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Carrying a rider comfortably may seem like a simple thing that any horse can do, but in some cases our horses may be struggling, and often without our knowledge.

In the years that I have been training horses, the one thing that I have seen more often than anything else is clients misinterpreting the negative behavior and habits of their horses. I cannot even keep track of how many horses I have seen with undesired behavior that the owner has written off as "bad" or "stubborn." What it really boils down to is that a horse, being by nature a kind creature, only exhibits negative behavior or poor movement when they have been conditioned to do so, whether through inadvertent training flaws or through a series of discomforting or painful experiences. It's as simple as classical conditioning; if the horse is made physically or mentally uncomfortable by something in their work, they will avoid that something by beginning to experiment with other behaviors until they get rid of the something.

Horses have a limited vocabulary with which to express discomfort. They may use teeth, hooves, weight and non-compliance to describe their discomfort, and if we are not listening closely we will not hear the things they are trying to tell us. Often our horses are so apt to please that they stifle their natural vocabulary and create compensatory behavior to protect themselves rather than lashing out.

Over the past few years I have had the chance to work with a number of horses who have, in one way or another, developed compensatory behavior that was detrimental at first to their movement, and later to their muscular and mechanical soundness. In many cases what begins as a poorly fitting saddle, or pushing a horse through a "stiff day" will slowly devolve into a whole myriad of problems including lack of suspension/impulsion, bracing in the neck and back, gait abnormalities and even muscle wasting and loss of topline, leading to further, sometimes more traumatic injury.

Without splitting hairs about training methods and stylistic differences, I would like to put forth that Classical Dressage, in it's basic-most form, can be used as physical therapy to straighten, condition and rehabilitate a horse of any discipline. Simply by looking at the dressage pyramid (which I do not believe is meant to be used as a linear guide, but revisited and moved through cyclically) we can see that these are each aspects that we seek in all disciplines, even if we don't use the same words. There's not a single discipline that doesn't ultimately seek correct basics, and that is because through basics we create a sound and balanced horse.

Each time I work with a horse, I try to identify the strong and weak points of their current condition. A horse may be sensitive to the aides, but hollow through its back and choppy through its gaits. A horse may be swinging through its shoulders, but pushing unevenly behind. It is through a study of gaits, balance and willingness to comply that I evaluate the horse, and any area of concern that I am able to spot, I try to analyze as objectively as possible.

It's easy to fall into the habit of anthropomorphizing a horse's behavior. "He's just having an off day" and "She's crabby" are easy things to say when you are trying to get on with the ride but the fact is that there is a reason for each and every off and crabby day that your horse may have. It could be as simple as a bur in the saddle pad or an environmental stressor like heat, cold or flies, but it could also be as complex as the horse being mentally stressed by a change in herd dynamics. Worse yet, it could be a pain response and your crabby mare might actually be in serious discomfort. We often forget that from a young age we teach our horses to seek approval and strive to please, so many horses will become stoic in an effort to make do with their current circumstances of discomfort.

Through visual and tactile cues one can attempt to locate the root of any issues the horse may be experiencing, and then work to find a solution. Sometimes you may think you've found the root, only to find a complex chain of compensatory behavior has led the horse to its current state. In many cases a series of carefully done exercises will help strengthen and relieve a horse in physical discomfort, and this is where dressage as "physical therapy" comes into play.

By utilizing the classical ring figures and movements, as well as modified exercises, we are able to isolate, strengthen or loosen muscle groups as needed. A haunches-in will engage the outside hind adduction, where a shoulders-in will engage and strengthen the abduction of the inside hind. By becoming familiar with the complex muscle groups used in each exercise, one can implement these exercises as any physical therapist would their patient.

Below is a link to a video (via Facebook) that is an account of the rehabilitation of one of my school horses, Kingsley Shacklebolt. He is a 13 year old Trakehner who came to me unsound, under-muscled and with PSSM and gastric ulcers. It took me more than 6 months to help him find physical peace, but he is now sound and working comfortably under saddle with my intermediate students.

Kingsley Shacklebolt Rehab
Rehabilitation of 17,3 hand 13 year old Trakehner gelding with PSSM, Gastric Ulcers and considerable unsoundness and muscle wasting.
Posted by Emily Jenkins Bastian on Thursday, October 1, 2015

Kingsley's success came from an intense series of bodywork, combined with diet and physical exercises to help him regain use of his hindquarters. His entire hind end had considerable muscle wasting and his stifles had rotated out to compensate for lack of strength, leaving him nearly crippled and in constant discomfort. My students and I spent hours walking him up and down hills and over poles, eventually adding raised poles and rein-backs. Eventually he became sound enough that we could trot him at liberty and ultimately under saddle, where I began incorporating straightening exercises and lateral movements, as well as stretches and massage to strengthen the abduction of his hindquarters.

He is one of the several horses that I have now worked with who have benefitted from this use of correct dressage basics as physical therapy. I have found that often helping horses to find straightness and balance is the first step toward their soundness. We must first be willing to listen, evaluate and identify compensatory behavior, and then we may take what we know of our tools as dressage riders and build a physical therapy program that addresses each weakness in the horse.