At the moment, I’m walking around with a knee brace on. Long story short, I’ve upset the ligaments, tendons and cartilage in my knee, and the best way forward seems to be wearing a big black metal brace, with hinges that allow it to bend, and elastic bands built into it, creating a resistance to make me work harder. My knee’s habit of wobbling alarmingly from side to side, or giving way entirely has now been stopped all together. Which is awesome, in theory. However… There must be a downside, right? There so often is… Because my knee is now tracking forward and backward without rotation, the joints above and below – hip and ankle – are now under unusual use and are in a fair amount of pain. Which impacts my back, because for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. If one thing can’t do its usual practice, often it affects something else.
Which leads me to think about both horses and riders.
Horses compensate in, mainly, two ways. The part that most of us (hopefully) know, understand and accept, is that they will move out of the way of pain. A horse pulls off his front shoe. Because he now draws his weight up, off, back, behind the nude hoof, he gets sore in the shoulder / long back muscle on the same side as the hoof that lost the shoe. If this is more on going (a hoof abscess, punctured sole etc), he can get sore in the opposite hind quarter, because it transfers away, across the diagonal. If he is sore in his mouth, he may raise his head higher when ridden, so dropping down in his back, so ending up with back pain, from a sore tooth. You get the idea. I remember a horse a long time ago who was put down for suspected kissing spines. In post mortem, they discovered the issue was a tooth abscess. He was so sore in his mouth that he hollowed his back and went in a kissing spine kind of way. The horse could have been saved if they’d delved a little deeper into his secrets.
The other way that a horse will compensate is, possibly, less obvious, but I think, even more important to understand. If water is flowing down a river, and the river is blocked, or dammed up, the water will find a new route – maybe it will flood low lying ground or find a new route for the river to flow. Water wants to move, so will find a new way.
How does this apply to our horse? I am going to direct this towards lunging, but it applies in all work. I hate lunging with any form of gadget or rein (other than the lunge rein). Horses are designed to move their heads while they walk. When you, as a human, walk along, you swing your arms, yes? Your right arm swings forwards with your left leg and vice versa. That is why, if you have to walk with a crutch or walking stick, you hold it in the opposite hand. Why do we do this? It keeps us balanced – as mammals who are vertical, we swing our arms forward and back to help with our vertical balance. Now a horse, who is a more horizontal mammal, can’t use his arms to swing, since he doesn’t have any… So, he nods his head forward and back, so that his long neck can help to stabilise his length. People who watch a lot of racing may have heard the expression that a horse won on the nod – meaning that as his head nodded forwards, it took his nose a fraction out in front of the second placed horse.
So, lets take this horse, who is meant to move his head, and tie his head in one place, because that is what we are told to do, right? We put him into side reins, or German reins, or a Market Harborough, or a bungee or whatever you use / call it, that holds his head in one place. And now, he must run around like that, often on a circle, which isn’t that normal for a horse in the first place. And, we wonder why it goes wrong… Let me tie your hands to your sides and make you run fast around in circles… You want the water (horse) to move, but you create a blockage in the movement, so, the water (horse) finds another way.
Apparently – clever people have worked it out – a horse has 17 different routes of evading a pair of side reins on a lunge circle. I have never tried to work them out, or count, but off the top of my head – swing quarters in, swing quarters out, drop shoulder in, drop shoulder out. Lean on the rein, tuck behind the rein. Tip to the right, tip to the left. Stop tracking the inside hind through, stop tracking the outside hind through. Rotate the withers in or out. Its like my knee brace – stop the wiggle somewhere, another joint has to move differently.
The only animal designed to keep its head still, is a chicken… Pick up a chicken (a live one, not one about to go into a roasting tray…) and notice that he keeps his head straight out in front of him. Tilt his body to the right or to the left, and notice that he keeps his beak level, and eyes straight in front. This chicken, he would be great in a pair of side reins, but a horse, not so much. We lunge in side reins because for so many years, we have focused on getting his head down, but fortunately now, more and more people are realising that we should be working on getting the back UP. All that lunging on a small circle with side reins does, is, wears out his joints, places strains on his tendons and ligaments, gets him fitter and fitter (for those who lunge their horse to get rid of excess energy – he’ll get more and more of that excess energy!) and reconfirms his favourite method of evasion… He compensates for having his head tied down, but letting the movement wiggle out somewhere else.
What do we do instead? Preferably – lunge with a rope halter and lunge rein or learn to long rein with two reins. Both take more skill than traditional lunging, but both offer so much more in the results that can be achieved… You can send the horse in straight lines, curved lines, big circles, some small turns, and can alter where you ASK his head to go, rather than forcing one position.
What do you do with your horse that he is possibly avoiding or compensating for? How can you help rather than hinder him? So, in my example, will give up the side reins and take on a better way to do things?