Proprioception – it’s the buzz word at the moment, isn’t it? So, what is it and why is it important to me and my horse?
You’re standing on a beach, barefoot in the sand – through the soles of your feet, you’re getting a whole heap of information – is the sand wet or dry? Is it deep and heavy, or is it firm and easy to stay on top of? Is it silky smooth or sharp with bits of shell? Is the tide rolling in and out, and if it is, are your ankles having to make subtle shifts of tension and relaxation, holding on and letting go, to allow you to remain upright?
It’s the middle of the night and you wake up and need to turn the bedside lamp on – can you reach the correct arm out of your bed, to the right height of the bedside table and connect your fingers to the light switch without knocking over your water glass?
Those are two instances of proprioception. It’s a (usually sub-conscious) knowledge of where you are in space – are you standing, sitting or lying down. As you read this, you know where you are in the world. And, its your body’s ability to remain upright while you walk, without you spending much time wondering if you are going to fall over. A lot of this comes from something called a spindle, which is a receptor in each and every muscle that transmits its location and action to your brain. Clever things, our bodies.
So, why do we think about this in the horse world? If horses are born and brought up as “real” (in my world) horses, they learn where their feet are. A foal grows up on a farm in the mountains. He has to walk up and down hills, cross rough ground, smooth ground, stony ground. He has to jump ditches and streams, and paddle through rivers. He swims through dams and ducks under trees. He’s a typical kid – he feels things through his soles; branches and sticks brush against his sides; low branches brush over his ears. He smells plants and other animals, touches the ground and rocks, tastes different grasses and leaves. He develops his knowledge of where his feet are at any one time, and knows instinctively that when walking on slippery ground downhill, he needs to throw his weight back and take extra care.
Another foal is born on a small property. He spends much of his time in a stable, and when he comes outside, he walks along a flat, paved path into a square paddock of manicured grass. There are no slopes to climb, no banks or ditches to clamber through, no rivers or streams to paddle, no stones to avoid. After a few hours, he is led back along the safe path, following his dam, and put in a square stable with no sharp objects, four square edges and a thick bed. Later, he learns to work in a rolled and raked, flat, smooth sand arena, or if a race horse, to gallop along a flat mowed grass track.
Which of these foals, and later, young horses, is going to be more intuitive about his balance, his feet on the ground, organising himself when faced with climbing down a hill? Which horse would you rather ride out on?
Horses used to be very sure footed and aware about their position in the world, but sadly as their space gets smaller and smaller, and many are bred as “hot house flowers” that are worth hundreds of thousands of dollars / pounds, they are treated more and more as fragile glass ornaments. They lose a lot of their natural proprioceptive skills and possibly even more damaging, they’re unaware of their bodies and more prone to injury. So, what do we do about it?
We give them awareness challenges. We ask them to do odd things – walk over poles. Walk over flat poles on the ground, raised poles, a high pole and then a low pole. We ask them to walk over plastic, to stand on things, go under things, go through things. To walk backwards, to walk sideways. We ask them to be more aware.
(For those of you who read the monthly newsletter, Sherri Bull-Rimmer, a faradic therapist who comments each month, wrote an article about this a couple of months ago.)
For members, there will be an upcoming lesson on Proprioception and exercises that can be used to help you and your horse. (If you’re not a member come and join us NOW: https://kudaguru.com/membership-account/membership-levels/)
So, how good are your horse’s proprioceptive skills?