A few posts ago, I wrote about posture giving us wings. The main idea there is that your body posture affects your nervous system, either in a powerful way or in a stress inducing way. Exercise and agility are really what bodies were designed to do, for all creatures. You don’t have to look far to find a study that will confirm how much a part this plays in the repair of our bodies and stress recovery for physical and mental health.
Working on our posture gives our bodies the strength and habitual patterns of creating powerful poses which improves our nervous system regulation. As an aside, I could have said ‘muscle memory’ as that is a term that people use quite often – however after studying the science of exercise, I realised that it is a misnomer. Muscles don’t remember what they need to do, only how big they need to be based on what was previously experienced. Instructions for muscle movement come from the brain. Repeated patterns end up becoming automatically executed as the nerve fibre gets wrapped in myelin (a sort of insulation enabling quicker execution). The muscles will remember how much energy that they need to release and increase in size with each experience of overuse. This overuse of muscles actually rips them up, and then they are repaired with more mitocondria that enables a greater energy release. This explains why we are in pain after doing an unusual exercise, and also a good reason for starting out slow!
Having said that, the type of exercises that I will be going through in this post will be very gentle. No ice required afterwards. There are large muscles that create high power movement and then small muscles that perform stabilising functions. Those smaller muscles are the ones that we target for posture, bringing the spine into alignment, leveling the sides of the body, as well as flexing and contracting muscles around the joints to cover a range of positions.
The reason that we need to help our horses with their posture is that they are notoriously on the forehand for long stretches of the day while they eat. Our domesticated horses are confined by fences or in some cases small stalls and thus at more risk of a forehand stance. Even if they have a paddock, they lack the movement that horses in the wild do to counterbalance their bodies. Wild horses travel huge distances which requires them to use their posture to save energy while they do so. Watching herds of free roaming horses, you will see them trotting along effortlessly in an equilibrium of balance, each with limbs connected and engaged to work together for optimum efficiency. Whereas domestic horses have less need to optimise their energy since food sources are ever present and they do not have to work too hard to get food. There are ways that we can feed horses to mimick some of the conditions in the wild. Sharon May-Davis is an equine researcher and scientist who advocates using high hay nets and different angles of feeding positions to allow horses to reach and browse as they would naturally about 20% of their feeding time. Read an article about how to implement variable feeding positions from an attendee of one of her seminars.
For more active training in posture, I have found that implementing very small basic movements that are practiced frequently will have a profound effect. It is in essence following on the teachings of classical dressage. However, classical dressage instructors tend to begin at a level over and beyond what many horses need or can cope with at first, and with a learning curve that is steep for a person who is just starting out with their horse.
To understand balance and posture, we can think about the planes of balance, i.e., which ways the horse can basically fall over. The vertical (upright) plane indicates the side to side balance (which is left – right weighting). The horizontal (length) plane is front to back balance (which is forehand – hind weighting).
How does the horse need to stand in order to be in horizontal and vertical balance? Being four legged with a long neck, the horse has quite an advantage to lean on one side more than the other and compensate by levering the neck to the other direction. They also use the neck to lever the movement when placing more weight in the forehand. The neck is therefore quite a key component of altering balance. When the horse can keep the neck straight at the base between the pectoral muscles then they are having to weight their left and right sides evenly. When the horse has a low stance bringing more weight towards the front, then the neck can oscillate up and and down to lift the front legs off the ground when they are moving, as well the horse uses momentum (with quick and heavy footfalls) to keep from falling over forward.
So, the most basic thing we can do, is to gently work with the neck to align it in a balanced position. Since we want to place the neck evenly between the pectoral muscles, the two front legs should be standing square. Nothing should be forced in doing this. It is often big deal to the horse to feel the neck in alignment and they may resist at first, so take it very slowly and only move the neck as you are allowed by the horse. If you feel tightness and blocking then just wait at that position until the horse releases the tension. When it feels softer then go a little further. Tiny, tiny movements are very effective and over time with frequent repetition will give the horse an ability to align themselves more easily.
I also watch for the body language of the horse while doing these exercises. There are face signals that tell me that the horse is still processing the proprioceptive information from this new body awareness. They become very still, but parts of their face may flicker, such as the muzzle twitching or the jaw muscles and facial nerves, or a blink of the eyes. The eyes will look vacant and soft with a crease in the brow – the mind is internally focused. When they return to being alert, or rub their nose on their leg, lick and chew, stretch their necks around (as if they are looking at something behind), or move their body, or swish their tail, or eye roll and yawn, then they have usually finished. After that “releasing” has finished then I approach again, watching to see if I am allowed to come near. If not, then more waiting until they are ready. After practicing this over time, the horse will figure out how to align themselves and they won’t need too much human help, often preferring to manage the process more themselves.
In the video above with Toby, I am demonstrating the neck alignment as well as doing some very slow steps forward and straight (with neck positioned evenly between the base) where he needs to figure out how to keep his body in horizontal balance. Since he must move slowly, he cannot use momentum to counter falling forward, and with his neck straight, he cannot fall out to the left or right side to avoid the weight shift into the hind. I stand in front of him to stop him taking large pushing steps, but another way is to stand at the shoulder facing forward and use the whip as a ‘go-slow’ cue in front.
This exercise will build the ability to lift up at the base of the neck, raise the withers and engage the body to shorten up, round the back and engage the hind to step underneath to hold his balance horizontally. He needs to place his feet so that they are able to balance his front and back weight evenly enabling the step upwards (like a ballerina) and a gentle landing. I am not micro-managing where he holds his neck, other than it is straight. Allowing him to stretch his neck forward in a curved arc shape helps to lift up in the thoracic sling and back, producing the engagement of the hind.
Effectively, this is teaching the posture of self-carriage.