Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Horse Health Care: Rough Terrain Benefits Young Horses

In my horse health care regimen, I've been using the horse trailer recently as a means of adjusting my two geldings, one of whom is roach-backed and one of whom is sway-backed.

It turns out that using the horse trailer to elevate the horse's hind end by leaving the horse's back feet in the trailer while placing his front feet on the ground, releases back tension for both horses.

This stretch helps release tension in the withers, spine, sternum, and scapula. The reverse stretch, where the horse's front feet are in the trailer and his back feet are on the ground, is also effective. Both positions help the horse to stretch his top line.

In both positions, it's important to keep the horse's neck down low to maximize the stretch. This trailer exercise allows the horse to stretch his back and neck without me holding the brunt of his weight. Perfect!

Rough Terrain as Natural Horse Health Care
Having done these exercises with my two geldings, Fezzywig and Walker, both of whom are domesticated horses, I suddenly realized something: my mustang mares automatically assume these uneven poses out in pasture. Instead of the trailer, they use the raised banks of the irrigation ditch in the pasture to stand either with their front end or hind end elevated. In fact, they often rest in either posture for an hour or more at a time.

What's interesting about this is that even though both geldings have been turned out in this same pasture before, they have never assumed these poses ... it's as if they don't know to stretch their own bodies. That got me thinking about body awareness and muscle memory.

Here's what I came up with. Because all of my mustang mares had spent at least a year in the wild before being gathered, chances are that they had to move around rough terrain all the time, traveling up to 25 miles per day. This constant climbing up and down over such rough terrain helped them develop a body awareness that my domesticated geldings don't have. My mares learned to be aware of where their feet were at all times, and to use the terrain as a natural form of stretching and bodywork.

What's really cool about this is that my mares require far less bodywork than my geldings. Of course, natural selection in the wild (such as it is these days) has a lot to do with why wild horses can be more resilient and healthy than domesticated horses. Hmmm ...

Rough Terrain as Horse Health Care for Young Ones
The next conclusion I arrived at was that based on the wild horse model, rough and varied terrain is probably a horse health care asset for young horses. If, as in the wild, domesticated young horses learned to use their bodies with greater awareness and variance, might they be healthier and need less bodywork as they grow into adulthood? Might they develop a far wider range of motion, as well as use the natural contours of the terrain (like the ditch bank) to adjust their own bodies?

I think that it has to be true. I obviously haven't had time to test this theory with a bunch of my own young colts, but I do have two pieces of data to throw into the mix.

1. Body Awareness Work Works
If you look at the body awareness work taught by horse trainers like Linda Tellington-Jones in which you walk horses backward and forward through various obstacles, you see that even adult horses can develop new body awareness and retrain muscle memory. This being the case for adult horses, how much more readily would a young horse with the same kind of awareness be able to use this "body knowledge" for his own health and adjustment?

2. The Kitten Experiment
In "Quantum Healing," Deepak Chopra talks about the kitten experiment, which involved three sets of kittens, all of whom were young enough to still have their eyes closed. The first set of kittens was placed in an environment comprised entirely of vertical lines. The second group of kittens grew up in an opposite sort of environment, with only horizontal lines. The third set of kittens, the control group, was placed in a normal environment that had both vertical and horizontal lines.

So can you guess what happened? When the kittens from the first group were released into a normal environment, they could not see any horizontal lines, having been conditioned to see only vertical ones. The second group of kittens had the opposite problem, and could only see horizontal lines (they would literally bump into vertical obstacles, unable to see them). The third set of kittens turned out entirely normal.

So what does this tell us? That certain bodily functions in animals develop based on the environment in which they are raised. So if a young horse grows up in a totally flat environment, wouldn't that limit his ability to move his body up, down, and around in a flexible manner? Whereas a young horse who grew up climbing hills, running down slopes, and generally scrambling around rough terrain would develop an entirely different body awareness.

So my hypothesis at the moment is that rough terrain serves as an excellent horse health care, or horse self-care, asset for young horses. Teach a horse to move his body in all kinds of different ways as a youngster, and he'll keep doing so as he grows into adulthood.

So whaddya think? Bull pucky or possible truth?

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  1. Very interesting. I have always loved working my horses along the sloping shoulder of a road as this does such a good job of loosening them up.

  2. Really interesting. We also do stretches with our horses and after a few times they actually stretch themselves, as if they just learnt something :)