As riders we want the best for our horses. As we train, we are often taught that pain, and pushing through it, are necessary aspects of exercise. Equine Positional Release (EPR) is a holistic, non-force joint mobilization technique that works toward creating a comfortable and functional range of movement, allowing the body to develop athleticism in a progressive, healthy and sustainable way. EPR offers a healthy alternative to the “no pain, no gain” paradigm.
The basic principle is a simple one: to move the body away from pain, toward a more comfortable position to release pain and tension. Non-forced body movements and postural exercises employ feedback using the nervous system to educate and train movement patterns.
Identifying Pain and Restriction
Horses communicate pain and discomfort through behaviours and gestures and will often mask pain with distracting behaviour. Knowing how to interpret signs of pain in the horse is an important aspect of horse-rider rapport and safety.
Common signs of muscle or joint pain are:
- limping, favouring a limb or an abnormal gait
- stiffness or reluctance to move
- frequently shifting weight from one leg to another
- braced movement of the head, neck and back
- reluctance to being handled and sensitivity to touch
- anxiety and restlessness
- elevated heart rate and increased breathing rate
- muscle tremors or flinching
- biting or kicking
It is important to distinguish between pain-related behaviour and lack of acceptance of an activity. Pain signals actual or potential tissue damage caused by injury or illness and needs to be treated seriously. When you remove the source of pain and alleviate pain, behaviour usually improves and the activity or training progresses naturally.
Signs of masked pain among people and horses have the common denominator of reduced performance. Lack of enthusiasm, avoidance or rushing through an activity, and uncooperative or dangerous behaviour, are common responses to activities that cause pain and discomfort.
Postural restrictions in the horse are often noticed by the rider as “something not quite right,” a short or jerky movement, an inability to flex or bend, a lack of a transition, or restriction in action slightly less definable than lameness. Postural restrictions in the rider often limit the flexibility of the horse as the horse tries to accommodate and compensate for the restriction. One-sidedness, a high or lateral head and neck carriage, stumbling and ultimately a sore back in the horse often reflect postural restrictions in the rider.
Non-Forced Joint Mobilization
Gentle, non-force joint mobilization exercises are used to improve range of motion in joints, the quality, strength and endurance of muscular movements, strength and elasticity of tendons and ligaments, circulation and nerve transmission.
Non-force movement helps balance and stabilize the horse and gets him mentally and physically involved in the process very quickly. The key is moving the body toward comfort and away from pain and tension, a movement based on the mechanism of positive re-enforcement. To build rapport we use gentle body movement and positioning to reduce pain from the beginning of our contact with the horse. We are testing for what helps the horse relax and what movements reduce pain. Over time, the horse learns how to mobilize restricted areas, move more freely and more comfortably with and without the rider.
Positional Release techniques and mobilization exercises are also used to mobilize the spine and limbs, and to balance the posture of the rider. Slow, non-forced movements are used to take the joint through its natural range of motion. Slowing the pace of movement improves nerve transmissions, spatial awareness and the range of comfortable, pain-free movement. This process is surprisingly gentle and informative.
Horse and Rider
Working with the horse/rider pair is done under saddle. The somatic connection between horse and rider, the body-to-body communication implicit in the riding relationship is due in part to the spine-to-spine contact made when the rider sits on the horse.
In the standard riding position the person’s spine and pelvis rest on the horse’s spine. Good quality body communication enables the rider to find her natural seat, and the horse to move fluidly with the weight of the rider, ultimately synchronizing momentum.
As the rider becomes more relaxed in the saddle, the muscles of her back, hips and legs loosen up, lowering the center of gravity, creating greater balance and suppleness. As the rider’s seat deepens, the flow-on effect is the horse can naturally lengthen and lift his spine to support the rider. Natural collection in this form strengthens and protects the horse’s body, fostering reciprocal non-forced movement, self-carriage in the horse and a balanced seat in the rider.
By managing pain and addressing postural imbalances using non-force techniques, acute injuries and long-standing patterns of tension and compensation can be addressed. Releasing muscular tension by non-forced movements of limbs and joints can restore normal muscle tone and length, reflexively resetting the muscle stretch and joint load receptors. It is best to allow several days off heavy work to aid integration of changes to the soft tissue, to embed the new patterns of normal muscle tone, fascial tension and joint alignment.
Riders and horses don’t need perfect posture to perform well, but knowing how to achieve specific movements in your body and to ask clearly for specific movement in the horse’s body are key to successful and safe riding. Equine Positional Release or Ortho-Bionomy practitioners can help in the process of developing sustainable athleticism, improving the range of comfortable movements and body awareness in the horse and rider.
Zarna Carter (Dip App Sc Hom & BM) is an Ortho-Biomony Instructor, Homoeopath and Herbalist. She is the Director of the EPR Institute, offering classes throughout Australia, New Zealand, and the US. Contact Zarna at 352.219.5977, firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.eprortho.com