California Riding Magazine • July, 2012

Stiff, Resistant Horse?
The SENSE Method Can Help!

"I can't understand why my horse is stiff. I exercise her every day." These words were spoken by Ellen, whose Hanoverian mare was having trouble bending. Turning to the right was the most difficult, and the mare had become resistant and grouchy when asked to bend. The veterinarian ruled out a medical problem, so Ellen assumed she simply needed to use stronger aids. But schooling sessions turned into battles, and neither horse nor rider enjoyed their time together. Seeing no end in sight, Ellen asked me for help.

As Ellen led the bay mare, named Juliet, in a figure-eight pattern, I noticed that the mare did not swing her barrel freely, and the movement of her hind legs was stilted. I was told that Juliet often had trouble with her hocks, and they had been injected several times. Because she was a Fourth Level dressage horse, Ellen thought this wear and tear damage was to be expected.

I put my hands on Juliet to feel for subtle differences in the tension and size of her muscles. I also initiated tiny waves of movement through her skeleton to observe how movement flowed through her body. Noticing the path the movement took could tell me where the mare was restricted. This was important, because restrictions in one part of the body can lead to overuse injuries and arthritis in other parts of the body, including the neck, back and hocks. Indeed, I discovered that Juliet was very tight through her back and ribcage, which would hamper the movement of her neck and make bending difficult, if not impossible.

Lover Boy serves as a model for the gentle touches Mary Debono used to make left bends much easier for the mare mentioned in the article. Photo: Wally Johnson

With one hand on Juliet's neck, I put my other hand ever-so-lightly on her halter and asked the mare to turn her head the tiniest amount to the left. I was just looking for how Juliet initiated the movement, nothing else. I wasn't checking how far the mare could turn her head or asking for a stretch. Both of those things would remind Juliet that bending was difficult and painful, thus reinforcing her habit of bracing. But asking for tiny, incremental movements would give the horse an opportunity to change how she moved. It also allowed me to observe what happened in the rest of the horse's body when she started to turn her head. Did her back and ribcage soften or tense up? Were the other parts of her body helping or interfering with the movement of her neck?

After observing the movement on both sides, I went to the mare's ribcage. I used my hands to remind Juliet that her sternum and ribs could move, and that doing so would make turning her head and neck easier. I supported the muscles along the Warmblood's broad back, glided her ribcage in easy circles, and introduced gentle oscillations from her pelvis to her poll. All of these pleasurable experiences could help Juliet learn how to coordinate her movement so that it became easy and elegant.

I returned to the mare's head. With my fingers lightly on the halter, I asked her to turn a little bit to the left and right. This time she did it easily, her back and ribcage softly participating in the turning. It was a big improvement, and Ellen was surprised that Juliet responded to such subtle requests. I explained that when horse and human are relaxed and connected in mind and body, the smallest cues are felt and responded to. Conversely, if we get tense and strong with our aids, our horses become tight and resistant too.

As Ellen walked Juliet, I saw that the mare's stiff walk had transformed into a long, graceful stride, and she elegantly turned in each direction. Ellen and I were very pleased at the progress that the Hanoverian had made in her first SENSE Method session.

But then Juliet gave us an even bigger surprise. As I was saying good-bye to this gorgeous mare, a fly landed on her back. As we watched in amazement, Juliet turned her head to the right (her previously more difficult side) and elegantly flicked the fly off with her nose. Now, that's learning!

Mary Debono can teach you how to enhance horses' performance and well-being and improve your flexibility, posture and balance at the same time. To learn more, visit Mary will be teaching at the Helen Woodward Animal Center in Rancho Santa Fe on Aug. 3-5. The creator of the SENSE Method, Mary is a life-long horsewoman and Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner.