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By Meredith Hodges
In Part 1 of What’s the Difference? we began to define a few of the things that are unique to my training program. At the beginning of my career, it wasn’t long before I realized that, if I wanted to improve my skills and get a better response from my long-eared equine partners, I had to go back to the beginning, start over and pay close attention to what they needed from me at each stage of training in order to accurately perform what I was asking. When I did, lessons truly became a resistance-free, cooperative effort!
I soon realized that leading training had more value than just teaching to lead, tie and perfect technique for a showmanship class. For instance, holding the lead rope in the left hand while pointing to where I was going with the right hand, and using the right hand to maintain the position of the equine, was an important way to allow him to be responsible for his own balance with minimal interference. When I was holding the lead in my right hand, every movement of my hand caused him to have a slight loss of balance. Having the fanny pack of crimped oats strapped to my waist kept his attention on me and prevented him from forging ahead or running off entirely. Teaching the trot on the lead rope was much easier.
I soon discovered that the equine would actually measure his stride to mine when I paid attention to my own posture during leading and kept my steps and stops rhythmic and in synchronization with his. When I kept my transitions from walk to stop smooth and fluid and stopped with my feet together, so did he. When I was consistent about asking him to square up and put equal weight over all four feet at every stop, he would soon make the adjustment himself when I turned to face him. I saw an improvement in balance and strength as I kept my walking lines straight and my turns smooth, working on a gradual arc rather than abrupt turns.
When I saw the difference in the equine’s at-rest position and play patterns, it was evident to me that the muscles at the core that surround the skeletal system were becoming stronger from these passive, isometric exercises. The mind of each animal was more alert and tuned into our tasks, and there was no real incidence of disobedience when I did my part correctly. In the quest to improve their strength and balance, I improved my own substantially.
On the obstacle course, the task is first to instill confidence and trust. When you lead, and use the crimped oats reward, it alleviates fear in the equine and gives them the motivation to explore. Over time, he begins to trust your judgment. When you put obstacles in comfort zones where they eat and rest, it will create anxiety instead of instilling confidence. In my estimation, equines aren’t really afraid of the obstacles themselves. It’s just a fear of being trapped or hurt.
But there is further value in obstacle training on the lead rope. With flatwork leading training, you have cultivated strength and balance in the equine at the core and are now ready to add coordination. Once the equine has learned to negotiate the obstacles without fear, he is then ready to go back through the obstacles and learn coordination by breaking these obstacles down into much smaller steps.
At each obstacle, approach, stop and square up in front of each obstacle. Then ask for the front feet to be placed into the obstacle, stop and square up. Then ask that all four feet be placed into the obstacle, stop and square up. Then ask for the two front feet to exit the obstacle, leave the hind feet within the obstacle, stop and square up. Then exit the obstacle, stop and square up once more before leaving the obstacle.
This approach teaches the equine to stop and rebalance at every new position throughout the obstacle. It builds body awareness as well as adding coordination. You will see that they are not really as balanced as you might think when you ask them to put the two front feet off the far side of the bridge while leaving the hind feet on the bridge. The equine will generally try to keep going forward, or the hind end will pass the front end as it falls off the bridge. When he is capable of doing so, he will be able to hold the position, but you might have to provide assistance the first few times in this awkward position.
You will soon discover after this kind of training that you no longer get your feet stepped on, and that they will avoid stepping on hoses during baths, or cords during clipping. They are truly more able to effectively balance their own bodies. And when you begin lunging in the round pen, the equine is better able to comply with your wishes to balance correctly on the circle at walk and trot. Movement will be more rhythmic with smooth and fluid transitions.
When allowed to freely move in the round pen at walk and trot, the animal who has had the benefit of detailed leading training will exhibit better balance than the one who has not. When he canters, the unbalanced equine will want to raise his head, and hollow his neck and back in varying degrees. In order for him to continue to build muscle in the correct frame, I use an aid I developed called the “Elbow Pull” to help maintain good posture and balance. I was first introduced to this concept by Richard Shrake. If the equine is allowed to exercise with the head and neck raised, he would build muscle out of good equine posture. That would need to be corrected later, and would cause disobedience during the lessons due to soreness, especially if done with a rider on his back. Strengthening the equine body in the correct posture first with the “Elbow Pull” and without the rider will prevent this problem. In addition, with this device, the equine will be started in a snaffle bit with the desired direct rein communication and will learn to be submissive and light in the bridle.
This originally disturbed the Dressage community until I was able to explain its function. This is a self-correcting aid for the equine. It does not force him to keep his head down. Rather, it simply does not allow him to raise his head too high and invert his neck and back. He is free to raise his head, but if too high, it puts pressure on the poll, on the bit, behind the forearms and over the back. It suggests that he lower his head and stretch the muscles across the entire top line in correct vertical flexion. When he is in good posture, all pressure is released and muscle is built symmetrically throughout the entire body in balance and good posture.
When doing exercise in the round pen, if verbal cues and rewards are consistent, your equine actually learns verbal communication in conjunction with body language and his understanding will increase much like a child’s does in grammar school. Equines may not be able to speak English, but they can certainly learn to understand it. Being in good posture will begin to facilitate correct lateral bend to his body and build those muscles in correct posture. He will offer the canter when he is strong enough, so forcing canter is not necessary. Turning him into the fence for the reverse will set him up for the correct diagonal at trot and the correct lead at canter allowing him to make transitions easily and smoothly.
When the equine’s body is developed properly, he will be strong enough and will have the necessary control of his own body to handle the added shifting weight of the rider. Most equines struggle with their own awkwardness and before they get control of their own bodies, they are asked to deal with the awkwardness of the rider at the same time. This often results in perceived disobedience. The equine that is stable in his core muscles and body carriage will be better able to help the rider maintain and improve his own balance and control. Bucking and bolting cease to be a problem.
Learning certain moves is easy and takes much less time, but for maximum performance there is no substitute for taking the time to properly build and condition the muscles that will support your equine’s good postural frame. If you are willing to put in the time and effort necessary, the result will be an animal that is happy and comfortable in his work, light in the bridle and a beautiful mover. Your relationship and performance will soar to unimaginable levels!
To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter.
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Roll had a good massage today! He seems to really enjoy the new Equisport massager. You can always tell when your equine enjoys his massage because he will “talk” to you along the way. Notice how Roll is pushing his hip into the massager in the first photo? That means, “Feels so good… go deeper!”
His left hind is often a bit sore from his twisting in the right hind, so he isn’t too sure about it at first, but the right hip is a different story and he relaxes. He even slid his hind leg slightly forward to allow Joanne to massage deeper.
It seemed that the left shoulder is a bit sore and he gives her a stern look of “Be careful now.”
Joanne spoke back to Roll with “I hear you! So we’ll go to the other side and move on to something else.” Roll responded with, “Oh, yes, this is a better spot!” as he relaxed his hind foot and leaned into the massager again.
Roll rounded his neck to look back to her and said, “Are you wearing a fanny pack full of oats today?”
Joanne responded with, “Nope, sorry! How about an eyeball massage?”
Roll leaned into the massager and went to town pushing his eye into the massager while Joanne just held it steady. He was in seventh heaven!
When it came to his ears, Roll went into a trance and enjoyed every minute of his full face massage!
Then she went across his back and over his rear end to finish. Roll looked at her as if to say, “Thanks for a GREAT massage…feels soooo good!”
After Rock’s death in 2011, Roll spent the last 7 years in turnout alone with only his two mini donkey friends, Spuds and Augie, across the fence from him.
The best part of the weekend following his massage was that 26-year-old Roll finally got a friend in turnout! Billy Bad Ass (age 25) came to us a month ago. We thought the two gelding boys would enjoy each other as they are pretty close in age and it proved to be true!
Roll was truly happy to have a brand new buddy!
Roll needed another core tune-up today, but every time we take him out, we need to document everything in photos and video. Normally we would work in the hourglass pattern, but we wanted better pictures than just the arena sand and fences so we decided to do some ground driving today in the 5-acre pasture instead.
I had to tighten the reins that were tied up to the surcingle because he thought it might be nice to just lower his head and graze…that was not in the program!
He was light in the bridle and easily maneuverable. I was glad to be able to walk behind and see how his rear end was moving. It was VERY wobbly from both hips and could not walk a straight line.
He will most definitely need more chiropractic work and massage going forward. I think regular core exercises are in order, once a week in order to build up his rear end bulk muscle again. We did a serpentine through the trees …
… and then left the field along the fence line to help him to stay straight. That should help to stabilize the rear, but he IS a 26 year-old with a very bad start to his life for the first 18 years, so I need to keep expectations realistic.
He lacked impulsion for the first part of the ground driving, but was beginning to engage the hind quarters a bit more and that added enough impulsion for him to go forward in a straighter line than he did at first as he traveled along the fence line.
Although I had tightened the reins coming from the bridle, Roll still managed to lower his head sideways and grab a few blades of the taller grass on the way out!!! He cracks me up!
He did remarkably better on the gravel road back to the Tack Barn. I did have to keep reminding him to keep his body straight, which he did very easily.
When we got back to the Tack Barn he drove right in and parked himself, squaring up upon my request through the lines. What a good boy!!!
Wrangler has almost completely shed out and during my last weekly grooming, I discovered a small sarcoid on his left forearm and decided to consult with my veterinarian, Greg Farrand. Wrangler munched in the fanny pack while we talked.
Dr. Farrand Carefully inspected the sarcoid and determined that it was not a candidate for removal because of it’s precarious location. There was no way to grab loose skin around it like there was with prior sarcoids on other animals.
I shaved the area around the sarcoid so we could get a good look at it and so it would absorb the treatment the most efficiently.
In 2011, Rock had a sarcoid on his neck in front of the withers where there was a lot of fatty tissue and the skin was loose enough to pull the sarcoid away from the body. So, we shaved his neck and removed the sarcoid with surgery. We then had it biopsied to find it was not a serious sarcoid (Better to be safe than sorry!) and it eventually just went away. In the eighties, if we removed a sarcoid, it would have had a follow-up of injections to be completely rid of it. In the nineties, veterinarians discovered another way to treat sarcoids that involved taking a piece of the biopsied sarcoid and reintroducing it as an implant in the neck to prompt an immunity response. Before he could remove one of three sarcoids the from Lucky Three Eclipse, he rubbed one and tore it open. Before we had the chance to biopsy one of the sarcoids for an implant, as if a miracle, his immune system was stimulated by HIM, kicked in and all three sarcoids just disappeared…and no, they were not anything else.
Lucky Three Cyclonealso developed a sarcoid on his jaw which we successfully treated with surgery since it also was in a fatty area where we could pinch the skin around it easily. No follow up was necessary…just stitches removal.
Since Wrangler’s sarcoid was in such a delicate area, we opted to use a topical approach with Xterra, applied with a Q-Tip.
We will apply the Xterra once a day for a week, then stop for a week.
Then we will resume applying the Xterra for another week, stop after a week again and then see how it is progressing.
We will continue like this until it is gone. Xterra is surely a better way than the way we had to treat these in the eighties! Wrangler will be sure to keep you posted on his progress!
Massage for equinesis now used more often as an alternative or complementary healing process toward health and fitness.
Simple massage can prevent various injuries throughout your animal’s lifetime. Don’t wait for obvious injury to occur—preventive massage increases the length of the muscle fibers, taking pressure off the joints.
When the muscles are allowed to contract and expand to their full length, they are able to absorb important nutrients that reduce fatigue. Massage also increases blood flow, which helps the body flush harmful toxins, such as lactic acid, that build up from normal use.
Massage aids in reprogramming the nervous system to break patterns that can cause atrophy or knotted tissue. If you are unsure as to the severity of an injury, consult your vet!
At Lucky Three Ranch, I have found that therapeutic equine massage promotes relaxation and reduces stress. It also stimulates healing after an injury and provides significant relief from pain as it did when Roll had White Line Disease in 2016-17.
Massage can reduce muscle spasms, and greater joint flexibility and range of motion can be achieved through massage and stretching—resulting in increased ease and efficiency of movement.
Always be aware of your animal’s reaction to pressure and respond accordingly. Watch his eyes and ears. As you work look for signs of sensitivity toward the affected area such as biting, raising and lowering the head, moving into or away from pressure, contraction of muscles from your pressure, tossing his head, swishing his tail, picking up his feet, changes in his breathing or wrinkles around his mouth.
If your animal is heavy in the bridle, if he tips his head to one side, or if he has difficulty bending through the neck, he is exhibiting stiffness in this area.
If he moves away, he is telling you that you are exerting more pressure than he can comfortably endure, and you should go back to using your fingertips.
A raised head and perked ears may indicate sensitivity. He is asking for lighter pressure, so learn to pay attention to the things your animal tells you about his body.
Massage therapy should never be harmful. For the sake of safety and comfort, do not attempt massage therapy for rashes, boils, open wounds, severe pain, high fevers, cancers, blood clots, severe rheumatoid arthritis, swollen glands, broken bones, direct trauma or if there is any chance of spreading a lymph or circulatory disease, such as blood poisoning. Avoid direct pressure on the trachea.
It is easiest to find sore spots and muscles when your animal is warmed up, so after a ride is a good time to do massage therapy and passive range-of-motion exercises.
Each time you ride, take the time to quickly go over your animal and assess his sensitive areas: check his range of motion to detect stiffness in the joints. Paying this kind of attention to his body will enhance his athletic performance and provide him with a wonderfully relaxing reward. Give your equine the preventive care that he deserves to make your way to a mutually satisfying relationship.
“This vacuum sure feel good, Spuds!”
“Yeah, Augie, but why is Roll here with us?”
“Not sure, Spuds, but she’s putting on our driving gear.
We haven’t done that in a very long time! Can you tell where we are going?””
“Not really! I can see underneath, but Roll still makes a better door than a window! Is he going with us?!”
“It looks more like we are going with HIM, Spuds!”
“Oh look, Spuds! It’s the hourglass pattern! It must be ground driving today!”
She just got done leading Roll through the pattern and now you get to ground drive the pattern. Why do I have to go last?!
“Because that’s just the way it is, Augie! Just stay cool and chill while we do this thing in sync. I love to see if she can match my tiny steps!”
“One…two…three…four. She’s doing pretty good, Augie!”
Finally, it’s MY turn now, Spuds…one…two…three…four!”
“You watch, Spuds! I’m putting my whole body into it”
“Apparently she liked it! That was really fun and EASY!”
“Ah Gee, Spuds, do we have to go back already!”
“I don’t know about you, Augie, but I’m ready for supper!”
“You’re always ready for supper. That’s why you are so PORTLY, PUDS!”
Roll has been off for quite some time during this crazy winter weather that we have been having and due to the extra office work that I have taken on. Today we had an opportunity with warm temperatures, but avoided the mud from the snow by working indoors. First, I groomed Roll with a curry and then the vacuum cleaner. The vacuum cleaner is a great tool to promote circulation to the muscles over the body.
Johnson’s Baby Oil in the mane and tail help to protect the hair from the harsh winter weather, drying mud and prevents other equines from chewing on them.
Today we used my Kieffer dressage saddle that seems to fit most of my mules and Roll included with a girth extender. Then I put on the “Elbow Pull” and adjust it so that it helps him to keep his good posture throughout his lesson.
The “Elbow Pull” only prevents him from raising his head so high that he inverts his neck and hollows his back. Otherwise, it affords him full range of motion upward (to that point), downward to the ground and as far as he can stretch his head and neck to both sides.
We went to the indoor arena and he stood like a soldier while I closed the gate and prepped for our lesson in the hourglass pattern. It is extraordinary how core strength stays with these guys even when they are off work for long periods of time.
This is not true with bulk muscle or an animal that has not had the benefit of core strength postural development. The core strength that we develop in good posture is sustained by the equines themselves in their daily routines even when they do not receive forced exercise as long as they continue to move in good posture and rest four-square. Equines that rest with uneven foot placement, or cock a hind foot and drop a hip are not balanced in good posture with a strong core.
When saddling, we do it from the left side (near side) as done normally, but to keep things balanced, we unsaddle from the right side (off side) and pull the saddle back onto the rear end to loosen the crupper and make it easy to remove. When the equine is routinely handled like this, they learn to relax and stand quietly because they know what to expect.
It is amazing to see how much Roll’s attitude has changed in the eight years he has been with us. When he first arrived, he would snort at everything and hide behind Rock. He is now a happy, confident and affectionate 26 year old, 18 hand draft mule. He enjoys his lessons and never forgets a thing!
Trying new things is now done with much less effort and thus, much less drama! Yes, Roll is a bit obese with atrophied bulk muscle right now, but with routine lessons, he will be back to peak condition in no time. An equine that possesses a good foundation built with core strength in mind will be in a position to excel in all kinds of equine activities…because they are never over-whelmed.
Today, Chad brought Roll up to the work station. On October 23, 2017, I had found a nodule on Roll’s lower right jaw line. Our veterinarian, Greg Farrand came out right away to check it to determine what kind of growth it was.
We have had sarcoids in the past, but this did not seem to be a sarcoid, but rather, a small cyst that was not attached to the bone. Since it was not attached, I made the decision to get it removed before it had an opportunity to become attached to the bone.
Lucky Three Sundowner had a similar growth on his jaw that WAS attached to the bone and it finally grew to such a size that it ultimately obstructed his ability to eat and he had to be put down at the age of 35 years.
We were preparing to vaccinate the herd, so we opted to wait on Roll’s surgery until after the vaccinations and hoped for a freeze that would kill all the insects. The exposed wound would have a better chance at healing in the colder weather without insect interference. We had to wait for quite a while since our winter weather proved to be unusually warm until today, December 22, when we finally opted to do the surgery.
Greg gave Roll a sedative to help him to relax. I shaved the area heavily covered with winter hair with my #10 blades and then Greg stepped in and shaved it closer with his veterinary-gauged blades.
He then injected the site with a numbing agent and prepped it for the surgery.
The cyst was neatly contained and unattached below the surface of the skin. He carefully cut it away from the skin and was left with a perfectly round cyst that fell out easily.
When cut in half, the cyst revealed granular tissue in the center that is indicative of some foreign agent in the body that was surrounded by tissue that just never abscessed. We will send off the cyst to be tested to make sure there are no further issues to treat.
Greg carefully and neatly sutured the skin along his jaw line back together.
Greg gave me instructions about the care of the wound. Basically, we did not have to do anything, but let it heal. I will remove the sutures in 10-14 days.
Roll was still a bit drowsy when I took him back to his pen. He will not get food for at least two hours after the surgery to keep him from choking. He should heal nicely.
I took a sleepy Roll back to his pen. By tomorrow, he probably won’t even know what happened and he was such a trooper through it all! I am so glad my mules are trained the way they are…not a bit of trouble!
10/26/17: It is MULE APPRECIATION DAY today and the perfect time for an update on Roll! Roll has recovered nicely from his bout with White Line Disease in 2016. He had no workouts during that year, but surprisingly, he retained his core strength and balance throughout 2016 and came into 2017 still in good posture and balance. This leads me to believe that core strength does not necessarily deteriorate as rapidly as does bulk muscle.
Roll had his most recent “leading for core strength postural workout” on May 23rd this year. However since then, I have been unable to pursue any more lessons during the entire summer due to business obligations.
He was scheduled for his regular farrier visits on May 18th, July 14th and on September 21st. During that time, he also had two chiropractic visits and was doing very well with only minor adjustments needed.
On October 17th, Roll had a short ride with Brandy in the Lucky Three Ranch North Pasture after being off all summer. He was rather disgusted with Brandy after she unseated her rider, Bailey, at the beginning of the ride by spooking at a shadow on the ground. Roll did great although I could tell he was a bit stiff from the onset, but loosened up and gained impulsion by the end of the ride.
Roll had his last massage on July 13 and continues to thrive at the age of 26 years old. On October 25, we discovered a sarcoid-like tumor on his right jaw, x-rayed it and will do a removal following next week’s vaccinations.
After being off all summer, I thought he did very well and this only reinforced my belief that core muscle really does sustain itself once the animal has spent at least two years doing very specific core muscle, postural exercises.
We feel pretty blessed here at Lucky Three Ranch and want to share our good wishes for safe and happy holidays with you and your family. Merry Christmas!