Aikido Lessons Continued...

Four weeks in and I am thoroughly enjoying my Aikido classes.

"Staying centred" and "going with" have been the two key principles which I've learnt in Aikido which have translated to my riding and work with horses. 

I have been practicing staying centred in a number of ways; firstly when lunging. In class we had to "feel" how our partner was moving towards us before an attack and mimic their movement so it was easier to blend with their movement as part of the defense. I have tried to do the same when lunging Tintin. 

To start with I have been thinking about where my centre is. It should be about 3 inches below the belly button, where a belt buckle would be. However, our centre changes depending on how we're feeling. When we are overthinking it is in our head, when we are emotional it is in our heart, but when we are balanced and centred it is near the bottom of our abdomen. 

The aim is to maintain that feeling of being centred whilst you are moving. Aikido is all about moving, and centering is much more about being balanced in motion than being rooted in one place. I think I am starting to get to grips with it. 

So whilst Tintin is walking round in a circle, I am focusing firstly on my centre, but then secondly on his and whether I can connect the two. The horse's centre will change (like ours) depending on how they are feeling. But horses are innately more centred and balance than people because they don't overthink it. I imagine Tintin's centre to be in the middle of his ribcage, by his shoulder, just slightly behind where his front leg is. 

As we walk round, I think about our centres and about matching my body language and matching my pace with his. I definitely felt Tintin soften and listen much more the first time I did this (luckily for me he was in one of his more relaxed moods!).

One of the exercises I particularly enjoyed in class was trying to maintain your centre whilst moving round with a partner (we also did this whilst one person was trying to pull you around with a long stick). The aim with this was to try to get your partner to lose their centre yet whilst doing so not sacrificing your own.

This is so much like riding. Often we sacrifice our balance, posture or position is order to ask the horse something. However, if we are not balanced and grounded, we are little use to the horse when he does move, as we have sacrificed our balance in the process. 

The way we regain control is by feeling the movement of the horse's centre and deciding when it is most vulnerable (ie when the horse is most off balance) and use this as our advantage. This is best done in Aikido on a circle. When you are turning, you are more likely to lose your balance than if you are moving forward. So as you turn with the horse, you then blend with his movement and are then better able to redirect the horse's energy and momentum in the direction you want to go.

This, however, is all very subtle. It shouldn't look like you're doing much at all. But after all, isn't that what "feel" and true horsemanship is all about?

This links in to the second principle which is "going with". Aikido is not about fighting or conflict, but rather about blending with the energy and moving with it. 

I find going with a difficult task in all areas of life. I generally want things done yesterday and done my way so I have been trying very hard to "go with" in all areas of my life... not always easy! But this principle did get me thinking about why I resist things and what I can do to overcome this. Stress is such a huge part of many of our lives and I think most people could practice a little bit of "going with" every day.

Practically with Tintin I have been trying to go with his movements a little more and then get my timing better for regaining the direction I want to go. This has actually led him to be more, rather than less cooperative. I feel like he responds more quickly when he appreciates that I am on his wavelength and generally we get to our final destination sooner and with less effort. This obviously merges with my previous description of staying centred , which is at the heart of going with. 

Remember to follow our adventures on Instagram by clicking here .

My first Aikido class was one of the best riding lessons

As some of you will have seen from my Instagram, I have been reading some of Mark Rashid's books in which he describes his journey of horsemanship and how it has been improved by aikido.

I was fascinated. I am conscious that I can be a bit of a bull and use my strength to move things rather than tact. This is probably more evident in my hockey skills than my riding, but I am sure since my shoulder operation last year that I am more tense and guarded than I used to be.

So I found a local class which is designed to develop the person as much as learning Aikido technique..... exactly what I was wanting!

The key aikido principles I learnt really struck a cord and mirrored exactly how I feel about horsemanship, I hope you enjoy! 

1. Staying Centred

This is all about finding your centre, keeping it, being aware of it and being aware of your partner's centre as well as the centre between the two of you. This is your stability. Your balance point. If you lose your centre, then you have lost the movement and your control of your own body. But being centred is not about rigidity and fixed to one spot. Quite the opposite. Its about knowing where you are so that you can constantly move to remain in balance, with yourself and your partner. 

When you are centred, less effort is required to do the movement. Your body stays upright and your feet move. The rest of you should remain loose and relaxed. This is another thing which I find hard... I tense and brace and ultimately break!

This is a direct parallel to riding. When we have good posture and a strong (but flexible) core in the saddle, we are able to move our limbs to direct the horse easily and without loss of balance. If we are rigid and braced, our movements become jerky and we loose than feeling and awareness of where our balance point is. This makes us more vulnerable to being unseated. 

2. You have a Partner not an Opponent

I thought this one was particularly important and is a key principle which separates aikido from other martial arts. The aim is to go with and work with your partner. Not against them. Whatever the situation, go with. This is one of the main reasons I was interested in taking up Aikido. I feel like I can be good at resisting... whether its because I am worrying, or stressing, or not confident in the other person's decision making, I feel like I block initially, rather than allowing, reading the situation and then moving or changing accordingly. 

This frequently can happen when we're riding too. We feel the horse move, squirm or fall out in the wrong direction and rather than going with them, we block, brace and cause tension. By remembering that our horse is our partner, we are honoring their centre and choose to go with them to improve the overall harmony of the relationship. We need them in order to ride, so lets remember that it is a partnership and not a dictatorship!

I am yet to try this in practice, I think it will be a hard one as we are so rigid and fixed in our ways of riding, but I am excited to see how I develop with this!

3. Cheap Aikido vs True Aikido

This one just made me laugh! Cheap aikido uses force and pain to overcome your partner. Anyone can do it, provided they know the moves, but its miles away from the art of true aikido.

Isn't this just exactly the same in the equestrian world? Anyone can strap on some spurs, big bit, draw reins and steer a horse where they need, provided they know the dressage or jumping moves. But this isn't beautiful, or tactful or anything like the art of riding. 

But you can frequently resort to cheap aikido when you end up in the wrong place because you (a) didn't stay relaxed (b) lost circular motion and movement (c) didn't read the situation or (d) lost your centre. Cheap aikido is your fault. You choose to do it because you are too focused on the end task rather than how you get there. 

Again, we are often so determined to get that perfect centre line, shoulder in, or jump-off line, that we focus too much on the goal and loose all awareness of the process which is currently going on around us. It is with tact and softness that we get the horse to work with us and do what we want; but we must have the integrity to keep to true rather than cheap methods to get to our goal.

4. Circular Motion and Flow

Similar to moving with your partner, this principle is about seeing the world as circles and using spirals to get to the floor. Everything in aikido ends in the floor. (Hopefully we can ignore this part when riding!!) I am quite jarry and angular in my movements. I've never been able to dance and think I lack fluidity in most areas of my life.

This principle, for me, is closely intertwined with letting go and going with.

Circles will always come back to facing in the same direction. I think I am scared that being circular will mean I am not being progressive, that i'll remain the same. But actually, I think being circular and using circular motion is about developing. Being able to go into a situation and then come out again, with out any abruptness or sharp edges or lines, is a valuable skill.

Other benefits include being able to see all points of view. Being able to realise that where you are not is not where you'll end up, but its just all part of the motion to get there.

We talked a lot about the DNA helix as an analogy for this moving, dynamic, circular motion. Again, its all about flow and going with.

I know I have just scratched the surface here, but I just loved the principles and how they related to equestrian art. If I haven't done enough to convince you to try aikido, then why not read some of Mark Rashid's books? I would recommend "Horsemanship through Life" and "Nature in Horsemanship" as good places to start. 

Can horses really move symmetrically?

Horses, just like people are more dominant on one side than another. This is often exacerbated by many owners and riders only working from the left hand side, particularly when leading and getting on and off. Symmetry can be described as parallel foot placement between the left and right side and in-line foot placement of the hind and front foot on the same side. 

Recent studies have suggested that the human eye can only detect lameness if the horse is over 25% lame and there is often some discrepancy over which leg until the lameness gets to about 50%. Lameness is linked to riders who are asymmetric, but is also associated with non specific issues such as saddle slip, reluctant to go forward, etc etc. Unsurprisingly, 70% of horses with back problems are lame and 32% of lamenesses also present with back problems.

Further studies have identified that over 50% of horses which the owners thought were sound actually had a significant asymmetry which could have been classed as a lameness. Riders should think about how likely it is that your horse is asymmetric and possibly in the under 25% lame category. Things to think about: 

  • Is your horse always reluctant to move/yield in one direction, e.g. Left shoulder in, left canter?
  • Does your horse box walk in one direction?
  • Do you always tack up and get on the same way or are you good at switching your stirrup leathers and using a mounting block?
  • Does your horse lack impulsion on one hind leg more than the other?
  • How balanced and symmetrical are you? How dominant are you on your strong side? (Click here to find out how well you do on my 3-Part Rider Self Assessment)

Current lameness assessments by a vet will comprise of watching, feeling, stress testing, scanning and nerve blocking, as necessary.

Force plates are now being trailed in assessing lameness and have shown consistent findings:

  • Less force can be produced by the affected leg which is shown by reduced power output and reduced peak force on that limb. This is identified as a lower spike on the y axis of a graph.
  • Lameness/asymmetry will always cause compensations at the other end, e.g hind limb lameness will always cause a forelimb or neck asymmetry and forelimb lameness will always cause hind limb or sacrum asymmetry. This has been quantified by surface markers and video analysis.
  •  Trotting on the lunge will cause asymmetric force production due to centripetal forces (leaning in). The inner hip will move more but have reduced vertical movement during stance phase and reduced force production. This will look like an inside hip hike. Head movement varies between horses and can be greater during inside or outside forelimb stance. This is important because it would be easy to assume that all horses are now "asymmetric" when tested on the lunge, but it is merely how to horse has to carry himself to deal with the speed and radius of circle.

Thus, previously relying on only visual feedback to see if a horse is lame is becoming a thing of the past. Force plates, pressure mats and 3D optic systems as part of an Objective Locomotion Analysis are now able to act as a tool to contribute to a vet’s assessment.

However, riders need to vigilant in making sure that they are balanced and symmetrical as failure to do so is now scientifically linked to equine lameness. This is something, anecdotally, I have frequently found when treating horses. Several the patterns of tension and resistance in the horse is due to the rider. Having an MOT for you and your horse will provide greater insight into how you are both moving and influencing each other. For more information, please click on equine osteopathy or rider osteopathy, or have a look at some of the packages which I offer.

Muscle Activation and Postural Control in Riders

Postural control is “the ability to control the body in space and ensure its stability and orientation” -Brodal 2008. Having better postural control means that you have an independent seat and can ride in balance; it does not mean that you activate all your muscles at once and sit in a rigid ‘granny on a Zimmer-frame’ type position. This rigidity limits movement and increases spinal compression due to the contraction of the surrounding muscles. Spinal issues are common in horse riders and so increased compression is definitely something we want to avoid. Rigidity also reduces your ability to be flexible and absorb forces, which can lead to impact injuries. It also doesn’t look very nice or is very comfortable on your horse. If you have a strong seat, which pushes into the horse and you clamp your body into a fixed position, how on earth are you going to develop lightness and highly refined aids?

Similarly, in the presence of rider lower back pain, the ability to control the spine at every segment is lost. This causes the multifidus muscle, which also acts to stabilise the spine, to atrophy. The spine then becomes even less stable and the rider is less able to control their posture. Pelvic instability is a common condition and is due to poor muscle recruitment, which in turn causes unwanted movement of the lower trunk (Reid, 1996). A stable trunk is necessary to riding and so increasing riding ability and muscular endurance is indicated in order to maintain a balanced position without discomfort. Nevison and Timmis (2013) also identified that pelvic asymmetry was present in all the riders they studied and reduced after exercises and soft tissue treatment (as shown in the image below). They concluded that gluteal and core strengthening exercises could play a significant role in enhancing horse and rider health, by reducing asymmetric loading on the horse’s back from a crooked rider.

The highly esteemed Maria Teresa Engell stated that riders need to improve their stability and control off the horse before they can hope to ride correctly and in balance. This is in line with the Strength and Conditioning theory that your sport specific skill (in this case riding) is the top of the pyramid of skills which you, as an athlete, need to develop. The 5 Phases of learning which Engell (referencing Hodges et al, 2002 – ‘Coexistence of Stability and mobility in postural control’) suggests are

1)      Skill Learning

2)      Precise Training

3)      Controlled Activity in different positions

4)      Combined segmental and superficial stability tasks

5)      Specific retraining in sport specific context

Once a rider is proficient in all these skills, their ability to rider symmetrically will improve. This in turn enables the rider to be much more effective with the aids and to reduce the risk of inducing lameness or asymmetry in their horse. Proprioception is key to riders – the ability to know where your body is in space is vital in order to control it effectively.

Realising how you as a rider influence your horse – for better or for worse – is crucial. If you missed them, have a look at my blogs on Rider Self Assessments ( to see where you are most weak, tight or unstable and have a think about whether this correlates with the movements which your horse is good or bad at too. 


Riding in Balance - Physically and Mentally

Yogi Breisner at the Horses Inside Out conference talked about the importance of the rider developing an independent seat and how this can be achieved through strength and conditioning.

Rider balance greatly influences how the horse moves because the horse relies on the rider’s position for guidance on where to go and what to do. If the rider has poor postural control, balance or symmetry, then the signals transferred to the horse are contradictory and confusing. The horse is not able to interpret the signals and is then reprimanded for doing the wrong thing. It is vital for riders to get themselves assessed, treated and balanced so that they are not limiting their horse.

The influence of riders on their horse’s way of going has now been identified in several scientific studies. Crooked riders have been associated with lame horses (Bytrom et al, 2009, Greve et al 2013) and a higher degree of saddle slip is seen in lame horses. Both a lameness and a crooked rider may contribute the saddle slip, but which came first is difficult to identify in many situations. We cannot ignore this problem anymore.  If a rider is able to develop better balance and control of their own body, they will be able to transfer aids to the horse more clearly, which will improve performance and equine welfare.

Mental balance is also an important consideration. In a non-stressful situation, it is easy to have clear focus and control of your body, such as walking on a thin line plank placed on the floor. If this thin plank, however, was suspended 2m above the ground, then the degree to which you had postural control and balance would reduce, simply because the mental stress of the situation has increased. Perceived danger changes how you think and thus how well you communicate with the horse. If you are able to control your body effectively in a non-stressful situation, then you are more likely to ride effectively when you are stressed (such as a competition, qualifier or selection meeting).

Thus, practicing mental ‘balance’ is very important. Visualisation of the task being completed successfully is a great way of running your body and mind through the steps required to do well. Studies have indicated that visualisation and mentally running through a situation (in real time) activates the brain and body to at least 50% of what it would do during the required task. The more we are exposed to a stressful situation (in which no harm is done), the more we become used to it and so the better able we are to control our stress levels.

Imagine a situation in which you get stressed – your horse playing up at a competition, you fail to remember a show jumping course, you can’t get passed the tractor to get out of the yard. Your anxiety levels have probably raised just thinking about it. Now imagine you maintaining a good posture, a clear head and you perfectly execute that movement, test, course or obstacle. At first I couldn’t do this. I physically could not imagine doing a correct flying change, how on earth did I think I was going to get it in real life – in front of my instructor! So every night I used to imagine over and over than I was correctly riding a flying change, I would not throw my body forward, I would not throw my reins away, I would ask quietly and calmly. It took a few weeks, but once I had mastered this, once I was back on my horse, I could much more easily visualise what I needed to do, collect him and ask for my aids in a mentally and physically balanced way and we achieved a flying change much more quickly than I expected.

To sum up, effective riders need to be both mentally and physically balanced. This places us in the best position to correctly aid our horses without conflicting information or stress.

Rider Synchronicity - how well do you move with your horse?

Synchronicity is the ease with which the rider and horse move in combination and is often described as “horse and rider harmony”. Increased synchronicity with the horse’s movements is observed in advanced riders (Peham et al 2001, Wolframm et al 2013, respectively) and is show in Figure 1 and Figure 2 below.

As you can see by the more concentrated circles on the left, a lower degree of variation is observed in the expert rider. Similarly, on the right image, the novice rider shows greater movement in the upper body than the expert rider – shown by the grey dots being more to the middle of the graph. Interestingly, the expert rider’s heels move a lot and are much further towards the middle of the graph than the novice rider. However, the ability to move the heels and not the rest of the body, is obviously a difficult skill which requires practice and patience, but it definitely something which will increase your ability to ride in harmony with your horse.

However, we are all different: Munz et al (2013) compared the movements of two advanced riders’ pelvises on the same horse and noticed significantly different movements in the cranio-caudal and medial-lateral axis (p<0.05). This suggests individual variation is present in all riders and so each horse and rider combination will all move differently. This is not a problem if the horse and rider are symmetrical, but biomechanical restrictions in the joints and muscles are likely to predispose the rider to lower back pain, which in turn will affect how the horse is moving.

Left Figure 1: Area of phase plane in horse-rider systems with respect to angle vs angular velocity (top) and angular velocity vs angular acceleration (bottom) in professional (left) and recreational (right) riders (Peham et al, 2001)
Right: Figure 2: Movement of each rider's joints in Expert (right) and Novice (left) riders. Note the small variation in Expert’s upper body but great increase in heel movement compared to Novice (Lagarde et al, 2005)

 Synchronicity not only looks pretty, but it is important for you and your horse’s comfort. Whilst poor ability to ride in harmony with the horse has not been directly linked with rider lower back pain, it is not difficult to see how it affects your horse. The phase cycles of a horse trotting in hand (without a rider) is more similar to when a horse is ridden by an expert rider than a novice. Thus, if you are not riding in harmony with your horse, you are negatively influencing his stride length and ability to move freely. Combine this with a crooked rider and a poorly fitting saddle and it is no wonder many horses suffer from shuffling gaits and the inability to move forward freely.

As riders we need to constantly focus on ourselves and try to do aids with as little movement as we can so that we can sit in time with the horse. Riding without stirrups (possibly on the lunge), is a great way to develop your seat and should be done regularly (if safe to do so). The Cadre Noir have to do this for 3-6 months before they are allowed to pick up the reins, which puts it in perspective!


How to improve performance without increasing your horse’s risk of injury

Riding is, first of all, a recreational activity. If we didn’t enjoy it as a child we wouldn’t have got back on. But as we get older, we fall in love with the sport, the movements and the finesse of techniques.

This, unfortunately, can lead to many over-use problems in the horse as we do what repeatedly enjoy, rather than what is best for the horse’s longevity. In the very simplest of examples, this is why many show jumpers just like to jump and many dressage people refuse to go over poles.

Strength & Conditioning in the human sports field is a complex mix of programming (what you do day to day, week to week, on season and off season), exercise selection (strength vs conditioning vs skill work) and tapering (reducing volume – not intensity - prior to an event). It is through careful selection of all these elements, at the most appropriate point in the year, specific to each individual athlete, which has progressed sport over the past decade.

The following graph identifies how performance, injury risk and training load are related.

As we can see, the optimal training load occurs where performance is high but risk of injury remains moderate to low. The key recommendation often stated to S&C coaches, particularly in endurance sports, it to do as little as you can get away with. If your horse can maintain condition and technical skill by training ‘sport specifically’ twice a week, then limit it to that. That does not mean that you cannot still train other useful capacities on the other days.

For example, a weekly training cycle for a GP dressage horse:

Day 1 - High Intensity Work - Repeated high intensity work followed by lots of rest. E.g. 20 seconds of work, 40 seconds of walk 10-20 times, variety of exercises.

Day 2 - Sport Specific Skill work (Canter) - Usual dressage training focused on canter (pirouette/changes)

Day 3 - Active Recovery/Conditioning - Hack/Lunge/ 2-3x 30 minutes on walker, walk + working trot paced.

Day 4 - Day off - Rest and ideally turn out or 2x30 mins on walker moderate paced walk.

Day 5 - Gymnastic pole work - Cavaletti, Canter poles, poles on circle, small jumps. Shorter, intense session working on horse responding quickly, elastically and engaging.

Day 6 - Sport Specific Skill (Trot) - Usual training focusing on trot work (piaffe, passage, extensions)

Day 7 - Day Off - Rest and turn out.

It is important to remember that a horse will take time to develop his strength and endurance in these skills. Frequently repeating pole work, e.g. for increasing limb flexion, is necessary for it to have a positive training effect. If it is done sporadically it is more likely to confuse the horse or cause it to feel unsettled – we all know what dressage horses can be like!

Similarly, bear in mind that doing miles and miles around an arena will not improve your horse’s way of going. You need to think smart and train smart. Does your horse do everything you want in walk? If not, then don’t expect him to be able to do it at a faster pace. We need to train our horses to be light and elastic, like ballet dancers, not over developed and “artificially” muscled like body builder.

Programming is a series of waves which are added together to produce peak performance at a given time. For example, if you were bringing your horse back into work, you would spend much more time in a ‘conditioning wave’ and building his tendon and muscle strength than you would doing high intensity or high school movements. Equally (possibly after a week or two off), you want to build strength and fitness in the off-season and refine your technical skills in the months coming up to competition. During the season, you would want to reduce the overall work load so that he is has maximal energy in order to travel and compete frequently. This is called tapering.

Tapering is about reducing your horse’s workload in terms of volume rather than intensity. You need to work at high levels of collection during a dressage test so it is important to practice this during the competition season, but you may only need to practice it once a week (as an example) rather than every day. Similarly, the high intensity work which you previously had once or twice a week will be replaced by the competition day and so may only be a feature every other week during the competition training cycle.

Injury prevention is so important. The “working life” of bones and tendons can be surprisingly short due to the forces which are placed through the limbs at different gaits. For example, the minimum expected vertical load placed through the legs, relative to the horse’s bodyweight (BW) is

  • Walk <1BW
  • Trot 1.5BW
  • Canter 2BW
  • Gallop 2.5BW
  • Jump 3-4BW

A galloping horse will take 220 loading cycles per mile (= 500kg horse x 2.5 x number of miles) on each occasion. Thus, it is not surprising, given the fragile nature of the horse’s legs and low ‘safety factor’ of the deep and superficial digital flexor tendons, that 50% of racehorses go lame. Repetitive overload is such an importance, but often missed factor is equine injury and thus prevention.

Equine strength and conditioning and smarter programming should be a more apparent part of horse ownership and training. We should avoid just doing what we enjoy and take the time to develop all aspects of the horse, not just technical skill but also cardiovascular, muscular and tendon robustness. This will increase the success and longevity of your horse and optimise his performance in the long run.

If you have any questions regarding this, please do contact me. Please understand that the examples given in this blog should be tailored to each individual horse, with careful consideration of their explicit demands and requirements. 


Article in Unique - Gloucestershire's Leading Digital Magazine

Hi Everyone, 

This month I am featured in Unique - Gloucestershire's Leading Digital Magazine and am talking about the '7 Steps for a Successful Season'. I discuss the importance of considering yourself as a rider (and give you the link to my online stretching tutorials), what tapering is and how you can use it this season and also the importance of rider nutrition.

To read the article please click here and share with your friends who are really focused on having a successful summer. 


Back pain in horse riders - why is it so common?

73% of horse riders, and 88% of elite riders, have significantly higher incidences of back pain compared to the general population. The riding position and forces translated to the rider from the horse’s movement are predisposing factors.

Lots of studies investigating the cause of low back pain have considered lumbar spine mobility, axial rotation, saddle type, duration and intensity of riding, leg length inequality and pelvic tilt angle; unfortunately, they found no agreement on the cause of such high rates of back pain in riders. 

My dissertation assessed many studies and highlighted muscle weakness and rider asymmetry as key contributing factors to rider LBP. This is supported by several more recent studies which have shown how differently all riders move on a horse (even between professional riders) and that this individual variation and asymmetry is the key cause of human and equine back pain.

In the presence of rider lower back pain, the ability to control the spine at every segment is lost. This causes the multifidus muscle, which also acts to stabilise the spine, to atrophy. The spine then becomes even less stable and the rider is less able to control their posture.

I commonly see this in patients who have lower back pain. They often sit or drive all day and have a very stiff thoracic spine (mid back) and stiff hips. As a result, the lower back moves more so that you can still reach forward or twist round to put your seat belt on. Unfortunately, the lumbar spine is not meant to move a lot so as a protection mechanism the lower back muscles become really tight to try and protect the hypermobile spine. The patient (or rider) experiences lower back pain and assumes that they need to have a back massage to get the tension out of the lower back muscles.

In reality, correcting the mid back and hip stiffness, as well as increasing the rider’s postural control is the best way to solve the problem. It is so important to not just rub what hurts. Like vets, farriers, dentists and riding instructors, we should all strive to understand why a particular problem has occurred rather than just fixing the immediate problem. This will provide a more holistic and thorough care of the horse and rider and prevent injuries from occurring. It is better to be proactive than reactive in the management of you and your horse’s health and wellbeing.

If you would like to read my dissertation, please do email me for a copy.

Should I do stretches with my horse?

I recently shared an article on my Facebook Page about Hilary Clayton and her recommendation of doing carrot stretches and using them to activate your horse's core.

Carrot stretches are used by many horse owners to increase their horse's flexibility. I often give them to clients to make the horse more willing to go left and right, but are they actually any use?

When you ask your horse to reach for a carrot and stretch he is actively contracting his muscles in the direction he is bending and reflexively relaxing the muscles on the other side. This is useful in encouraging movement both ways but is restricted if there is an underlying issue. For example if the horse's lower cervicals are stiff (the vertebrae towards the base of his neck), then he is likely to rotate and twist through the poll and upper vertebrae rather than truly moving evenly though his entire neck. 

Passive movement is the extra movement available at a joint or within a muscle when the horse is moved by someone else. Passive movement can help to create new movement or restore lost movement in a restricted or stiff area. An example of this would be a cervical spine manipulation. 

Whilst it is very important for riders and owners to maintain movement in their horse, it is also essential that movement is created or restored in your horse once in a while, so that you are able to continue his work without restrictions. Often when people come to see me to have an MOT Osteopathy Treatment, they leave with several problems to work on which they didn't know they had. Whilst this is surprising to them, it it rarely surprising to me. Pain is the tip of the iceberg and so it is vital to 'treat' the rest of the iceberg regularly - which can be done with or without the presence of pain.

Carrot stretches are a great way to keep you aware of your horse's movements and assessing his willingness to bend. If he is repeatedly stiff to one side, or suddenly becomes stiffer one way, then he may have a restriction which needs more than just stretching to resolve. Stretching is also good to do after riding to help your horse relax and reset his muscles if he gets very tense and tight when you ride.

What would you like know more about with your horse's movements? 

If you have any questions please email me or send me a message via my Facebook page (and of course, give it a like!)

Horses Inside Out Research Awards 2nd Place!

The Horses Inside Out Annual Conference was this weekend and what a fantastic event! Titled "Backs, Balance and Biomechanics" I knew it would be right up my street. It was so good to hear lots of highly intelligent vets and researchers confirming the need for horse and rider asymmetry in order to prevent injuries and improve performance. I was thrilled to received 2nd place for the Research Award from my dissertation in Lower Back Pain in Horse Riders, it was particularly noted for being an innovated study, which well extremely well researched and provided riders with a very practical take-home message. It was very encouraging to hear that everything I believe and am trying to encourage with riders, is already a known truth among leading researchers and professional riders.

Some of the topics covered during the weekend and listed below, I will be writing them in more detailed blog articles over the coming weeks.

  • Dentistry - the horrors of poorly qualified equine dentists
  • Kissing Spines - are they always bad?
  • Surfaces - what is the best thing to ride on? 
  • Equine Locomotion Analysis - how 3D analysis and force plates are aiding diagnosis.
  • Are bone scans, x rays, and expensive examinations really worth it?
  • Equine Behaviour - how breeders will select genes for human husbandry in the future
  • Importance of Rider Balance
  • Equine Nutrition - how wetting your hay is so dangerous.
  • Why your horse needs Strength and Conditioning

Please let me know if there are any other topics which you would like me to find out about, or if you have any questions. Thank you. 

Castration Scars and how they can make your horse lame

Recently I was told a story from a fellow Equine and Canine Osteopath about a horse which she was asked to treat. He was 8 years old and had not be sound for more than 8 weeks at any time during his 'working' life. He had been treated by osteopaths, physios and vets, all who were good, experienced people, but to no avail. The horse remained lame behind. 

So my friend had to think outside the box. Luckily, the horse had been owned by the same person since they were a foal and were still registered with the same vet. After some questioning, it was relayed that the horse's brother had been very difficult to castrate and, as a result, the castration to this horse was done quite tentatively. 

We often think of the body as being made up of separate compartments of tissues - organs in one place, muscles in another and they just simply exist next to each other. In reality, they are all connected and joined by fascia. This is a connective tissue which covers every cell, muscle, bone, joint and connects everything together. The testes are suspended from the abdomen by the spermatic cord. Thus, when the testes are removed, the scar tissue can can extend (in terms of influence rather than presence) to the abdomen and hind limbs up between the back legs. 

This was then the area which my friend focused her treatment. 

After two sessions of about 20 minutes of working through the scar tissue and fibrous adhesions to release some of the tension extending towards the back and hind legs the horse was sound, and has been since, now 12 weeks in work. 

I think this is a great example of how important it is to think laterally about a problem, to ask extended questions or to dig deep into the case history of an animal - if possible. Nearly everything will have a cause and it is up to us to think outside the box, beit anatomically, emotionally or environmentally to help each horse (or rider) be the best that they can be.

PB Equestrian in Horse & Hound!

I am still excited when I think about being in Horse & Hound last month! I was featured in part of the 'Training and Courses' article which highlighted different things which riders could do after hours in order to progress their riding. 

I have been very fortunate and have gained a lot on interest since this publication, it's so lovely working with a wide variety of riders and helping them improve their riding. 

So what kinds of problems do people normally have?

  • Difficulty rotating their body and hips one way
  • Stiffness in hips and hamstrings
  • Poor balance on one leg
  • Good core strength in one position, but not in another
  • Poor pelvic stability
  • Difficulty with keeping shoulders in a good position

Many riders are often surprised when I comment on how they may find canter transition to the left difficult, or are always being pulled forward by their horse. Your body doesn't lie. Whether it is on my treatment couch or on your horse, your body will always move in a similar way. This is also true for the horse and I frequently find  when I do equine osteopathy that problems in the horse are due to the rider being too tense or weak.

However in a Strength & Conditioning session we focus our attention to these places of stiffness or weakness. As a result, riders are suddenly more aware of their posture and so are better able to correct it. It is these subtle, individual variations which you wouldn't know about by just attending a normal exercise class which really make all the difference. 

And the best part? 

All the exercises can be done in the comfort of your own home so you don't even have to go to the gym! Please call or email for a no obligation chat if riding better and using your body correctly is something you are interested in.

Skills vs Capacities - How to ride better

Many people don't think that they would need rider strength and conditioning. I used to think that too. I used to think I was strong and fit - I rode 3 horses a day, mucked out 20 stables and did about 40 haynets, as well as cycling to the yard and playing sports. But once I stopped riding and went to the gym, my riding suddenly improved. 

Riders and sports people tend to think about the skill required for their sport and not the capacity. They focus on the exact technique and position, rather than wondering whether our body (muscles, joints, lungs) can physically do it.  Strength and conditioning is about training you to be a better athlete, so that you are more able to do your sporting skill. 

For example, if you have good balance, leg and mid-back muscle strength, holding the correct position when riding will be much easier. This will then allow you to focus on your horse and help him improve, rather than being a limiting factor.

However, its the ability to do this properly, with all the subtleties of a professional rider which makes the biggest difference. This is the key difference between having a 1:1 session and just "going through the motions". Most people are a bit tired after their first Rider S&C session because they have had to think so hard at keeping their body straight and in balance, which they haven't done in a while. Even very good riders who have the skill struggle with the exercises because they don't have the capacity.

I hope you have found this distinction helpful, please email if you have any questions about this or if you would like to see if there are any ways you could be improving your capacity to improve your riding skill.

Equine Osteopathy or Physiotherapy?

There is such a wide variety of equine therapists that it can be difficult knowing who to choose. Listen here to me on Radio Winchcombe with local Veterinary Physio to see the similarities and differences between Physiotherapy and Osteopathy for horses.

What's the Difference?

Osteopaths use their hands to work on the muscles (soft tissue massage) and joints (mobilisation and manipulation) to reduce tissue tension, joint stiffness and increase blood flow. They aim to look at the horse as a whole and identify the cause of the dysfunction rather than just treating the site of pain. Typically, Physios will use electrotherapy on muscles and tendons to stimulate healing and increase recovery as well as massage. The site of pain is usually the focus and there is greater work with rehabilitation post injury or surgery. These are generalisations and are not restrictive. Many osteopaths will work in rehab and many physios will treat the whole horse, its just about finding the right one for you. Equine Kinesiology tape is a new treatment modality which improves muscle function and support with elastic tape. This can be done by an osteopath or physio, depending on whether they have done the course or not. 

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which professional you choose, so long as you find one who you like and works well for you and your horse. My qualifications include a full time 4 year undergraduate masters in Osteopathy (Distinction, Oxford Brookes University), a year Post Graduate Diploma in Animal Osteopathy from the Osteopathic Centre for Animals and I am currently studying a 3 year Masters in Strength and Conditioning from the prestigious St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

Osteopath is a protected title and all members must be registered with the General Osteopathic Council (my Reg. Number is 8951). To be an equine osteopath you must first be a human osteopath. This requires specific insurance and 30 hours of Continued Professional Development per year. Veterinary Physiotherapy is not a protected title and so may be adopted by any member of the public. There are, however, regulatory bodies which most are associated with. A Chartered Physiotherapist has undergone a three year degree in human physio before undertaking a masters in animal or equine physiotherapy and are part of a registered body.

The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1996 Section 19 states that veterinary permission must be given to treat an animal. This is a requirement; if you have not been asked to do this before, your horse may have been at risk and the practitioner was not acting in accordance with this Act. It would be unwise to trust an equine practitioner who did not ask for veterinary consent.

So, whether its McTimoney, Sports Massage, Physio, Osteo or Bowen, find a person who you like, trust and is respectful towards the horse. However, be aware that the term "back person" is very limited and covers a wide range of people and qualifications. I would recommend putting yourself and your horse in safe hands by always asking your therapists qualifications and insurance.

Rider Self Assessment Part 3

Flexibility is crucial in reducing injuries and maintaining a healthy body. The yoga mantra of "I bend so I don't break" certainly has some merit. When your joints and muscles are more supple and flexible you have a greater range of motion available to you. This increases your body's "buffer zone".  For example, if putting a saddle on your 16.2hh horse requires 80% shoulder mobility and 20% back extension (100% total movement), you can easily see how if you had poor shoulder mobility, say 60%, your back would have to extend to 40% (i.e. twice as much) in order for you to complete the task of tacking up. 

These compensations happen in our bodies all the time, without us noticing. Sometimes they don't cause a problem, but more often than not, they do. In the example, the rider's back would fatigue more quickly because its working twice as much as it should. There may not be a problem at the time, but weeks or months later a simple task like reaching the top of the bridle may cause there back to spasm very painfully. 

Having an awareness of your body's limitations and working on specific areas of stiffness and tension will help to reduce pain and injury in the future. There are only so many compensations that the body can make, and once it reaches a threshold, pain occurs. People often are confused at this point and wonder why they are in pain..... "I haven't done anything, I don't understand why it hurts" is a phrase I commonly here. The body has simply be overloaded.

So, for the next exercises

1) Downward facing dog - yoga pose where your hands and toes are on the floor and you push your bum up to the ceiling. There should be a straight line from your hands, through your arms, shoulder and spine to the top of your bum, and then from your bum straight to your heels. If this is too painful on your hamstrings and calves, bend the knees slightly.

2) Shoulder mobility - try to interlink your fingers behind your back, one reaching up your back and the other reaching down from your shoulder. Switch sides and see if your hands can meet this way..... is your writing hand worse? Can you do it at all? Is there a pulling in the front of your shoulder?

3) Seated Twist - sit on the floor, bend your left knee and put your left foot on the outside of your right knee. Twist to the left, keeping your back straight, using your arms to hold onto the left knee if necessary. Swap arms and legs and twist to the right. Is one way easier? Did you feel a block between your shoulder blades? Did you lean backwards in order to move further round?

Practicing these flexibility exercises or at least doing them as a stretch in the evening after you ride, is a great way of reducing stiffness and making sure you are equally supple on the left as on the right.

Rider Self Assessment Part 2

Following from part 1, this series of exercises are to challenge your core stability and gluteal (bum) strength. As riders, we know how important it is to remain strong in the core so that we don't hang onto the horses mouth and keep that tall, dressage posture. But desk jobs, babies and life often causes our hips to become too tight and our core to be less active. 

Try these simple exercises to see how your core strength is:

1) Plank position - hold for 30 seconds. You should do it with your arms straight and on your tip toes (straight line between feet and shoulders, keep your bum in line) and also on your elbows. Repeat, if you can, with a side plank. This is the same position, but leaning on one elbow and the edge of one foot. Do you shake? Is there pain in your hips or back? Is one side stronger than the other?

2) Glute Bridge - lie on the floor with your knees bent and feet hip width apart. Keep your feet on the floor and push your pelvis up to the ceiling, making a straight line from your shoulders to your knees. Does one side of pelvis drop? Does your hamstring or calf cramp? How about if you try it with one leg?

3) Resisted Lunge - Lunge forward with your left leg (both knees bent to 90 degrees) with your arms straight out in front of you, palms together. Try to keep this position whilst someone pushes your hands to the left and then to the right for 5 seconds each. Swap legs and try again. Which way was more difficult? Did you feel your core engage as you were pushed to the side?

Poor core strength causes the lower back (lumbar spine) to move too much. This causes instability and muscle tightness in this area, as the muscles try to protect the lower back by limiting its movement and flexibility. This is felt in the body as pain and stiffness.

My master's thesis explored the prevalence and causes of low back pain in horse riders. 78% of riders suffer with back pain and the main causes are muscle weakness and asymmetry. 

Look out for part 2 and for other factors which cause horse riders' pain.

If you have any questions, as usual, please feel free to contact me


Rider Self Assessment

A Quick Self Assessment for Rider Strength & Conditioning:

Can you....
(1) Stand on one leg in balance for 30 seconds.. Can you do it? Which side is harder?
(2) Lunge forward, both knees to 90 degrees... Does your knee cave in? Do you wobble? Does your opposite hip shoot to the side?
(3) Squat as low as you can....Is your bum close to the floor? Have your knees come together? Have you lost your balance? Did your back round?

Riders lack some of the most basic levels of flexibility and balance. This increases their risk of injury and limits performance.

To Find out more about how to fix some of these problems then do get in contact, read more in Horse & Hound this Thursday or like PB Equestrian - Rider Strength & Conditioning, Horse & Rider Osteopathy!