This week, we hear from frequent guest columnist Emily Thomas Luciano. Together with her father, Jim Thomas, Luciano is coordinating the Healthy Horse Seminar, March 3-5, in PittsboSiler City, North Carolina. Click here to check it out.
Where else can you learn the literal ins-and-outs of a horse in one weekend? From the brain to the stomach, the trigeminal nerve to the hind gut, the Healthy Horse Seminar in Siler City, N.C. will delve into evidence-based best practices for horses.
“We’re very much looking forward to bringing in such accomplished and knowledgeable guests,” said event organizer Jim Thomas of Bar T Horsemanship. “Evidence-Based Horsemanship has probably influenced my horsemanship more than any one individual, book or DVD, so we’re
especially excited to host Dr. Peters for the seminar.”
Evidence-Based Horsemanship co-author Dr. Stephen Peters will be the headliner for the weekend. As a neuropsychologist and horseman, he has a very unique perspective on horse training and care. He’ll even lead a horse brain dissection!
Attendees will also have the opportunity to learn about equine nutrition from Harmany Equine’s Dr. Joyce Harman, world reknown holistic and integrative veterinarian, on Saturday.
Sunday, a veterinarian from the N.C. State Vet School will talk parasite control and will teach participants how to conduct their own fecal tests!
Here’s the schedule for the weekend:
Friday, March 3:
5-8 p.m.: FREE teaser session with Dr. Stephen Peters, co-author of Evidence-Based Horsemanship. Welcome session with booklet handout, Meet & Greet, PowerPoint presentation by Dr. Peters and discussion. Dinner will be served ($10).
Saturday, March 4:
9 a.m.-2 p.m.: GET TO KNOW YOUR HORSE’S BRAIN: Dr. Peters will lecture about horse brain structure and development, neurochemistry, neuroanatomy, horse behavior as it relates to brain function, and how to apply that knowledge to proper training and management practices.
3-5 p.m.: NUTRITION: Dr. Joyce Harman, world renown holistic and integrative veterinarian, will talk nutrition. From forages to feeds, probiotics to supplements, Dr. Harman will talk about what your horse really needs and what he can deal without.
Sunday, March 5:
9 a.m.-2 p.m.: GET TO KNOW YOUR HORSE’S BRAIN: Dr. Peters will continue his discussion about about the horse brain and lead a dissection.
3-5 p.m.: A veterinarian from the N.C. State Vet School will talk parasites, control and will teach participants how to conduct their own fecal tests.
The cost for the weekend is $250 with dinner included Saturday and Sunday. To register, click here.
Continuing our conversation on Core Fitness, we spoke with accomplished physical therapist, Beth Austin, of Santa Cruz, California. A runner and dancer, Austin rode often as a girl and has an excellent sense of the horse-rider partnership. The therapist and seminar leader works with a wide range of athletes and patients and says, “I have a passion for helping others learn to move in ways that will
keep them active and enjoying their bodies.”
Next week, Katrin Kuenstler, rider and Pilates instructor, discusses her perspective.
Read more about core work from:
Beth Austin writes:
Core strength needs to be dynamic and intelligent. The muscles must learn how to respond appropriately to the information they receive. This is a very particular kind of muscle intelligence that may involve clearing out some neural patterning that has become habitual but also dysfunctional.
Re-patterning is essential. Think of an orchestra: if all the parts know how to tune their instruments and play the full spectrum of their range, they can play anything well with just a little practice. Now consider the many muscles which involve core strength, if we are stuck in a shortening habit (like each instrument being able to play only one note at one volume or timing) it is very difficult to create a new, more graceful, informed movement patterns until the shortened pattern that limits movement intelligence is untangled and trained out.
Trying to ride without breaking down your ability to stabilize the center of gravity may not cause too many problems if:
- you are naturally balanced in your body
- you don’t have tissue restrictions that send asymmetrical patterns through you and to the horse.
However, the more we repeat movement patterns, the more we increase the possible detrimental effects of unbalanced movement patterns and the more we turn them into nervous system freeways that are harder to re-route toward balance.
Check out additional articles on neuroscience:
The way many people are “training” their core support can be very detrimental. Incorrect training, however well-intended, may end up compressing the lumbar spine, hips, and limiting mobility range and the ability to respond to incoming information… creating all
manner of real problems for their bodies and their effectiveness as riders, athletes, or just humans.
If lengthening control is incorporated into the strength training and if core muscles and hip flexors are trained into long fluid stability, then the results can make all our body’s movements more easeful and enjoyable.
Unfortunately, some people may effectively lock themselves up in the low back and pelvis and are core “dumb” even though they can plank for minutes. There is a lot of “bad” core training going on out there where people do sit ups or other exercises that make their center of gravity more rigid. The same is true with pelvic floor: there is so much intelligence to be developed beyond Kegel contractions. Indeed, there is a world of lengthening and non-symmetrical control that is essential for clear communication through one’s seat in riding.
Reading a fair amount of physical therapy research, I can say our mainstream measurement tools and perspectives come up very short for measuring some of the essential components of core stability. Too often, the training leads to static shortening for activity that requires dynamic strength and responsiveness.
Next week, Katrin Kuenstler, rider and Pilates instructor, discusses her perspective.
The BestHorsePractices Summit is a Colorado nonprofit with 501 (c)(3) status.
This week, we also heard from two early sponsors on how they are thrilled to be a part of the conference. Redmond Equine and Darn Tough are excellent fits for our conference as you’ll see here:
More and more, we see science confirming what we suspected all along: that nature and natural settings are often healthiest for horses (and their humans!). That’s what we embrace at Redmond Equine, too.
Session sponsor Lucerne Farm is based in Easton and Fort Fairfield. The company fits our values and mindset to a T: a small firm with a high quality product that’s great for owners and their equines.
Please support our fabulous sponsors as they support the BHPS efforts!
For years, our readers have enjoyed the news and perspective from horsewoman Amy Skinner of Essence Horsemanship. Through dozens of guest columns, Skinner has conveyed wisdom and thoughtfulness that belie her age (she’s 27). Read her articles here.
This year, Skinner took her talents and horses from Michigan to North Carolina, where she now works with BestHorsePractices Summit presenter, Jim Thomas.
At Bar T Horsemanship in Pittsboro, Thomas takes in a wide range of horse projects and starts scores of colts for owners of all disciplines. He described the work:
“We build a strong foundation for the horse, no matter the discipline. These young horses are exposed to arena work, trail rides, lots of horse-human time. We stress them in order to expand their bubble, so that they are open to learning a lot. When they leave here, after one to three months, they leave with a smile on their face. I think they’re saying, ‘Hey, my time with humans has been pretty good so far!’” said Thomas.
Skinner rides English and Western and has been a student at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain and with Buck Brannaman, Brent Graef, and many others.
“Amy is working out beautifully. She’s a hard worker and I trust her,” said Thomas. “Too many trainers think you need to be harder, stronger, tougher, and meaner when you run into a problem with a horse. Amy is not too quick to scold. She understands the patience required with horse work. She understands enough to say to the horse, ‘let’s back up, find solid ground, and then we can move forward.’”
Good job, Amy! Sounds like a great arrangement for horses and humans alike.
You’ll be able to visit with Skinner and Thomas at the BestHorsePractices Summit.
There’s a lot of research out there disparaging multitasking. Scientists say it’s inefficient. They say ideal productivity and
efficiency requires focus.
But often horse handling requires a certain lack of focus and an ability to take in, understand, and react to multiple developments all at the same time. The key, I say, is to be in that moment.
When I visited with BestHorsePractices Summit presenter Warwick Schiller in Phoenix last weekend, we shared some thoughts on the issue. His video “rant” (his words, not mine) explains so-called Freak Accidents and the many warning signs horses give us leading up to these usually completely avoidable accidents. Watch it here.
Consider working with a horse in a paddock with other horses:
As you approach a horse for haltering, you must assess:
- His temperament
- His location and relationship compared to the other horses (like whether he likes to screen himself or whether he gets bullied)
- How hungry they may be.
- How bothered by bugs they may be.
- How does he move through gates?
- Will the others want to come, too?
- How well does that gate close?
You answer these questions by:
- Watching ears and lips and tails.
- Watching for bracing or willingness.
- Listening for movement that you might not see.
- Being aware of the environmental conditions (like an approaching storm or slippery surfaces)
Our work is not unlike that of an Office Manager or Stay-at-Home parent. On any given moment, working with horses requires us to be all there, but it doesn’t require us to focus on just one thing. If we were to focus on just haltering a horse, we might end up hurt or horses might get loose.
The wider lens often serves us better.
Read article on Feel.
Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years. Read her article on Contact here.
Silva has competed successfully through fourth level dressage on quarter horses, Morgans, Arabians, Hanoverians, and many other breeds. Based in New Mexico, she enjoys improving horse-rider partnerships and firmly believes that good riding is always good riding, no matter which type of tack a horse is wearing. Check out her blog here.
Here, Silva responds to our discussion on the Wendy Murdoch piece which questioned the need for core strength. Physical therapist Beth Watson wrote about it here.
I agree with the point this article is making, but disagree with the conclusion that riders should not work on their core strength.
- Yes, functional core stability is more important than pure core strength or a set of six-pack abs for good riding.
- Yes, using one’s entire body through “exercises such as hula hooping, dance, swimming, walking” is a great thing.
- Yes, children don’t do planks and still can ride horses for hours. All true.
The riders I teach are mostly adult amateurs, in their forties, fifties, sixties and even seventies. Most of them are women, and most of them would not describe themselves as athletes. They spend long hours sitting in front of computers at work, so they can afford the pleasure of riding their horse for an hour a day.
My students want to be better riders. A big part of that goal is more effective communication with their horses, and a big part of communicating more effectively with a horse is to use one’s seat in a clear, precise manner. Riders follow the horse’s back with their own back, which allows them to feel what the horse is doing.
The type of “melting into the horse’s back” that I try to teach means that the riders back follows the horse’s back, which requires a constant tightening and releasing of one’s core muscles, even at a walk. This tightening and relaxing happens subconsciously for an experienced rider, or a child, but it still happens. A rider who can’t sit the trot is often tense or stiff, but just as often weak in the core. Most of the time, it’s a combination of both.
There’s more to good riding than passively following the horse’s back, though a following seat is a prerequisite for a truly effective seat. The ultimate goal is to “sit the movement you want the horse to execute.” On a well-trained horse, I half-halt, stop my seat, and the horse stops. I sit a bigger trot, and the horse extends. I turn my shoulders, and the horse does a shoulder-in, etc. It is like dancing, with the rider being the leading partner.
So, core strength in and of itself does not make a rider better, but it’s nevertheless necessary. And many of the riders I work with have cores that are so weak that regular planking benefits them immensely.
And one more point about functional exercises mentioned by Beth Watson:
Riding itself, if done correctly, is an excellent way of gaining the type of functional core strength and stability most of us need more of. When I rode ten horses a day, every day, my abs were in excellent shape without the daily planking I have to do now to maintain them.
Last year, in the pages of NickerNews and BestHorsePractices, we focused on rider fitness and weight. That’s because there is mounting evidence showing we do our horses and our horsemanship a sizeable favor by being fit and on weight.
- They are ranchers with no college education
- They are white collar, weekend riders
- They are professional clinicians.
- They are high level dressage riders
As they step effortlessly into the saddle and nurture a healthy, relaxed connection with their horses, they share one invisible flaw: a Western diet. It’s high in fat and sugar and even in folks who are fit and athletic, it can have a negative impact.
I’m one of them. For years, I justified a bad diet with the smugness of being fit and active. For scrutiny’s sake, my fitness is defined here:
— 5’7,”135 pounds
— Daily aerobic exercise (hiking, horse work, etc)
–Daily strength exercise (ranch work supplemented with gym time)
I’ve also justified an American grab-and-go meal attitude, telling myself I was too busy and apathetic to make a healthier sit-down meal, like a hearty salad or something with vegetables. Common culprits in my diet (followed by rationale):
— PayDay bars (hey, they have peanuts)
— Donut for breakfast (hey, I’ll burn them off by lunch)
— Cereal and yogurt instead of a real meal (hey, the cereal has vitamins and I’m a woman so I need the calcium)
— Dessert after every meal
But as Dr. Steve Peters would like to remind me, even crummy diets camouflaged by fit bodies can impact our health. This study reported that even lean individuals drinking as little as one soda per day increase their risk of getting diabetes by 18 percent. Fruit juice is not an innocent substitute since it is still high in sugar.
At Intermountain Health in Utah, Dr. Peters has given scores of presentations that connect healthy eating with healthy aging and brain activity. He advocates a vegan diet. So does the huge health conglomerate Kaiser Permanente. Read their directive to doctors and patients here.
But frankly I cannot stomach veganism or stay fortified all day without something more than plants. I talked with my doctor who was, thankfully, not so hard core. He urged a modified Mediterranean diet that includes some dairy and meat. Vegetables, fruit, whole grains, nuts, and beans, should rule my days, the doctor said.
But change is hard.
One of the most impactful books I’ve read lately is the Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, by Charles Duhigg. It’s helped me understand the importance of doing things right the first time and the challenge of undoing the wrong thing.
It’s also relevant to reshaping food intake after decades of unhealthy practices. I know, for instance, that my craving for something sweet is physiological, psychological, and neurological. The cravings and indulgences aren’t just weaknesses. They are neural pathways which end in that satisfying release of dopamine. In other words, it feels good to have a cookie. Healthier habits are actually about carving new neural pathways. Grabbing a cookie is my mind’s fast track; not grabbing a cookie is bushwhacking through the wilderness in neurological terms.
Self-reform has been a blend of tricks and mindfulness. Some strategies:
- Taking the dogs for a walk right after a meal
- Buying better coffee that doesn’t need sweetener
- Eating graham crackers instead of fat- and sugar-laden cookies (most graham crackers have only a few grams of sugar and almost zero fat)
- If I can resist buying it in the first place, then temptations are simply out of reach. This is simple if, like me, you live miles and miles from the nearest store.
I’m a work in progress. But as Julie Kenney has so articulately written, we all are. I no longer eat entire rolls of Life Savers in one sitting or sneak whole cans of frosting out of the cupboard, like I did as a kid. I’m a grown-up and am finally trying to take nutrition seriously.
Beth Watson is a physiotherapist living in Perth, Australia. Here, she lends yet another excellent point of view to our focus on Rider Fitness, especially core fitness.
Clinician Wendy Murdoch suggested in a recent article that “core strength is counterproductive to good riding.” We disagree.
Watson, owner of Performance Physiotherapy, works with horses and riders. We welcome her as a contributor. Read more Rider Fitness articles here.
The core, particularly in a rider, is not isolated but one part of your entire body moving in concert: think of the spine as a tower encased in a cushioned barrel. There are back extensors, abdominals, diaphragm, pelvic floor, and glutes forming an airbag cushioning system around the spine.
You want to be able to be able to move your spine in all directions and be able to activate this support network efficiently. Ms. Murdoch mentions the healthy core and posture of a baby – that’s because babies use their cores in a variety of postures throughout the day. I would love to see adults do this, but most adults spend at least six hours at a desk per day. Adult musculoskeletal life is not at all like a baby.
To add to this, if you have a back injury, your body goes all out of whack; fast and slow twitch muscle fibers decondition at different rates. Instead of providing a beautiful cushioning system, this deconditioning contributes to poor posture and alignment and can cause more pain. If you spend lots of time at a desk, this issue will only be exacerbated.
This is why specific core retraining programs can be useful. Please note that this training is distinct from balance work. Balance
is equally as important but needs to be addressed specifically.
You do not have to do heaps of repetitions of non-functional exercises in order to improve core strength. Functional training should be the star of your show. It’s all about awareness of your body and what muscles are activating and being able to take that movement memory into lots of situations. Having core strength for us mere mortals isn’t about doing the plank for hours. It’s about moving your spine in a healthy way.
Training equestrian riders to have a strong core is much more complex than prescribing exercise. Mental awareness and visualization of this system and how it works can be as important as the physical strength itself. If the ability to fine tune and accurately activate the muscles in the riders back is not there, it is impossible to tweak your position to go with the horse, and indeed help the horse through its work.
If you are a rider who:
- already has a strong core
- spends little time at a desk
- has no previous injuries
Having good core strength correlates with a healthy spine and good posture. It’s essential for riders to carry out their sport.
For the average rider who may be time-poor, it may be more appropriate to focus on training movement in a way that activates the muscles appropriately as opposed to focusing only on ‘core strength’ training. An example that comes to mind is the plank exercise which may encourage incorrect activation of the core muscles in some cases.
A combination of mental visualization, understanding the core unit, functional training through daily activities, and specific strengthening provides the greatest benefit in the least amount of time. Riders can find ways to train smarter, not harder. Remember core strength is still essential for those who wish to ride and train their horses with success.