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RELAXATION IS BOTH A MENTAL AND PHYSICAL GAME
By Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett
Dressage Department Head, Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre
“Drop the reins. Trust me, JUST DO IT!” I addressed this command to a more advanced student mounted on a 17-hand Thoroughbred known around the barns for his sensitivity. It was the student’s first ride on the gelding and she later admitted that, between the horse’s reputation and his size, she was terrified.
It showed. She held her breath. She held the reins in a death grip with tensed shoulders and rigid forearms. Grippy thighs, locked hip joints and her tight lower back made the horse uncomfortable. Searching for relief, he inverted his neck and back, started stargazing, and began to chase a bit. As he went above the bit and became less responsive to the rider’s aids, her tension increased.
I try to give advanced students time to work problems out on their own. That approach clearly was not working this time. I tried talking to the rider about how her locked joints and shallow breathing affected the horse. I was still looking at a very unhappy horse and rider combination. Because I trusted the horse not to take advantage of relief from the pressures he felt by running off, I issued THE COMMAND.
The horse proved an excellent teacher. As soon as the rider released the reins and went to the buckle, the horse dropped his head to the ground, blew through his nostrils, stretched his back and began moving in a swingy, rhythmic stride. His generous response was a big lesson for this otherwise confident rider who was anticipating what ‘might’ happen instead of staying with what WAS happening and dealing with that.
This incident is a classic example of how relaxation is both a physical and mental game. Relaxation is basic to everything we do with our horses either from the ground or in the saddle. Without it, things go poorly at best and very, very badly at worst. In a previous article on relaxation, I talked about how to build rider confidence so that a fearful rider’s tension does not create tension in the horse. I also discussed how physical pain can affect a horse’s ability to relax. I want to explore relaxation a bit more because it is such a complex topic.
A rider’s muscular tension may be rooted in emotional or physical causes. An anxious, fearful, frustrated, or angry rider will hold her breath, tense her muscles and lock her joints. Riders who lack fitness, balance, or sufficient flexibility in their joints to follow the horse’s motion tense their muscles and joints to compensate. Either way, that tension transmits itself from the rider’s body to the horse’s body.
Muscle tension tends to raise a horse’s emotional level and trigger his fight-or-flight instincts. It makes no difference whether the tension the horse feels comes from his rider, or from stiff muscles due to cold weather, or from the wind that’s howling today, or from the flapping plastic bag that just caught his attention. Muscle tension says ‘go’ not ‘relax.’
There are some horses that will have the opposite reaction to a rider’s muscle tension, though. They mirror a rider’s tense, locked joints by locking their own joints until they are just shuffling along. Either way, the good news is that just as a tense rider makes a tense horse, a relaxed rider can make a relaxed horse.
Whether a tense horse makes the rider tense or whether a tense rider makes the horse tense makes no difference. Either way, a feedback loop begins that will never lead to good results. Someone has to be the grownup. Goldie oldies take the ‘grownup’ role for beginning riders, staying relaxed through all of the mistakes an inexperienced rider makes. Most horses, however, are not goldie oldies. As riders progress and begin riding all types of horses, they become responsible for establishing and maintaining relaxation.
Riders often use tense muscles to make up for their lack of sufficient balance, fitness, or flexibility. It takes strong, flexible muscles (think of a professional dancer gliding across the stage) to support a rider without gripping or excess pressure. Riders with weak muscles and poor balance hang on the reins for support, lock their elbows, grip with their thighs, jam stiff ankles against the stirrups, lock their lower back and have difficulty staying balanced over the horse’s center of gravity without wobbling in front or behind the vertical. A rider also needs good balance and an ability to follow the horse’s motion at every gait in order to ride the horse with complete physical relaxation. Put all of these physical elements together and we say that the rider has an independent seat.
It may seem like a contradiction to say that relaxation is at the base of our riding tree when we often need skills that are much higher up to master it. Rethink mastering riding skills as a spiral learning process rather than a simple linear one. The rider first masters a skill such as circling at the walk. Then she masters it at the trot, then the canter. At each stage she revisits something she already knows while adding something new. As a rider continually revisits and adds, she circles incrementally up the riding tree. So the basic relaxation level that a rider masters when first starting lessons will improve and increase as his or her balance improves. It becomes easier still to stay relaxed when he or she is able to follow the horse’s motion at the walk, then the trot, then the canter. And when the rider achieves an independent seat, relaxation becomes easier to achieve and maintain under more circumstances that challenge her mentally as well as physically.
Even advanced riders with a completely independent seat have anxious moments when a hot or spooky or otherwise highly reactive horse makes it difficult to stay relaxed and focused on the moment. It takes conscious effort for riders to keep their minds off ‘what if’ scenarios when riding green or sensitive or otherwise challenging horses. Focusing on the ‘future possible scary’ creates rider tension that just creates or feeds horse tension. Instead, riders must learn to focus on now and now and now and now. They must ride the horse stride by stride by stride without anticipating any future stride. As my mentor has always said, “ride every stride.”
Watching a confident, competent rider working with an emotionally challenging horse ride through a tough situation can be a revelation. The rider almost seems to be doing nothing. He or she is so focused on the horse that you can imagine they do not even see the boogey man running at their horse (or the mare in heat over by the rail, or the woman whose funky hat is flapping over by the in gate, or whatever it is that is raising the horse’s excitement level). The rider just keeps on keeping on without changing the rhythm of the asking with the aids, quietly reminding the horse to return its attention to this stride, then the next and the next, all without tensing their own body or changing the rhythm of their breathing.
When a rider finds herself tensing and gripping to keep her balance or unable to soften her lower back to follow the horse’s canter, she needs to make a commitment to work on fitness, balance and body awareness on the ground as well as in the saddle. If she notices fears and ‘what ifs’ creeping into her mind and her muscles as she rides, she needs to mentally erase them from her brain blackboard and substitute a picture of that totally focused, totally relaxed rider we talked about. She needs to feel that picture in her own body. We know that horses will mirror any tension a rider holds in her body. We also need to trust they will mirror our relaxation just as easily.
© 2013 Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre. Nancy Wesolek-Sterrett has earned numerous United States Dressage Federation horse awards including Bronze and Silver Medals on horses she has trained. She competes her horses at Training through FEI levels. As a Certified Riding Instructor she brings over 20 years of experience to her position as Head of the Dressage Department at Meredith Manor International Equestrian Centre (147 Saddle Lane, Waverly, WV 26184; 800-679-2603; www.meredithmanor.com), an ACCET accredited equestrian educational institution.
Equine Dentistry with Sedation
The use of sedation with dentistry has been a long standing practice in both human and veterinary medicine, and for good reason. After seeing numerous message board chats regarding sedation and equine dentistry, I think it is important to discuss why it is often recommended by veterinarians:
Quality of work. After the oral exam has been done and the floating has begun, it is important that it is done right and to completion. A fighting horse may end up with a traumatized oral cavity, or an incomplete procedure. Sedation also allows for excellent visualization and manual palpation of the oral cavity.
Safety. Horses are big, and even some of the smaller ones can do a lot of damage, even if it is unintentional. Having a calm patient helps keep the three participants (patient, handler/owner, veterinarian) involved in the procedure safer.
Bad experiences. Floating is meant to benefit the patient and make them feel better - not stressed or scared. Just like you may feel anxiety when you go to the dentist, so might a horse when someone suddenly shows up at her stall door to perform dental work. Sedation helps reduce this anxiety.
Sedation can best be thought of as mild anesthesia and is similar to the pre-medication you may have once received prior to surgery. While our equine patients are still somewhat aware of their surroundings, they become more tolerant of the work being done on and around them.
Here are some FAQs that I often receive regarding sedation:
“Will my horse lie down?”
This is probably the most common question I am asked. If done properly, then a sedated horse will hang his head, but not fall over or lie down. Horses evolved to sleep on their feet, and proper sedation will keep them upright and put them, as many like to say, “in la la land”. Horses may be laid down intentionally for certain procedures, but this is very rare in routine dental work.
“How long does sedation last?”
If done properly, sedation will allow for about 20-30 minutes of comfortable work. However I always recommend two hours without food to prevent any choke or the small chance of colic.
“How is the sedative given?”
Most commonly it is given intravenously in the jugular vein, but can be given intramuscularly. The benefits of intravenous administration are quick onset (2-3 minutes) and less medication that needs to be used.
“What medications are used?”
Most commonly I use a cocktail composed of xylazine (Rompun), detomidine, and butorphanol. Each patient is different and the amounts are varied depending on factors such as size, age, temperament, and amount of work to be done. Some veterinarians like to use acepromazine, but I do not.
“What side effects are there to sedation?”
Other than general sedation, there are few. The most common ones are increased sweating, increased urination, salivation, and penile prolapse. These are all transient and generally resolve after a few hours.
The idea of having your horse sedated for dental work may be concerning, but when done properly is safe and certainly has its benefits. As always, it is important that you discuss any concerns with your veterinarian prior to the sedation so that you may feel at ease with the procedure.
Michael Marshall, DVM
Equine Recurrent Uveitis “Moon Blindness”
Ocular diseases are among the most common health disorders of horses. Of these diseases Equine Recurrent Uveitis (ERU) commonly known as "moon blindess" is one of the most common causes of blindness. ERU has a high prevalence across horse breeds in the US and economic impact may be high due to factors including disruption in training, decreased performance, and disqualification of horses from competition due to medication use.
ERU is an immune mediated disease that has an increased incidence in Appaloosa and German Warmblood horses. ERU is a complex disease that is multi-factorial in origin related to the genetic make up of the individual and is strongly immune mediated. ERU involves all aspects of the equine eye however, the origin of the inflammation is centered around the uveal tract. The uveal tract is comprised of the iris (colored portion of the eye), ciliary body, and choroid. The iris you can see with the naked eye (this is usually blue or brown in horses) while the ciliary body and choroid cannot be visualized and are responsible for blood supply to the inner eye structures.
The disease can have three different clinical syndromes: classic ERU, insidious ERU, and posterior ERU. Classic ERU is the most common and the horse will show signs of pain. Insidious ERU involves gradual low-grade inflammation where the horse may not show any clinical signs of pain. Posterior ERU involves the back chamber of the eye and may or may not show signs of pain. Horses can have primary uveitis present due to an infection or inflammatory response without it recurring. Horses that experience an episode of uveitis are at risk to develop ERU however, are not classified as having ERU until 2 or more episodes of inflammation have been observed. If 2 or more years have passed without recurrence of a second episode the risk of developing ERU is diminished.
ERU may be further separated according to the stage of chronicity. “Active or acute” cases have pain associated with an acute inflammatory reaction that can manifest as excessive tearing, blinking, and holding the eye partially closed. “Quiescent” cases are comfortable and show little signs of active inflammation but will have chronic indications of inflammation on ocular exam by a veterinarian. “End stage” cases are usually eyes with chronic ERU with severe changes that lead to shrinking of the affected eye, cataract formation, and other changes that cause blindness.
As an owner is it important to take notice if your horse is displaying signs of pain (tearing, excessive blinking, holding the eye closed), if the eye has an abnormal appearance (grey/blue haze to surface, reddened conjunctiva), or your horse is acting like he is displaying signs of vision loss. If you notice any of these signs then contact your veterinarian to perform an ocular exam on your horse. If your horse is diagnosed with ERU the main goals for therapy are to preserve vision, decrease pain, and prevent or minimize the recurrence of flare-up episodes. This is done with a variety of ocular and systemic steroids and NSAIDS. Response to treatment is unpredictable and acute episodes may last a few days or several weeks. Some recurrences are mild and respond quickly to simple treatment while others may not show the same positive response to therapy. For horses with chronic documented ERU that are not experiencing inflammation and have frequent recurrences after stopping medication, surgery may be an option. Surgery is performed and a Cyclosporin A implant (immunosuppressive drug) is placed in the eye allowing slow release of the immunosuppressive agent. It usually takes 30-45 days for the concentration of the drug in the eye to be effective and can last for 5-9 years.
Unfortunately, the prognosis for ERU is usually poor for a cure to preserve vision. However, the disease can be controlled. One way to control recurrence is via proper stable management to decrease or eliminate inflammatory stimuli. It may be possible to eliminate environmental allergens that trigger recurrent episodes by changing the bedding, the pasture, stabling, increasing insect and rodent control, decreasing sun exposure, etc… You can also reduce trauma to the eye by eliminating sharp edges, nails, and hooks in the barn and taping up exposed handles on feed and water buckets, removing low tree branches in the pasture, and implementing constant use of a fly mask. It has also been reported that some horses with ERU have episodes stimulated by vaccines containing more than one kind of antigen or disease. It is therefore recommended that horses with ERU be given their annual vaccinations in at least 2 sessions spaced a week or more apart. Also pre-treating with NSAIDs such as Banamine 24 hours before vaccinations maybe helpful.
If you have any questions about Equine Recurrent Uveitis please contact your veterinarian or one of the veterinarians at New England Equine Medical and Surgical Center.
Ashley Taylor, DVMJacqueline Bartol, DVM, DACVIM
Food Stamps for Pets?
The federal Food Stamp program provides families with low income to purchase food. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, that included about 46.6 million people in 2012. What about their pets?
A new program called Pet Food Stamps provides free monthly home delivery of pet food and other necessary pet supplies to owners receiving food stamps or who are below the poverty line. The program’s founder and executive director, Marc Okon, says that more than 45,000 pets were signed into the donation-based program in just the past two weeks.
“We’re not looking for government funding at this point,” Okon told ABCNews.com. “Should the government be willing to provide assistance further down the line, we will look into it.”
Once a family is approved for funding by Pet Food Stamps, they will receive food for their pets for six months. Food will come from the pet food retailer, Pet Food Direct. The program is geared towards cats and dogs, but some other small animals may be accomodated.
A statement from Pet Food Stamps:
“The Pet Food Stamps program has been created to fill the void in the United States Food Stamp program which excludes the purchase of pet food and pet supplies. In these rough economic times, many pet owners are forced to abandon their beloved pet to the ASPCA, North Shore Animal League or other animal shelters due to the inability to pay for their basic food supply and care. There are over 50 million Americans who currently receive Food Stamps, many with dogs or cats, who simply cannot afford to feed their animals, and these cherished companions are dropped off at animal shelters where they will most likely be put to sleep.” It continues, “The Pet Food Stamps program, due to the generosity of contributors and patrons, are able to eliminate that heart-wrenching decision by making sure these pet owners are given free monthly home delivery of all necessary food supplies to maintain the health and vitality of their pets.”
The Silver Oak Jumper Tournament
Upcoming Events at Touchstone Farm
-February 23 RESCHEDULED, Sleighing Clinic...bring your own horse or use one of ours and Rock A Thon to support Barn Yard Buddies
-February 24 RESCHEDULED....Fun Sleigh Rally & Sleigh Rides, Bonfire...Open to the Public!
-February 23...POSTPONED Murder Mystery Dinner at Stepping Stone Lodge
-March 9...Touchstone Farm Lesson Program Spring Open House & Demonstrations and PF Camp Gathering in NYC for current campers and Alumnae
-March 15, 16, 17...Intro to Carriage Driving Clinic
-March 23...Art Gallery Gathering in MA
-April 12 to 14th...Spring Fling Pony Farm Camp Family Weekend!!!
Volunteer Opportunities at Touchstone Farm for Horse Power and Able Bodied Students
Touchstone Farm is a non-profit educational and therapeutic organization that fosters a community of belonging for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds. We offer a rich and challenging variety of experiences that include summer camps, riding and driving programs, a world class instructor training school, specialty weekends and a diverse educational opportunities, all of which culminate in building traditions that are both dynamic and timeless. Our professional staff strive to ensure that the experiences we offer are truly “Building Foundations that Last a Lifetime.”
We are seeking fun loving, energetic people over the age of 12 to volunteer in our 10 week lesson program, starting Monday March 18 thru the end of May. Classes are Monday thru Saturday, with different groups every day. Times vary with the groups starting at 10am running thru the afternoon. No horse experience needed, we will train you. Come be part of an amazing opportunity helping others. It is truly an experience you won’t soon forget. For more information, please contact Terri at 654-8562. Open House is on Saturday March 9 from 1 to 4. Volunteer Training is Sunday March 16 from 10 – 1.