Monthly Archives: February 2016

Compensation – What horses do when they hurt.

Anyone who’s ever injured themselves has likely experienced the effects of compensation. Sometimes these effects are even more uncomfortable than the initial injury, and if not dealt with can be very long lasting.

So what is compensation ?  As an equine sports therapist I would define it as any adaptation, in the form of soft tissue tension, the body makes for a disturbance to its normal state of equilibrium. This disturbance might be an injury, poor fitting tack, an internal imbalance or anIMG_8505 emotional state. All of these things can result in contraction of muscles which alter the body’s normal posture.  Think about what you do when you have an upset stomach. Most people hunch forward, tightening their abdominal muscles. Now imagine what would happen throughout your body if you stayed in that position for a week or two while going through your normal routine.? Likely you would be sore in many areas that have no direct connection to your stomach.

With my clients I have found that there may be common patterns of compensations through the body, but there is also a great variation between individuals that may have similar initial disturbances. It is my belief that the individuals compensatory pattern develops based on a number of factors.  These may include things like past injury, conformation, what has been done to support the body throughout the horses life, and personality.   For example, two horses could horses compensationhave similar injuries to their right front limb, one horse may lean on the left front more, and the other may refer weight to the hind end more due to a previous injury to the left front.  While both horses are adapting differently, they will both contract different sets of muscles than they normally would in order to support the posture they are using to cope.  As these muscles aren’t used to working so hard, they become fatigued and sore. This may result in differences in the horses movement and more layers of compensation in other areas, long after the initial disturbance has healed. Another example would be of two horses with similar injuries placed on stall rest, but one horse is very sensitive and excitable, while the other horse is very calm and quiet.  The calm horse might develop a pattern of compensation based on his postural changes while standing still. The sensitive horse might be moving non stop, even in the confinement of the stall, and so might build a pattern of compensation based on how he adapts his movement.

My own experience with compensation occurred after an injury to my foot. It wasn’t long before my opposite hip was sore, and eventually areas in my neck and shoulders, injured over ten years prior, became aggravated again. Symptoms similar to those I had experienced at the time of that injury reignited, which I had believed long since healed.  While the experience wasn’t fun, I found it very interesting to track the changes through my own body, thinking about the patterns that I have as a result of my life, and that an injury to my foot ultimately resulted in tension at the complete opposite end of my body.

One of the reasons the effects of compensation can be so wide reaching is due to a type of tissue in the body called fascia. Fascia is a three dimensional spider web that is saran wrapped around all of the body’s cells. Due to the fact that this is one continuous tissue, restriction in one area may spread anywhere else in the body.  A good visual of this is idea is to pinch an area of your shirt and twist.  Lines of tension radiate outwards from the site of the initial disturbance. If you had a patch in your shirt, this area is less flexible and more likely to be one of the areas the tension increases, which then pulls on strands radiating outwards from there as well.

So what can be done to help break this cycle?  Awareness of the compensation is the first step. Realistically, every horse has had some sort of injury or imbalance at some point in their life, so they will each have their own unique compensatory pattern, with varying degrees of severity and symptoms. Regularly checking the ranges of motion your horse has, or having a stretching protocol will help you identify when something has changed for your horse. Once we are aware, we need to look at what factors might be contributing. If there was an injury that is healed, then we can just begin working through the tension left behind. If there is an ongoing concern like stomach ulcers, an imbalanced rider, or poor fitting tack, these need to be dealt with. If these concerns are not addressed the tension will repeatedly show up, despite our best efforts to IMG_6494remove it. The horse may temporarily feel better, but in a very short period of time the tension will reappear.  After identifying and addressing the areas of greatest concern with some body work, the horses owner or rider can start doing specific stretches and exercises to further help the horse. What many people don’t realize is that the homework left by the body worker is often much more important in helping the horse than the body work itself! Stretching helps elongate the muscles, and exercises can target and help correct adaptive movements. Done on a consistent basis, these are powerful tools to assist your horse in returning to a more balanced state.

Compensation is great in that it allows us to continue functioning when we have suffered some sort of injury or imbalance. However, once we have dealt with that imbalance, addressing the compensation that resulted is vital to helping our horses return to their optimal comfort and performance level.



In the context of horse training, we often hear the word release when it’s associated with pressure. For example: you pressure the horse and when he responds, you release so he knows he got it right. That is a simplistic example which would require a much more detailed qualitative description in order to determine it’s acceptability within a horsemanship perspective: said pressure could be anything from a feather weight (a signal) on a rein to a whip in the butt (pain). Regardless, the pressure or signal you present to a horse is designed to elicit an expected response. When he responds the pressure stops; you then release the pressure.

There is another definition of release though, that when recognized has much more profound implications in your horse training regime.

This release is not one you provide the horse. Rather it is one that the horse experiences. One that is caused by you.

Pretend for a minute that you work in a small cubicle in a busy city office building. Your phone rings nonstop because you work in a complaints department. You want nothing more than a different job. At the end of the day, simply due to the stress, your neck and shoulders hurt. You have a headache. You are tense. Taking the bus home you’re frustrated at having to stop at every red light. Someone on the bus asks you a question but you’re so stressed you can’t even consider an answer.

This isn’t a far fetched scenario. I was recently listening to a radio program while driving to train some horses, and the topic was how commuting office-types have the highest incidences of stress-related illness.

horse panic

A stressful day at the office.

Keep pretending with me here. You get home. Upon opening the door your spouse is right there. He or she recognizes the state you’re in, takes you by the hand and sits you down on the couch. They then stand behind you and give you the best neck / shoulder massage you’ve ever had. Within seconds, you start to relax. The tension you’ve been holding in your muscles evaporates. The apprehension and negativity that’s been clouding your thoughts like a thunderstorm gives way to a bright sunny day. You could easily imagine yourself on a tropical beach with no cares in the world. When you get up, you’re able to think clearly; to focus. When you walk to the kitchen, your neck and shoulders don’t hurt; you move with freedom. To quote the phrase: it feels like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders.

You are experiencing a mental and physical release.

Some time ago I was working with a student. I was introducing the concept of release as it pertains to a horse; the initial steps of asking for and recognizing tiny releases in her mare. At one point she blurted, “But he’s not doing it!”

This comment spurred this article. Of course, when we ask a horse for something, we expect to see or feel something happen. For beginners, sometimes the thing we need to see or feel has to be somewhat exaggerated. And that’s OK. Our horsemanship senses become honed with experience, and that comes with time and practice. However, many times what the horse does is very minute. So honing this skill is going to require a bit of guesswork. Consider using this adage: If you think the horse did it, they probably did. If you got it wrong, no big deal. But what if their response was very minute and you missed it? Your horse would think their try was incorrect. Better to err in the other direction.

Go back to our scenario again. Say you’re the one giving the massage. How do you know if you’re being effective? Most likely you will sense the person becoming calm. There will be obvious physical signs: relaxing of muscles, closing of eyes perhaps… What if this scenario repeats itself a couple of times per week with your spouse? Soon, you’re going to know by feel – both physical and empathic – how he or she is responding to your touch. And it might take less, each time.

This is the same with horses. To hone our senses, we try to observe and feel the minuscule. To produce this not only requires a light touch, but it also requires that we are relaxed as well. It’s impossible to feel small things if you’re tense, for example, pulling on the lead rope.

horsemanship release

Belle – Ready to Ride

So back to our hypothetical situation. You know when your spouse has relaxed. An observer might not, simply because they’re looking for overt physical moves. In the horse world, this could be a lowering of the head; a common response when a horse relaxes. Consider two things:

  1. A lowering of the head does not necessarily mean the horse has relaxed. They can put their head down and be tense, angry or scared. It’s simply a movement.
  2. A horse relaxing may lower his head. He may not. Depending on what the situation is, his head might already be in a perfect vertical position.

Before we go any further I’ll clear one thing up – I’m not advocating sitting your horse down on the couch and giving him a massage. Although he’d love it, I’m certain your couch would not. Taking a horse to a state of release is a skill we can learn over time. As the trainer and horse gain experience and build their relationship, that time is lessened. Ultimately the horse releases on the feel of the rein or simply your energy and the space you create around him.

horse peaceful spaceTy is the herd leader. Years ago, I keyed into something he does and began teaching myself to emulate it. This was before I’d taken any ‘formal’ training on release.

Generally, the herd follows Ty and does what he does. Go for a drink. Eat, Sleep. Play. I’ve been given the gears for pictures of me stretched out in the grass, under the sun, with a sleeping horse.

But I find complete peace in that space: I can take 5 minutes and not think about work, training a horse, paying bills or the other items on my to-do list. I believe it’s truly health for us to spend some time like that each day. I can step into the pasture with a lot on my mind, and leave with a smile on my face.

A long time ago I realized what draws me is the energetic space that horses create around themselves when they relax. I observe this from a scientific point of view as well: when Ty relaxes, the other members of the herd migrate closer to him and relax. I have witnessed, countless times, Ty standing…with every other horse sleeping in the grass around him.

The question I had was, “Can people create this for a horse?”

Part of this I view as common sense. If my goal is to be a leader for a horse, then my goal is to have them follow me not only in motion, but in thought and energy. This isn’t any different than a good boss in an office of cubicles. We have work to do, but when the boss comes in with a smile and radiates positive energy, it changes the whole feel in the office.

I’ve seen a couple tests of my theory. I’ve taken Ty out of the herd several times for therapeutic massage. Obviously this feels good to him and he releases. What happens next? Slowly other horses drift closer to him. They’ll stand a few feet away, with their heads lowered, eyes half closed…just taking it in.

The answer to the question, then, is “yes.” From the perspective of a horse, it’s simply a basic leadership quality. And just like Ty, in order to cause a horse to be at peace, you first have to create it in yourself.

What I was starting in on with my student was asking the horse to release at the poll. Lets quickly differentiate between the horse moving and the horse releasing. A movement is simply that; a release is both:

  1. The ‘turning off’ of certain muscles: those that are used to brace against or in expectation of something negative;
  2. The release of mental tension.

Just the same as your response to the massage would be both physical and mental.

My answer to the student was, “You’re not looking for him to make a big movement. Think of his release as a place he’s going to versus a thing he does.” I believe a release is the absence of tension, both mental and physical. It’s not a thing they do, it’s a state they’re in. So how do you know it’s happening?

Like I mentioned, this is a skill that you hone. There are some very minute signs that are obvious to me: relaxation of facial muscles, particularly those around the eye and jaw. Movement and positioning of they eye and ear. Sometimes a lowering of the head but certainly a relaxation of certain??muscles. More than all of that, though, it’s something I feel, empathically and energetically, from the horse. Often when I feel them release, particularly when working with a horse new to experiencing this with people, it’s simultaneous with a sigh or licking and chewing.

And what’s left? From a mental perspective: Clarity. Peace. From the physical: the ability to move freely without inhibition from tense muscles. The entire objective is to set the stage for them to learn and move with freedom.

horsemanship release wildie

Judy and her wildie mare, Shakti. Notice how relaxed the horse is and how fluid she is moving.

Why is this important? I believe it’s more than important, it’s absolutely fundamental. A horse is not an animal that can multi-task high level thought processes. Humans can, with training. For example, a soldier is trained to think while in battle instead of panic and run. That requires a clarity of thought. It requires the ability to sort through multiple inputs and make sound decisions. In my previous career as an airline pilot, our training involved the worst scenarios; training to think under pressure. That thinking must originate from a place of mental clarity. ‘Freaking out’ does not result in proper actions or decisions.

In most cases and assuredly in training – taking a horse to a place of release is the prerequisite to asking them to try anything. It’s in that place that what you ask actually means something to them because they’re mentally prepared to accept and learn, and physically able to move freely.

I often use the following analogy: consider standing on the deck of a ship in a raging ocean. You toss a pebble into that rough sea. What difference will it make? None. Now consider a totally calm lake. So calm you can see the reflection of the clouds above you with perfect clarity. Toss a pebble into the lake. You’ll see the ripples for a long distance and for a long time.

Your horse’s mind is the water. Is it a raging ocean or a calm lake? If it’s storming between his ears: he’s scared, tense, apprehensive, offensive, focused on some important herd thing or what not, then he’s not in a mental state to learn or perform. Your responsibility is to recognize this, particularly if you’re the one that created it. Your next action is to get him to release…to relax and let go.

Your ability to consistently achieve this will prove to him that you are a capable herd leader. He’ll learn that when with you, you’ll take care of his issues. The products of this are enormous: trust, try and connection on the deepest level.

amazing horse country - horsemanship

Helping Jet to release.

You might be thinking, “Well, this doesn’t apply to me because I participate in [insert high-energy equine sport here].” On the contrary it’s fairly important. Consider an Olympic sprinter. High energy? You bet! But are they panicking and flailing around in the starting block? Are they so tense they can hardly move? Not likely. They’ll be focusing with a clear mental picture. Their muscles will be ready to move, but not locked up. They are physically and mentally prepared to achieve the utmost of their athletic ability. The great thing is, it can be the same with your horse. He’s the athlete, you’re the coach. Set him up to win.

What happened with my client and her horse? Her gelding, tension no longer a factor, was much more attentive and in tune with her owner’s space and energy. He moved with fluidity. At the end of the session my student said, “Look at how proud he is!” I had to agree.

And like most things horse, it’s both a matter of common sense and choice. Common sense tells us that if we ignore our horse’s concerns, the horse might end up physically doing what we want, but we’ve missed the deepest and most enduring part of our training. Common sense also says that if we take the time to consider our horse’s mental state and work with that to produce athletic ability, we’re going to end up with a fine horse. And the choice is up to you.

If you’re interested in advancing your horsemanship, learning about equine bio-mechanics or having fun on our huge obstacle course, check out our calendar of events.