I realize that what I am suggesting may be difficult for some of you to imagine, When a rider has ingrained in his/her body the feeling of straightness, it is almost automatic to ask for it at all times, and it feels awful to ride without it. While it may be ok to ask that much of strong horses with very few asymmetries, how many of those horses do you know, and how many years did it take them to get there? Contemplate the idea that just because you can get it, doesn't mean that you should get it... at least all the time.
Another area in which we need to be careful is that of changing a rider's position. In cases where the rider's position is being changed it is important to be aware that even small changes in position can drastically effect how a horse feels, as well as how they carry themselves. Some horses are more sensitive to these changes than others, and more susceptible to physical stress as a result. Again, it may be necessary, depending on your horse, to work on position changes in shorter increments so that your horse has time to adjust to the changes. Oftentimes you may notice that the horse is more engaged with improvements in rider position, and although it may feel great at the moment, you must be careful not to overdo it to avoid discomfort. In clinic situations especially, it is important to remind participants to work on changes in small increments... especially on more sensitive horses.
HOW TO TELL IF WE ARE OVERSTRESSING OUR HORSES
First let us discuss the belief that some amount of discomfort is necessary in order to build muscle strength, (which is of course one of the major things we arc doing in dressage). This is commonly referred to as the "No Pain, No Gain" principle. While this may be true to some extent, since our horses don't have the option of quitting when they are starting to hurt, or taking the day off when their muscles are too sore, it is our job to decide what is normal muscle development and what is damaging. My rule of thumb for this is that if you cannot, by the end of your normal warm-up/stretching routine, get your horse to the point where he feels loose, sound and happy to work, then there has been some amount of stress. Since it is not always easy to tell if we are over-stressing our horses, close scrutiny is essential. Horses have an amazing ability to compensate for small problems, showing little outward appearance of pain. However, there is a limit to their tolerance, and eventually there will be evidence of the problem. One of the earliest signs of discomfort in the horse is behavior changes, such as minor resistance to the work. For example, if your normally very forward horse starts backing off of your leg for no apparent reason, there's a good chance that he's hurting somewhere. Most of the time, when a horse is acting out or being untidy, there is some component of pain involved. There are many other signs of discomfort, from flinching or car pinning while being groomed to uneven striding or minor lameness. Any decline in the horse's performance is a "red flag" that something is amiss. Finally, be aware that when a horse is compensating for many problems, it is the weakest part of the anatomy that will finally break down. Since injured muscles, tendons and ligaments never heal to 100% of their original strength, be careful to watch for any flare-ups of old injuries while increasing the demands on your horse.
ONE MORE TIME
As we all know, riding can be physically and mentally challenging for us as well as for the horse. While it is true that repetition is the mother of skill, we need to be careful that we are not over-practicing movements for ourselves in spite of the horse's needs. I would like to suggest that more of our learning can take place while dismounted through the use of visualization techniques. For example, if we are working on something new, and we are being somewhat successful, we need to sooner recognize what we are doing to have the desired effect and memorize it, or have a friend on the sidelines write down the key points for us using our own words. Then we can come back to our notes or jog our memories later that day, rehearsing the correct body movements as many times as we desire. We can even sit on a barrel and use our muscles as if we were riding. All it takes is an active imagination, and most horse people seem to have that. I understand that in clinic situations especially, instructors want to solidify the new feelings in the students body, however I feel that it is not right to do so at the expense of the horse.
KNOW YOUR HORSE
Of course, the most important thing is to know the horses you are working with. This is certainly difficult when you are giving clinics or working with new students, however, you can make certain assumptions based on breed, sex, age, and body type. In my experience, the thoroughbreds and finer warmbloods tend to get sore the most easily and take the longest amount of time to recover from overwork. Arabians and Quarter horses are a bit sturdier, and heavier built warmbloods seem to be able to recover much more quickly than the rest. Mares are generally more sensitive than geldings, and stallions, having the greatest muscle tone tend to be the strongest. Also realize that younger horses and horses who have been out of work for any period of time will have less muscle and need to be worked with more carefully. However, realize that these are just generalizations. (I used to ride a 17.2H bulky Hannoverian who was so sensitive that if I was the slightest bit heavier on one scaftne, he would immediately go stiff on that entire side of his body. ) It often takes time to really get to know a horse, and unfortunately in some cases trial and error is the best teacher. Thankfully, horses are very forgiving creatures, and when we learn how best to care for them as individuals, we can have long-lasting partnerships and friendships.
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