Jul 25, 2012


People ask me “But, what did you *do*?” to bring about the changes in Bryan and the others. Well, I did Mary’s work. I did Jack Meagher’s work. I put Bryan on MSM. I changed his shoeing and his feet. I treated his tummy. We rode him straight and forward, on the buckle. We did ground work and some clicker training. We gave him a life that had clear and consistent cause and effect while we worked to reduce his physical pain/s.

But it’s at least as instructive to write about what I didn’t do, as what I did.  

There are two things I did not do with Bryan. Both are common, accepted, and in my view, very misunderstood and often poorly executed. The first one I will write about today.

I never lunged him. Not once. Not ever.

That's right. I never lunge horses. Sure, I used to, all the time. It was SOP in every barn and in every book and with every trainer I knew. I had draw reins, I had side reins; I knew how to use them correctly, knew the various theories about the outside one tighter or the inside one or which was better, the ones with rubber donuts or stretchy ones or plain leather. I had Vienna reins and German martingales. I knew how to lunge in bits and bridles and lunging cavessons and halters. I could tell you the various benefits of the lunge line over the head, over the nose, under the bit, attached to the bit, what have you. I knew how and when and why to lunge; where to attach the side reins at which buckle of the surcingle and when and why. I saw and participated in the LTD (LungeTillDead) techniques at the hunter/jumper shows. I know it all, and I did it all.

But through the years, and  all that study and work: the Jack Meagher book, the insights and issues I learned from the Tellington-Jones work and the Mary Debono work, and the *constant* soundness issues and soft tissue injuries and joint problems I saw in performance horses, the ‘benefits’ of lunging just started to become more and more questionable. I know it’s heretical. I know the old dead guys did it and the SRS does it and blah blah blah. I know.

But we all used the think the world was flat, that the sun went around the earth, and that thunder came from the Gods bowling, or whatever. And we learned different and now we know better. I think it’s going to be the same thing regarding horse people and lunging and side reins. In however many years, people will look at the practice and say ‘How could we have been so blind?’

The more I studied, the less sense it made. Just looking at horses, their structure and way of going, it is so apparent that they are not built to go in circles for any length of time. Look at feral or wild horses. They go straight. They developed, as a species, going straight. They don’t go in circles. Putting a horse on a lunge line as a way to work it, train it, build it up, what have you, is physiologically pointless and yes, harmful. And just to make sure I *really* put my foot in it, I am going to go even farther and say that if you *really* want to start a horse on a path to cripplehood, tie its head down while you lunge it. (I think that Gaitmaster thing is an instrument of the devil. I love the Pessoas, but that thing should be outlawed) Yes. I said it, and I know it is true. I read the endless discussions on the fora, the justifications, the explanations. I don’t care any more. Lunging in general and side reins in particular is not just unnecessary, but can be and often is harmful. Dr. Heuschmann knows it. Others know it. Others are figuring it out.

I see how people feel about lunging and side reins on the fora  I am not interested in discussing the pros and cons or hearing why its ok if only blah, or because blah. The point of this blog is to show what is possible, and what was achieved, and how we achieved it. That’s all. We have had some pretty interesting results over the years, with many different horses.  I didn't lunge any of them. 

Suffice to say, I also no longer use side reins or draw reins, or any kind of martingale for training. Aside from the harm they can do, they *mask*  what the horse needs to do with its body. Why would I want that?!  I want to see *how* my horse is responding to the work I am asking him to do. That helps me know what is going on his body. I want to *see* when he cranes his neck, or leans to the outside, or falls to the inside. I want to *see* when he stretches his head down, how long he holds it there, and whether he does it with his nose out, or in, or to the side in an upward or downward transition. All of this will tell me what is going on in his body. If I can’t see it, how am I going to improve it? Correct it? Influence it?

 Let me also clarify, and thank you to my friend Christine who rightfully asked..'huh?! what if you have a green bean at a horse show, or a horse that is wild at the new sights and sounds'? Well, in that situation, I would probably whip out the lunge line. But even still, I would certainly do in hand and ground work first, to try to get them to focus and relax. They are so habituated to that work at home that it usually serves to focus them when away or distracted. And yes, I would lunge a horse for a vet exam. And yes, lunging is an excellent way to teach the *rider*;  you just have to be careful not to do it at the expense of the horse. But for training, and fitness, and developing a horse, no. Not ever. 

So, other than riding them, what do I do?

I work them free. Sometimes for months without ever riding them. It all depends on how lame they are and what their issues are and how they respond to the body work, the hoof balance corrections, etc. 

I work them loose, with no tack. But they aren’t just loose and galloping around. No. They are working. They learn extensions, lateral work, transitions, spirals. They halt, back, reverse, turn on the haunch and forehand. Any horse can be taught to do it easily. It’s not hard. I think horses really like it actually. They certainly become very engaged and interested. Free lunging allows the horse to respond to the work *in the way that he can*, NOT the way he is forced to. Transitions and reverses and lateral work can all be done in free work, and this lets the horse figure it out on his own, and as I said, lets me see how he is functioning and using his body. 

Most importantly, I do this in a square or rectangle. NOT a circle or a round corral. It can be a space as small as 36 by 36, or as big as you like. As long as it has corners, it’s good.

Why? Think about it. A circle never gives the horse a break. Round and round, the same muscles over and over and over. Any human athlete knows that endless stressful motion is a prescription for a breakdown. But we never think twice about setting our horses up for these physical stresses. And not only do we force the horse to work in this way that is totally not natural, we *tie his head down* while we do it. Gack.

Working with corners gives the horse's muscles a change. It doesn't matter if its brief, its a change. He is straight, *then* he hits the corner and steps under *on his own*. Then he is straight again. *This* can build correct musculature. This is gymnastic training.

Jul 19, 2012

In Process

So this is how Bryan looked when we got him. There are several things to be noticed, eh? 

The most outstanding conformational anomalies were, to me, his neck and shoulder. I see his sloping croup, his 'poverty line' (an old term for that line of muscle that leads from flank to belly; look at his flank and see the line that points up to the left toward Terri's knee. I think of it more as a 'tummy distress line' as I have seen it on horses that were not particularly weight compromised as well). I don't really care about his puffy ankles. But the upright front pasterns and the killer straight shoulder and totally weird tied in neck are freaky. The muscle bulge on the underside of neck and the dip behind his saddle pad are also big 'wrong' nesses. I also dont really mind the over at the knees thing; its way preferable to being behind at the knees, and its actually somewhat associated with a nice low hunter movement. Not that it is desirable, but in the grand scheme of things its not a big deal to me. Same day below; he carried his tail up and to the right most of the time, a sure sign of issues (unless you're an Arab!)

Here's another one just a few weeks after we got him. He's a little fatter and smoother looking, but pretty scary; hind legs forward, front legs back. Hunters bump and pointy croup. Bulgy underside of neck, and neck ending way below the wither. Big muscle at the third vertebrae. All wrong.

This a couple of months later. You can see that the muscles on the underside of his neck are not so prominent and that the dip is front of his withers is a little less sharp. The crest is also a little straighter and not quite so dipped and the bulge at the third vertebrae is smoothing out.

I think you can see how his neck is changing over time...another couple of months later. His neck is getting longer and the bulge underneath is gone. The area behind his poll has lengthened and the muscles along the crest are starting to develop. His shoulder is still very straight but getting less so. There is a hint of more muscling in his loin and his croup is not quite so pointy. His front pasterns are not quite so straight nor does he stand with his hind legs so far under him. His flank and hip are also getting bigger.

From this:

to this:

You can see his neck is very different and it no longer ties in in front of his wither. He is getting a nice big shoulder and his hip is much bigger. He is filled in behind the saddle and though his croup is still sloping it still looks like a powerful rear end. He is a TB, after all so will not have a flat croup. His front pasterns are much less straight. I think what I love the best though is the expression on his face. He was 'there' by this time. Still over at the knees. In his size 3 shoes by now.

I loved this horse. Can you see why? He just blossomed.

More tomorrow!

Jul 18, 2012

Fixing Horses.com

It took a long time to bring Bryan around. Longer than any other horse I had had till that time. But bring him around we did.

As with any horse that comes in to the program, we looked at everything. Diet, feet, tack, teeth. In SoCal boarding situations we don’t always have a lot of hay options. The barn I boarded at fed bermuda hay and/or alfalfa. You could special order timothy but it was pretty expensive. They did feed hay three times a day so he had food in front of him 24/7. I like grass hays but think it’s important for horses to have a variety of grasses so I supplement their regular hay ration with straight grass hay pellets, like oat or bermuda or timothy or orchard hay pellets, depending on price, availability, and the horse’s weight and work load. He was thinnish so the first thing we did was put him on lots of timothy pellets and Purina Ultium. I love to study NRC info and product details of various feeds. I have gone back and forth between the various senior feeds and Purina Ultium. Now I am able to access a local CA made pelleted feed that I am really happy with (King feed 11% pelleted enriched feed) but at the time I was using Ultium. I think Ultium is great and have always been happy with it. It is expensive though, and it is molasses based, which now I like to avoid, though its not as high sugar as some.

I also put him on Ranitidine. Ranitidine is an antacid and until Omeprazole became available it was all vets had really to treat equine gastric ulcers. I purchase it in bulk at Costco or Walmart; generic, it is way cheap. The drawback is that it doesn’t heal ulcers, and it needs to be fed at least twice and preferably three times a day. But it is therapeutic, and soothing, and any new horse I got at the time went right on it.

Jul 13, 2012

Loose Ends and New Beginnings

So now you have The Background. Over ten years I had had one conception shattering experience after another. The Centered Riding work started the process by showing me that the rider forms the horse, whether they know it or admit it or can feel it or not.  The Linda Tellington-Jones work was the first to reveal the connection between physical pain, emotion, and and personality and training behaviors. The Jack Meagher sports massage therapy proved what I had always suspected; that clinical soundness, or the lack thereof, might have nothing to do with xrays or scans or what have you. And then the Mary Debono/SENSE work showed that addressing the neurological system with work based on Feldenkrais principles could transform the entire system.

And so with this gigantic and wonderful toolbox we worked with Cody, and Petey, and Austen, and Shadow, and Philip, and Bonnie, and Wonder, and Leisle. They all went from …er…challenged in some way, to sound and rideable and quiet and happy in their work.

Jul 8, 2012

Questions and Answers

I wrote that there were four things that happened that day. The other two were smaller but equally conception shattering. Here is what happened.

After the ‘We are Not Worthy’ demonstration, I had a renewed interest (putting it mildly) so really tried to pay attention to what Mary was showing us. I was trying to do rib work, rib lifts I think she calls them, but had no idea if I was doing it right. Mary came up behind me and put *her* hands on *my* ribs. ‘Lift when I lift’ she said. So I did. Suddenly, I felt like I was being hurled through space, electrified, up over the horse’s back. I jumped sideways, staring at Mary. ‘We created some energy, didn’t we!’ she said and smiled. HOLY CRAP. I really felt like my head had exploded. Keee-rraa-zzyy!!

The last one was when I was working on one of the old guys' tail. Tails and docks are just extensions of spines, you know. So there I was, hands on the tail, doing a soft squeeze/lift movement, slow, slow, slow. The horse started lifting and relaxing his head and neck, slowly, and in time with my hands. I got below the dock, and *kept going*. I was doing the soft squeeze/lift on his *hair*. And he was still reacting. I got to the bottom and I kept going *in the air*. And he kept reacting. Whoa.

So when I went and worked on Cody’s ribs that day, I had seen and felt things that fascinated and intrigued me. Remember I said that Cody had big knots behind his poll, at that classic ‘broken’ 3rd vertebrae. They actually would snap when he put his head down or stretched his neck. After my attempts at rib work, and his changed stride in the equicisor, when I was putting him away I felt his neck. The knots were two thirds the size they had been. They were markedly smaller. Yoik.

Jul 6, 2012


Resisting an urge to fall to my knees, hug her about the ankles and sob ‘We are not worthy’, which is what I *felt* like doing, I just babbled out…’ I’m impressed!’ Typical humble, sweet Mary, she smiled and said ‘Really?’ and looked surprised.

And I was. This was amazing stuff. Man, who coulda thought that horse could be reached by *any* means. And here he was, with what looked like just nothing almost, with no weird names and no agenda and no talking trees. No hammers, no injections, no magnets or lasers. Just Mary and her hands. Better. So much better. Humbled, I now was determined to learn it and apply it. That day, after the clinic, I went to my barn and took a horse I had at the time, Cody, out of his stall. Cody was a big Holsteinor that I had acquired in North Carolina. He was wonderfully bred, a Condino son, who had been well broke and well ridden, until he wasn’t. Then he had developed all kinds of issues and behaviors that had made him pretty unmarketable. Natch, that made me want him. Maryanne, my wonderful Jack Meagher trained massage therapist had done great things with him in NC, and we were doing ok together. But I knew his neck, like many big dressage horses, had issues. He had the big knots behind his poll that so many of them have and the massage work had never made them go fully away.

So I put Cody in the cross ties and tried to do the work I had been not trying very hard to learn from Mary. I was serious, though, this time, and tried to do what she had taught us to do, and to feel what she was trying to teach us to feel. It felt awkward and pointless but I kept at it. True to the Feldenkrais principles, I did not work on the knots in his neck. I worked on Cody’s ribs and tummy. I had already recognized the work as Linda Tellington Jones type stuff with out the dumb names, so I had my LTJ clinic notes with me as well, and tried to consolidate the two approaches. After maybe twenty minutes I gave up, frustrated with myself and wishing I had paid better attention the previous four days. Disappointed, I groomed Cody and put him in the equicisor for a session.

Kicking and Screaming

Mary Debono (www.debonosense.com) is a lifelong horse person. Years ago, she discovered the work of Moshe Feldenkrais (http://www.feldenkrais.com/)  I will leave her journey to her own website and links. But this is how Mary and her work affected *my* journey, and ultimately, Bryan’s, and the rest of my horses, as well.

So I go to the clinic. It was held at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. HW has a wonderful Therapeutic Riding program: we were to use the program’s lesson horses as our SENSE clinic horses. Typical of many TR horses, these were saints. Quiet, calm, non reactive, yes. Sound? Er..not so much. When Mary had us watch and discuss what we saw in their movement patterns, my brain just saw ‘lame. Yep, lame. Yep. Old. Stiff. Lame.’ Of course, I could see *where*, and naturally felt smug at my great abilities to diagnose where the issues were. And of course, I wanted to find the spasms and work them out. Poor Mary. She was always so kind and so tactful with me. By the hundredth time that she had to tell me ‘Softer, Ab, softer’ as I dug and poked and pushed she must have wanted to about literally kick me out of the clinic. But no. Mary is an angel. Clearly though, I was just not getting it, and worse, I didn’t really care.

Like I’ve said, I suspect I’m a slow learner. (Ya think?) But on the fourth day of the clinic four things happened.

The impact of the first event caused the other events that followed, so that’s the one I’ll describe first.