Like most horse people you probably assume that your horses know where their feet are, how to stand on them and use them for balance and propulsion. You don’t give much thought to how they sense the ground through their hooves; you simply assume that they do because, after all, within hours of birth, horses can stand and run.
Our horses’ quality of movement is directly affected by how they place their four approximately 5” diameter circles of surface area on the ground. Horses have habitual (unconscious) patterns of standing and moving with and without a rider, which can create anxiety, instability, poor quality movement and what we typically think of as “resistance” as they attempt to remain upright. Have you ever wondered if you could reprogram their nervous systems to eliminate those unwanted negative traits?
Those unwilling to see beyond the more traditional approaches used for altering a horse’s behavior (operant conditioning and other behavior modification techniques), will fail to recognize that disrespect, resistance and fear often result from the way the hooves meet the ground. Instead they say it is because the horse hasn’t submitted to the human as his leader. Man or woman dominates the horse until, by repetition, he exhibits the desired behaviors without regard to the internal stress this may cause. And, while there is clearly a place for traditional forms of training, the source of the undesirable behavior is typically overlooked.
How the horse’s foot meets the ground is how that horse meets the world. No matter the size of the horse, his relationship to gravity and the earth is dependent on the way the horse stands and lands on his hoof. While many people recognize that good quality shoeing and trimming are essential parts of good horsemanship, in almost all cases training attempts to alter behavior and movement of the horse without addressing the fundamental way the horse’s foot meets the ground.
And while some may argue that a bare foot horse is better off than one that is shod, it is my experience that barefoot horses have just as many habits regarding how they stand and land on their hooves as shod horses. Barefoot or shod, the horse has habits. Change his habits and you change the way he meets the world.
Horses are whispering to us all the time. We need to learn to listen! They are present, ready and willing to experience something new and change within seconds when we tap into their nervous systems in a way that is meaningful. Of course, this requires us to reevaluate how we do things, not from our point of view but from that of the horse. How can we help them find a sense of calm, stability, security and self-assuredness so they don’t have to exhibit stress patterns of behavior associated with the “predator/prey” or “flight and fight” response?
YOUR CHOICE OR HORSE CHOICE?
Horse training by definition is something humans impose on the horse. We have a set of values that we determine as to how the horse should behave, feel, move and interact with us. These beliefs determine what we consider “good” or “bad” behavior and form the basis for whatever method we choose to use to train the horse. The horse either complies with our training or resists depending on a variety of factors. Some will argue that one method is more natural than another or that the horse willingly works with the person. But it is still the person that imposes his perspective on what the outcome should be, whether that is “playing” with the horse or having him perform upper level dressage. In all cases, training is imposed by humans on the horse regardless of the technique used.
See what Dr. Joyce Harman has to say about this tool.
For almost 2 years I have been experimenting with placing an unstable surface under horse’s hooves. As a riding instructor/clinician and trained equine scientist with a deep understanding of biomechanics, anatomy and physiology, I have asked numerous veterinarians, trainers, scientists and neurobiologists what is happening. No one can say for sure but a few things are obvious. There is activation of the proprioceptors in the hooves, which send a huge amount of new information into the cerebellum, the part of the brain that regulates balance, posture and motor learning. There is a shift in the autonomic nervous system, the part of the nervous system responsible for bodily functions not consciously directed such as breathing and heartbeat. More importantly, the horse becomes his own teacher and learns how to alter his balance, movement, emotional and mental state by himself. He experiences a switching back and forth in his nervous system from the sympathetic (flight and flight reflex) to the parasympathetic (grazing reflex). He learns to shift himself from as state of anxiety to that of calmness, which he utilizes after the session. This in itself is unique, as all other techniques that alter a horse’s behavior and movement are a result of training, and not necessarily of the horse’s choosing.
At first the horse and rider are unsure what is happening when I start a session of rebalancing the horse with cushions and pads. Perhaps there is no obvious difference on the first few trials. As I continue first with one hoof and then two or more the horse exhibits a variety of responses: licking, chewing, deep breathing, panting breath then a deep exhalation. The ears relax and the muzzle softens. The horse shifts from the sympathetic (fight and flight) response to the parasympathetic (grazing) response. He becomes disinterested in the horses calling outside the arena, or the corner that was “scary” in the beginning.
Each time the rider asks the horse to walk away he is longer in his stride, his back softens and lifts and neck remains relaxed. We can see him experimenting with the new idea, going back and forth between the “old” pattern and the “new” one. Horses are much better at exploring both options without judgment or fear of losing the “new” place, unlike the riders! They aren’t concerned with “right” or “wrong”, simply what feels better. In the end horses will choose that which feels best, that way of moving that is calmer, better balanced and more peaceful.
I have the rider add trot and canter on a long rein. Allowing the horse time to experience himself without demanding he be in a frame or go in a particular direction is important at this stage of the process. Most riders are used to “managing” the horse’s movement and have difficulty allowing the horse to explore without interference. But as the rider let’s go of control it becomes obvious that the horse is coming up with new, balanced solutions on his own. The rider learns to see and trust and experience her horse in a whole new light given that he is changing his own behavior and movement to be more at ease in all gaits.
Interestingly, as soon as they return to walk the horse looks in my direction and heads for the pads. It is obvious that he likes standing on them. In some cases the horses will look as though he has been drugged. The head lowers, eyes close as they begin to sway from side to side.
Dr. Stephen Peters, Psy.D. ABN, Diplomat in Neuropsychology and coauthor of Evidenced Based Horsemanship, believes the effects observed by the level of relaxation some horses attain while standing on the pads indicates that I have found a way to block the amygdala (fear and aggression) from becoming activated as well as activate opiate receptors which would create both the sedation and pain killing.
At the end of the session the rider picks up the reins and rides her horse with a new sense of ease and freedom. No longer does she have to “manage” the crookedness that was a constant problem in the canter. The horse is relaxed in his work and able to focus on the rider without reverting to throwing his head in the air every time she takes the reins. The rider feels and sees her horse in a whole new light. No longer does she worry that he is untrustworthy or anxious. Instead the horse places each foot on the ground with confident assuredness, which is the beginning of a whole new relationship between horse and rider.
With a few simple tools, some basic skills and an attitude of exploration you can help your horse increase his confidence, balance, and stability while improving his movement, as well aid in rehabilitation from injury. The key is not to make the horse stand on the pads but to allow him an opportunity to experience himself in a new way with you as the facilitator of that change. Even if he refuses to stand on them, there is something to be observed and learned as to why that horse behaves the way he does based on how his foot meets the ground. This can lead you in a new direction of understanding your horse.
When you acknowledge your horse as an intelligent being, having the same basic parts of the brain that we have sans a large frontal lobe, which is capable sensing, feeling and altering his own balance in movement then we become partners in the goals of making both of us more secure, grounded and confident with each other so that we both enjoy the ride.
Wendy Murdoch, International Riding Instructor/Clinician and founder of The Murdoch Method, teaches riders of all levels and disciplines. She has produced numerous DVDs, both English and Western, and three books. Visit her website: www.murdochmethod.com to learn more about the SURE FOOT Equine Stability Program™