At the start of 2018, I’d had enough of avoiding dressage like the plague. I’d tried to kid myself for some time that if I preferred jumping, that I didn’t need dressage anyway. Of course, I was deluding myself. I knew as well as the next person that every stride you take between fences is flatwork, so the better our flatwork, the better our rhythm, suppleness, canter, and so on.
My loan mare, Flora, is a 15.3hh bay Thoroughbred mare. Originally bred and trained for racing, she never made the track in the end. She was sold off as a happy hacker for a number of years, despite her fantastic bloodlines, and had only done some schooling and dressage with her current owner when I came into her life. I’ve had her for a little over two years now, and in February of this year, she officially became a veteran. 3rd February 2018 was Flora’s Fabulous 15th.
So, the efforts to improve her relaxation, elasticity and contact began. This was the crux of Flora’s issues. Like a typical ex-racer, she loves to hollow her back, stick her head in the air and drag herself around on her forehand. Within a few more focused schooling sessions (I had an actual goal now), we made the decision to involve a physio. The thought that she was trying, but unable to work correctly, wasn’t sitting well with me. Her teeth were done in the November, her tack was all newly bought and fitted and her bit had recently been professionally selected too. It was time to make sure that the mental tension she carried wasn’t a result of any physical tension.
On the day, we welcomed our new physio, Lee Clark, to the yard. Lee is incredibly experienced and his clients include the Team GB endurance horses and riders, so we were confident Flora was in expert hands. She’s a grumpy old goat sometimes though. She’s not interested in you unless you know her well already, or you are brandishing a carrot. But she seemed at ease with Lee immediately, and stood acceptingly while he began to check her over.
It became apparent very quickly that she had soreness and tension in the base of her neck, across her back and her sacroiliac region. Lee was a very good teacher, advising us to ignore her behaviour when being touched, and to watch the behaviour of the muscles themselves instead. Sure enough, there was visible, involuntary spasming. And why wouldn’t there be? Make anyone do any kind of workout, particularly holding themselves in a certain position for a length of time, and there will be tension. I, for one, spend my life trying to negotiate ‘neck knot rubs’ from my husband with varying degrees of success, and now it seemed Flora was in need of the exact same thing.
Using the flat of his fingers, Lee worked on Flora’s neck muscles first. To begin with, she pulled the strangest face; part enjoyment, part ‘what the hell is this?’, but by pressing down on the knotted tissue until the tension broke down and could be smoothed away, Lee caused Flora to let out a great big sigh of relief. I can’t even imagine how good that must have felt, and in all honestly, her little face made me feel a bit choked up.
Next, Lee asked to see her in her saddle and to see me walk and trot her up; then, to stand her square as part of her physical exam. The result of this was that she is slightly lower and weaker on the right-hand side of her pelvis… undoubtedly an old injury from when she was being trained to race – and a possible reason why she never made it to the track itself. Her left hind is stiffer and more prone to puffiness than her right too, but her breed, age and history mean that this is to be expected. The weaker right-hand side of her pelvis also explains why she struggles with right lead canter sometimes (and in hindsight, why our subsequent dressage tests received lower score on the right rein). Everything was falling into place.
The conclusion was that there were no serious issues. That the old injury was so old it was beyond help, but the soreness and any misalignment could be dealt with right then and there. The correct schooling, lunge work and stretching, which he would teach us would also help Flora improve, and a Bute trial was recommended if any problems persisted.
So Flora’s neck knots were worked out, her back muscles were ‘popped’ back to reset mode, using a technique not unlike a human’s knee reflex test, and her pelvis, back legs and neck were helped to stretch. Since she has a tendency to snatch at carrots, a yummy lick has proven to be a great alternative when getting her to perform ‘carrot stretches’ for her neck and back. My absolute favourite stretch, though, is the one for her pelvis, which involves using each index finger (or a couple of hoof picks) either side of her quarters and running them down towards the floor, causing a kind of cat-stretch yoga pose and some audible cracks… cue licking and chewing and another big sigh.
Afterwards, an in-hand walk and some grass was the order of the day, followed by some serious yawning, dozing off and 48 hours of saddle freeness.
Since this point in January we have been continuing to do the stretches, more lunge work and more ridden work long and low. She felt significantly looser the first time I rode her after our session – our teacher commented immediately on the difference. She continues to do better now as a result of gradually building up her strength, which I’ve no doubt the looseness has enabled.
If you’ve never had a physio to your horse before, I absolutely recommend it. Not in place of necessary veterinary treatment, but to help keep them feeling floppy and good! Just make sure you use a recommended ACPAT (Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Animal Therapy) physio, or your country’s equivalent, since – as top equine vet, Tom Witte, told me recently – anything else could be “at best, ineffective but costly, and at worst, outright harmful.”
Flora’s next tune-up is due in July, and I’m looking forward to the relief she’ll feel again, just as much as she is.
About the writer: Rachel Williams, UK, Heels Down Kick On. I rode all the time from a young age, but was never fortunate enough to have a pony of my own; those in the same boat as me may especially recognise some of the struggles chronicled in these blogs! Happy reading. (FB: @heelsdownkickonblog, Insta: @heelsdown_kickon, Blog: https://heelsdownkickon.blogspot.co.uk)