I’m pretty sure that Ray Hunt and Tom Dorrance didn’t know anything about muscle memory, increasing range of motion or proprioception. All they knew about horses was if they “moved their feet” on the ground as preparation then their horses moved better and it was easier to get them to perform more complicated maneuvers under saddle. So we now have a new generation of “Natural Horsemen” who “move their horses feet” just in the same way that the masters did. The funny thing is that this new generation doesn’t understand what they are doing to the body physiologically either – they are just copying what had been done before them. What they do know is that it works – and if it works then you keep doing it.
Those of us that are aging know the importance of keeping our joints moving. We know that adding a routine of stretching and exercise that targets stiff areas keeps us getting out of bed every morning and moving throughout the day. Repetitive use injuries encompass things like carpal tunnel syndrome, tennis elbow, and plantar fasciitis. These injuries to the body are created by repeating the same motion or movements over and over causing strain and shortening of the muscles that control the action. This shortening of the muscles then places strain on the tendons and creates pain and inflammation. Research shows that if the person changes position and stretches frequently that these injuries can be avoided. So why is it that we do the same repetitive motion things to our horses? This is the same scenario that causes a horse to end up with suspensory problems or tendon injuries. Most riding routines involve ring work – working the horse on the rail in both directions. Maybe crossing through the center of the ring to change directions. However, this is a situation of classic repetitive use.
So what if we take a lesson from Ray Hunt, but look at it from another angle. Proprioceptors are nerve components that tell us where we are in space. They control our movements and tell our joints how far to extend or open. When there is joint or muscle damage to the body the proprioceptors tell the body not to allow full movement or extension of the joint to avoid further damage. These nerve components effectively limit range of motion or from a horse person’s perspective – cause a horse to move “short.” In Natural Horsemanship this is often called “a brace.” Muscle memory comes into play because even after the pain from the injury is resolved, the body will remain in the injured state until the proprioceptors are “reset” and muscles can return to their normal healthy length. This can only be accomplished by “proving” to the body that it is no longer injured. In horses, being prey animals, the fight or flight instinct is extremely strong. Because of this, all of the survival mechanisms are heightened. This survival mechanism is responsible for initiating the inflammatory response. The inflammatory response essentially prevents normal movement and causes restriction so that the horse can escape danger on an injured limb with out causing further damage to the area.
In people, injuries are treated with physical therapy. Therapy would involve massage, exercise and stretching that can speed healing restore normal movement. With horses, injury is treated with rest. Initially rest is good – it will prevent the horse from moving too much and creating more damage. However, rehabilitation should be initiated early in the process once the risk of bleeding is over. This is the same protocol that is used in human therapy. For old injuries or restrictions caused by repetitive use – then targeted exercise and stretching are called for. Since manually stretching horses can be dangerous for the person doing the stretching and horses tend to resist stretching – ground exercises are a better choice. So here we are – back at Ray Hunt. Resetting proprioceptors can only be accomplished by making the horses’ body aware that the injury is healed. The fight or flight instinct has to be overridden and target movements and exercise initiated.
by Theresa Gagnon
Theresa Gagnon is a Certified Veterinary Technician and Licensed Massage Therapist. She was the Director of Animal Programs at the Bancroft School of Massage Therapy in Worcester, MA, and a partner with Jodi Clark in mending Fences Equine Wellness. Theresa’s specialties include craniosacral fascial therapy for animals, rehabilitative massage and modalities, and gait analysis. She can be reached at the school www.HorseAndDogMassage.com , through her own website
www.FreeMovementMassage.com or through www.MendingFencesEquine.com.