“Damn it! Just give me your leg!” Hearing these harsh words, I snapped my head around. Just as I suspected, a farrier was holding onto the hind hoof of a horse who was trying to break free of the man’s grasp.
The farrier, Joe*, had been patient with the big chestnut Warmblood. But Joe’s patience – and his back – were wearing thin. He had completed the trimming job, but he told the gelding’s owner that the horse needed stretching exercises to improve his ability to extend his legs. Joe picked up the chestnut’s leg again, and began to stretch it behind the horse. This time the gelding pulled it away from Joe violently.
Someone’s going to get hurt”, I thought. Both the horse and Joe were in danger of sustaining an injury. I caught the owner’s eye. My face must have conveyed my dismay, because she suddenly asked Joe to stop.
The woman thanked Joe, putting a check into his large, calloused hand. As he got into his grey Ford F-250, he muttered something about the folly of letting the horse “win” and how much more difficult he’d be to trim in the future. The owner watched as Joe drove down the gravel driveway.
Then she turned to me. Her expression serious, she introduced herself as Clare. “Joe’s the expert, but what he was doing didn’t feel right to me. When I saw the look on your face, I found the courage to stop him”. She said that she knew about my approach, Debono Moves, from watching me work with other horses at her barn. Then she asked if I had time to help her horse.
The big, friendly gelding, whose name was Bubba, stood quietly cross-tied. I suggested that we take Bubba on a little walk to give him a mental and physical break. As we walked, Clare told me that it was been getting more and more difficult to trim Bubba’s hind hooves. A couple of weeks ago a veterinarian examined the horse to make sure that it wasn’t pain in his legs – either the one being held up or the one he was standing on – that was causing Bubba to fight the process. Fortunately, that didn’t appear to be the case. Figuring that the problem was tight hindquarter muscles, Clare had tried picking up a hind hoof and circling the limb to relax his muscles, but Bubba jerked his leg away whenever she attempted this.
When we got to a quiet, shady spot, I suggested we work with Bubba there, since the Warmblood had no negative associations with this location like he did in the grooming area. I explained to Clare that the novelty of the environment can make it easier for horses to learn new responses to old requests.
With Clare holding the green lead rope, I reminded her to give Bubba enough freedom so that he could turn his head from side to side. Then I put my hands on the horse, and immediately noticed how tight Bubba’s lower back was. No wonder he didn’t want to extend his hind legs backward. It probably hurt!
I worked with Bubba for almost an hour, using my hands to gently remind him how to move the different parts of himself, in effect “waking up” those parts that he hadn’t been using enough. This would allow the overused, tight areas to recover. And the improved body awareness would promote easier, more comfortable movement throughout his whole body.
Now that the Warmblood’s back was freer, it was time to pick up his hind legs. Gently working my way hand down his right hind, I quietly asked Bubba to pick up his hoof. He did, but powerfully snatched the leg up toward his belly. I wasn’t surprised, since that is what he habitually did whenever someone asked for his hind leg.
But then I did something unexpected. Instead of pulling on him to extend the leg back or even simply being neutral, I gently supported his leg upward. It took several seconds for Bubba to realize that I was not fighting him. I wasn’t even just waiting for him to get tired and put the leg down. Instead, my support was helping him feel more comfortable and secure. As I learned in my training as a Feldenkrais Method® practitioner for people, providing support through the skeleton can be an effective, non-threatening way to encourage lengthening.
On the other hand, if had I stretched his leg back like the farrier was trying to do, Bubba would not have an opportunity to change the habitual patterns that created the short, tight muscles in the first place. The horse’s back would remain tense and sore, even if his leg muscles were temporarily lengthened through stretching. And worse, stretching a muscle when the rest of the body isn’t prepared to help it lengthen can lead to further protective tensing of muscles. Sometimes even painful spasms occur.
After all, legs don’t exist in isolation. The freedom of the legs is greatly influenced by the quality of movement in other parts of the body. To extend a leg back comfortably, the horse’s pelvis, spine, ribs and sternum must to be free to move. The same is true for bringing the legs under the body, referred to in riding as “engaging the hind end”.
Enhancing the chestnut’s movement through his whole body would also improve his balance, making it easier for Bubba to hold his leg up. The horse’s balance is also influenced by the person holding the leg. If the handler has tight, shortened muscles or is moving the horse’s leg with just her arms, this unbalanced feeling will be transmitted to the horse. Conversely, if the handler is balanced and uses her pelvis to initiate the movement, the horse gains confidence and mobility.
The support I gave Bubba allowed his hindquarter muscles to relax. As soon as I felt a release on his part, I moved his leg in the smallest of circles, still maintaining the gentle upward support. With rest breaks in between, we repeated this process several times, alternating between his right and left hind legs. Eventually the gelding began to trust that I would not pull his leg back and he stayed relaxed as I held it. I was able to bring his leg forward and do circles under his belly as well.
As I often demonstrate with people having Feldenkrais sessions, circular movements of the limbs can be an effective way to increase the range of motion of the joints, helping to improve leg movement in all directions: forward, to each side and behind. But one must be careful to not push through resistance. To do so would invite protective shortening of the muscles, as well rekindle any worries the horse may have about human handling.
The circles I did with the gelding were very small to start with, only gradually increasing in size as his muscles released their hold. Instead of seeking to increase the size of a movement, I look to increase the ease of the movement. The horse then gains confidence that he can increase the size of the movement without pain or limitation. As the circles became larger, Bubba was, of course, extending his leg farther out behind him. But he had no anxiety about it, since the movements were always easy and pleasurable.
Bubba was now totally relaxed while I handled his hind legs. This was in stark contrast to his usual demeanor whenever Clare or Joe tried to pick up a hind leg. Noting this dramatic shift, Clare pointed out that Debono Moves is not only an effective way to improve equine performance, but it promotes trust and harmony between horse and human too. I couldn’t agree more!
Bubba’s deeply ingrained habits would take patience and consistency to overcome in all situations, and Clare would need to explain this to Joe or find a new hoof trimmer. To help sustain the progress that Bubba made in his Debono Moves session with me, I taught Clare how to use her daily grooming and hoof picking time as a way to promote body awareness and deepen the bond that was developing between them.
As I reminded Clare, working with a horse’s hind legs is risky and it’s easy to get injured. One must be vigilant and careful. So please, dear reader, do not attempt the above-mentioned strategy without the benefit of personal guidance.
*Names and identifying characteristics have been changed.