someone touches them. I would like her to know that she doesn’t have to lift her feet every time someone touches them.

• Leg Circles and Other TTouches for the Leg Another tool in my Farrier’s Friend Toolbox is the Leg Circle. Increasing Maria’s balance and proprioception by lifting her legs about 8″ off the ground, and circling them in each direction a few times, and then placing them down gently, will help accustom her to having to lift and hold her legs up, and to learn to keep her balance while doing so. Octopus TTouch is also very useful for increasing horse’s perception of their legs, and it seems to feel very good, too.

• Back Lifts Teaching Maira to lift and engage her back will both strengthen her and enable her to steady herself during trimming.

More common sense good manners to put you on the farrier’s friend list: During the shoeing/trimming, I stand at Maira’s head, with a lead. I hold a few treats hidden in my pocket for random dire moments. I carry a fly whisk and swish away the flies so that she won’t be tempted to, and I keep Maira’s head up and straight ahead.  If I do TTouch ear work and TTouch her face, neck and head, and throw in some hair slides on her mane and forelock, I can use this time for communication and bonding. Granted, this means I can’t jabber mindlessly with the trimmer. But since I’m her new best friend, she often takes me out to lunch, and we can chat there.

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Everything But the Kitchen Sink: Maira's TTouch Prescription

Today in the TTEAM Training, it was time to round up our assessments of our horses. We discussed how to effect the necessary changes and encourage beneficial qualities in our horses. We spent a warm and breezy afternoon in the arena figuring out how to use some of the Tellington TTouch® ridden work in the Playground for Higher Learning, experimenting with TTEAM equipment, and getting sunburned.

After examining Maira thoroughly, Linda’s pronouncement confirmed some of my suspicions, but when she threw in everything but the kitchen sink, the diagnosis got a little alarming. I’ve got a lot of work to do.

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