All too often horse owners seek advice to figure out how to get their horse to do something. How do I slow down my rushing horse? How do I ride the stumble out of my horse? How can I make my horse go forward? How, how, how?
All of these negative and unwanted ‘behaviors’ of your horse may actually be due to something as simple as a poorly fitting saddle which impacts the reflex points and causes simple instinctive reactions rather than conscious behaviors. Many times experts, concluding that these indicators are a result of rider error, will attempt to address corrections by either offering solutions to change rider behavior, or more drastically, calling in a vet to administer pharmaceuticals to address the issues.
BEYOND BAD BEHAVIOR
Sometimes there are absolutely valid psycho-somatic reasons, or actual illnesses causing these kinds of behavior or even lameness. Before you resort to expensive veterinary or ‘neuroscientific’ treatments, invest in a simple diagnostic evaluation of your saddle fit using a qualified saddle fitter who understands equine biomechanics and anatomy and the ramifications for your horse if the saddle doesn’t fit properly.
Many researchers agree that horses do not consciously behave badly. They react to outside stimuli. A poorly fit saddle or an incompetent or untrained rider can cause unwanted behaviors. This does not make a bad horse -- it is simply a horse behaving badly. Dangerous horses can quickly be created when aids are misunderstood or mishandled.
If the saddle puts pressure on reflex points along the spine because of a gullet channel that is too narrow, or because it twists during movement due to natural asymmetry, the horse will reflexively lower its back to escape the pressure/pain. The goal to have the horse engage its back or bring it up during riding is unachievable. Loss of forward impulsion, defensive behavior and an unbalanced rider are just some of the other ramifications.
This results in a frustrating experience for both horse and rider. The horse would like to respond to the aids the rider gives him, but the pressure on his reflex points inhibits his ability to do so.
A saddle that consistently puts pressure on the horse’s reflex points would be frustrating and eventually even damaging to the horse. Let’s say you give your horse the signal to move forward. If your saddle’s tree angle is too wide, or the tree width too narrow, putting too much pressure on Cranial Nerve 11, your horse cannot really comply. The reason for this is that the saddle hits the reflex point, which hinders the ability to move. The actual instinctual reaction at this point is dropping the back, locking the shoulder, and rotating the pelvis.
Despite his best intentions, the horse instinctively will not, and more importantly cannot, move forward. He experiences the inner battle of wanting to obey his rider (let’s go forward) and his instincts (stay still). A losing proposition – and possibly physical and psychological pain for the horse, as the rider thinks that this immobility is simply stubbornness and starts using spurs and whip.
THE CRANIAL NERVE RELEX POINT
Over 50 million years of equine evolution have seen the stallion biting his opponents in the wither area to determine dominance and literally bring rivals to their knee. Stallions will also bite mares in the exact same area in preparation for mating – to stop them from moving forward and to be able to mount them safely. Predators will attack in this same region of the neck to hinder the flight response and to bring their prey down.
Dr. Joanna Robson DVM
Points of the Horse
Recognizing the Horse in Pain and what to do about it
This reflex point is known as Cranial Nerve 11 (CN11). Pinching gullet plates, lungeing girths, vaulting girths, driving harnesses and foregirths will achieve the same result as the stallion’s bite, acting upon the muscles in the wither region like a vise grip.
Nature has determined three survival mechanism reflexes for CN11. All three of these reactions will result in instinctive immobility for the horse.
1. If the mare or the rival horse is bitten here, or if the gullet plate of the saddle pinches the side of the withers, the nerve signals to the brain that the movement in the upper arm and shoulder blade be blocked.
2. The signal ensures that the longissimus muscle contracts, dropping the horse’s back and that the vertebrae fall into each other as in kissing spine syndrome.
3. The pelvis will rotate forward and open as a result
of further contraction of the longissimus, opening the area in preparation for mating.
The paradox is that we as riders want to achieve exactly the opposite. We want a horse with a loose, supple and engaged back and the ability to ‘step under’ with the hind end. Only in this way will we ensure that we are not riding on the forehand, to take pressure off all the ligaments, tendons, muscles, and bones of the horse to keep it healthy for a full lifetime of enjoyment and riding in harmony. This is achieved only if we ensure that there is no pressure on this Cranial Nerve 11 from a gullet plate that doesn’t fit.
THE BUCKING REFLEX
The bucking reflex point is located over the fascia behind the 18th thoracic vertebra. The horse’s first reaction is to try and get rid of pressure from a saddle that is too long, pressing on the fascia in this area over the transverse processes. Further indications of a saddle that is too long are doing a pace during the walk (both front and hind legs on one side move together rather than diagonally with the opposite side), dragging the hind legs during the trot, or showing a four-beat canter.
When using a short girth, watch that the buckles do not press on the edge of the pectoral muscles. For a long girth, attention must be paid to the same issue, but at the edge of the latissimus. The buckles can cause concentrated pressure points in these areas, causing the muscle fibers of the triceps to contract in an attempt to avoid this pressure and the resulting potential rub marks. The rider will have difficulty finding a good extension in the trot and will experience poor transitions between gaits.
The pectoral muscles need full range of contraction and relaxation to allow huge and natural extension; only with complete freedom will the biomechanics work as they should.
If either the panel points or the billets exert pressure on the subscapular and thoracodorsal nerves, the natural reflex from both or either of these nerves will also cause the triceps to contract, inhibiting movement in the front.
Sometimes the easiest solutions are right in front of our eyes – we just need to be willing to see, or to understand what the horse is trying to tell us.
Sabine Schleese, BSc, MBA, along with her husband, Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist Jochen Schleese, is founder of Schleese Saddlefit 4 Life – the Science of Saddle Fit and Design Promoting Equine Back Health. Contact her through Schleese Saddlery Service Ltd., 1-800-225-2242 ext 22 or www.schleese.com