I know this might surprise some people, but the image below is one of my all time favorite things to do with horses that come to me in need of rehabilitation, both mind and body.
I love in-hand work. Both classical and my own.
I love gently ridden walk work and careful transitions into trot and canter.
I live for correct bending and shaping of the body to free up the joints, circulation and nervous system.
But the one thing that is so often missing in all of these, is the horses freedom to fully express themselves in movement.
Not express themselves the way we see fit but the way THEY do. I have observed through my 20 years of training that unless you are actively training for speed events, you very rarely ride at a gallop.
Horses are kept in stalls and brought out to the arenas where they are asked to keep themselves small.
Don't canter too fast. Don't buck. Don't spook. Don't get "big".
Smaller. Quieter. Shorter.
For creatures that are meant to be wild and roam and run in short spurts frequently... I cannot help but find it difficult to believe that this way of training has a negative impact on them both physically and especially, mentally.
I liken it to being in a relationship with someone who fell in love with your passion and fire and strength... Only to change their mind and tell you that all of the things they fell in love with you for, is "too much" and if you want the relationship to work, you must lessen.
We want our horses to jump big fences, but are afraid of the explosive expression of power that is necessary for it -
And so we shut them down with a heavy hand and running them into walls, demanding that they only get big when and how we see fit.
We want our horses to school in passage, piaffe and extend trot. (All in fact just a trot, but with an up-regulation of energy). But we are afraid of the explosive expression of power that is necessary for it-
And so we shut them down with a heavy hand and huge thigh blocks and demand that they only get big when and how we see fit.
Meanwhile, getting confused why they are compressed and constantly BTV.
This is a training issue, but not what most people work on.
It is a training of the nervous system through fostering an environment that can aid in safe emotional regulation, and I can count on one hand the amount of trainers that I know that actually make this a priority in their programs. When I have a horse come into rehabilitation, as soon as they are sound to do so, I practice putting them in situations where that energy can safely come up and then I reward them for it.
I stay out of their way, stay with them, and then love them once we arrive on the "other side".
Enough of these situations go by and they learn that "getting big" isn't scary, that they will not punished and that I will not leave them and it can be just as beautiful of a dance as the slow work.
One of the most incredible feelings, is the first time we go out for a gallop and they first hit "that stride".
There's an uneasiness in them -
"Am I going to get in trouble?" "Is this okay?" "Is she okay?" "Can she stay with me?"
I stay, scratching their withers and telling them how wonderful they are and that I am okay. They are okay.. WE are okay.
And almost on que, they let out a breath and just... let go.
I let them go until they want to come back, and then I ride them into that soft downward transition, get off, take off the saddle, and we just go walk and hang out for a bit. (This is mostly done down a safe trail and so often times we'll stop and have a picnic somewhere).
This process is just as important for even those that compete in speed events, because rarely truly do they "school" at a gallop where horses feel ease and regulation at their top gears, which is why you see horses fried going into the gate and fried leaving.
This doesn't have to be reality.
My mounted shooter, barrel racer and speed jumper all calmly walk in and walk out of any event that we are doing, because of this style of work.
It is the one huge breakthrough secret to most of my training success in all of the disciplines, and I know that most riders don't feel comfortable doing this anymore than they feel comfortable dropping the reins for their horses...
But I have to say, on behalf of the horse -
Please consider, what you are asking them to do for you.
If you are asking them to get big but only on your terms, then ask yourself how true of a relationship you are asking for.
I also want to add - when I was rehabbing my own body from my pregnancies, I had to hire other people to do these rides for me because it is more important to know OUR limits and hire out accordingly than pushing ourselves through it.
I firmly believe that fear of riding stems from not being confident that your own body is able to receive the power of the horse, and that is something that is not addressed either, and why Katherine Lowrys work is so incredibly necessary and I would have been lost without it.