Art2Ride Associate Trainer Program: Ryanne Davis and Ariel Submission 1
Art2Ride Associate Apprentice Ryanne Davis discusses her ongoing training with Ariel.
Hello, this is Ryanne Davis and this is the first of a series of submissions for the Associate Trainer Program where I will be discussing the development of a horse named Ariel. Ariel is a 16-year-old Arabian who was ridden for several years of her life with her nose pinned to her chest so that she was severely behind the vertical, which caused her to develop a lot of back and body problems since she was not encouraged to work through her back. But she has been on the road to recovery with A2R with me for several months now and I am going to share pieces of that road with you here in a series of videos. So to start with, this is me riding her about 6 months into her training, and in a few minutes I will show you our first ride together six months prior to this – so you can really appreciate the enormous improvement in her movement, as well as her overall demeanor.
So this ride is in January of 2017. Right away you can see that she no longer pins her nose to her chest when contacted with the reins, in fact she reaches down towards the bit and lengthens her neck all the way out so that her nose is now down and forward, more like she’s slightly ‘above’ the vertical rather than behind it. We certainly want the horse to be what we all love to call “on the bit” but this is not always a perfect ninety-degree angle of the nose perpendicular to the ground. I tend to think of a horse being on the bit not as some angle of the nose, but that this means that the horse is actually carrying the bit, no matter what angle the nose might be in to accomplish this. If the horse is reaching forward towards the bit, and confidently accepting my contact with it with a soft jaw, and lips wrapped around it without a flash band shutting it to do so, then she is on the bit, in my opinion, and while this carrying will never happen if the horse goes behind the vertical, because that’s literally a horse evading the bit and handing the bit over entirely to the rider, the carrying of the bit sometimes looks very vertical at 90 degrees, and sometimes looks a bit more above that vertical with a more forward angle, so I pay very little attention to exact vertical angles. I simply look for her to stretch her neck all the way down and out in front of her towards the bit, so that she completely releases her topline and releases any tension along with it.
And without tension, she can become rhythmic and consistent like you see here in the trot. The diagonal pairs swing evenly together, and she just cruises along here without bracing against me or demonstrating any resistance, which you will see is certainly not how she started out. But look here how soft she is, she has a soft eye, floppy ears, her mouth is calm and closed, she is just flowing freely and fluidly and willingly, not thinking about when is this going to finally be over or pulling little stunts to try to get me off. She is quite content to be ridden here, and this is exactly the kind of horse I like to ride, you know? The one that likes to be ridden because she is comfortable in her body and mind to do so.
As we come around, you can see her abdominal wall engaging here, which is that line defined there right behind my heel, that’s her abdominal wall. And when that line shows up, it means the horse is contracting her abdominals, which she needs to do to furthermore engage her hind end. The horse releases the back, contracts the abdominals, and engages the hind end. These pieces all work together in unison in order to move the horse forward.
So here we come back down to a walk, which we take our time to do. I asked her for that downward transition clear half a circle ago, but I never rush transitions. Because if I do, I am going lose the horse’s back in the process and then I’ll have to spend time regaining it in the lower gait so I’d rather the horse relax into a transition, take her sweet time – because remember that a transition takes time, that’s literally what a transition is, it’s a period of time in which the horse adjusts from one gait to another. And in the beginning transitions always take more time than they might as she develops later on, but transitions are always something I’m going to allow her the time to perform. And because I give her appropriate time, that was a nice, relaxed, easy transition. You can see she swings in her poll there, which the poll is the hinge of the skull where it connects to the spine right there between the ears. You can see that her head kind of bobbles a bit, which tells me her poll is loosening and going along with the current of her movement rather than stiffening and fighting the wave of movement flowing throughout her body.
So now this is my first ride ever on this horse. You can see that she was running away with me and so I was trying to figure out a way that we could just walk because she wanted to go really fast. And I think a lot of that is her response to feeling pain in her back, and so some horses will try to run away from that pain when they feel the rider pounding into their backs. Which just makes things more difficult for both of us.
So when I finally get her back to a walk here, you can see that she is figuring out to stretch but she goes behind the vertical here when I make contact with the reins, can you see how her nose starts to come towards her chest? That is how she had been taught to respond to contact on the reins, which does not benefit the horse, or the rider, and in fact deteriorates the horses back as well as straining their neck and furthermore straining the rider’s hands and arms and shoulders to maintain that amount of pressure on the reins. So while, yes, she is letting her neck somewhat down, she is still curling and not letting it out in front of her. She is not reaching for the bit and elongating her spine to stretch her back out like you just saw her doing. So this not any kind of useful stretch. This is not the stretch that I am going to be satisfied with. This is not the stretch that is going to develop her. This stretch that she’s giving me here doesn’t release her back enough to free up her hind end to engage underneath her. Notice how, if you compare this to the walk you just saw, here she is not going anywhere and is very stiff with each of her legs, almost like she’s on stilts – each leg has minimal bend and flexibility and suppleness in the joints, which makes moving forward extraordinarily difficult. So this was a really short ride, I got off and lunged her, which is exactly what you want to do if the horse can’t move well while you’re riding them.
This is actually my third or fourth time ever lunging her, she spent the first few times bolting around totally hollow with her head and tail both way up in the air, nostrils flaring. She was so stressed out that I didn’t even attach a lunge line to her, or have a whip or anything; I just stood in the middle while she blazed around me. But you can see that she has calmed down quite a bit and is finally able to start working on improving her body. But you can also see very clearly that she is extremely stiff here, even when she gets her neck long, you can see that she really slows down, which indicates how difficult it is for her to move anywhere because her hips, her hind legs, can’t support her and motivate her forward. And so she has to slow down significantly in order to begin to release her topline. And right now when she does release her neck, it sort of plunges down there because she has no top line to hold the neck up. Since she has been pulling herself around with her shoulders rather than using her hind end to thrust her forward, the underside of her neck is robust while the topline portion of her neck is slender and weak. So when she does release her neck down, it just kind of dangles down there.
Oh, and those are a pair of side reins clipped to each other across her neck that you’re seeing there. It was suggested to me lunge her in side reins to help control her since she was bit of a sprinter, like I said, but I didn’t end up wanting to attach these to the bit because they are nowhere near long enough for her to reach the full length of her neck all the way into, and thus would only cause her to curl behind the vertical. For some reason I didn’t remove them. I’m not sure why since they are totally useless and I normally wouldn’t keep these on like this, but today this happened so here we are.
You can see she is highly unbalanced. It had sprinkled a few minutes before this so she is experiencing some difficulty finding her feet underneath her here. But once a horse is over its back, it’s basically in four-wheel drive, so it’s not difficult for them to find their footing underneath them in all kinds of terrain. Right now Ariel is only in front-wheel drive so of course it’s more difficult to pull herself through mud with two legs than it would be to push herself through mud with four.
You can also observe that she is not at all bending through her body around me. She’s making tiny circles, which actually a small circle is harder than a larger circle for a horse to perform, especially the larger the horse is. A horse has to bend longitudinally, which is a big fancy way of saying through the entire length of her topline before she can bend laterally, from side to side, to properly yield to a circle. Because when a horse is round and elongated in the spine, she has unlocked her spine so that it is now flexible and free to offer some lateral bend for the horse to move comfortably on the circle. But here, because Ariel is not bent longitudinally, she’s almost kind of making an octagon where she’ll kind of go straight and then sharply turn and then kind of go straight again and then turn. So since she lacks bend, she is looking to the outside of the circle and not yielding her hind end to me at all. But a lot of times in the beginning horses will crowd you like this because they’re not sure what they’re supposed to do, for one, and for two, they’re too weak to make a complete genuine circle. So I’m trying to gradually encourage her onto a larger circle using my body and the other end of the lunge line here, which will help her to incrementally increase her bend since a larger circle gives her hind end more room to yield away from me in the middle. Usually I would use a whip to encourage the hindquarters out, but I didn’t start out using a whip with Ariel because of her hyper-reactivity, which would render the whip a totally ineffective tool of communication today – plus, again, I can’t expect the horse to bend if she has not stretched the full length of her topline first. It would be rather unfair and frustrating to us both if I were to ask for any bending today, so you can see I’m not really doing much in this particular session. I’m just calmly waiting for her to relax, get comfortable, zone into the work to any degree that she can today. I really can’t expect much in the beginning when I first start a horse with A2R. The beginning is the most vulnerable time for them, the time when they are physically the weakest, and in the most pain, and psychologically the most confused, and insecure, and upset. So I can’t really tell you a whole lot about what I’m doing here because I’m not focusing on establishing contact with her really, or sending her hindquarters out, or asking her more actively on – if I started doing all of these things and thus treating her like a more developed horse than she is, all that would do is cause her to resent the work and resist me and would probably send her back into the zooming giraffe she was just before this, which would only further perpetuate her habitual hollow movement. So I’d rather spend the most amount of time possible improving the quality of her movement so that we spend minimal time hollow and incorrect. So to be totally honest I am just waiting, just focusing on staying calm and learning about her so I can figure out how I can be most helpful to her in future sessions.
So I mainly like here that she’s just beginning to relax and find length in her neck. And this is a good example of how even when they stretch their necks down they can still be – and in fact have to be – forehanded in the beginning because they simply don’t have the strength in the hind end to be able to come off of the forehand right away. All horses are naturally forehanded, and all of them, in order to carry riders, have to develop off of their forehand. And this is exactly how you get them there – you almost kind of have to put them the most onto its forehand in order to develop them the most off of their forehand later. Pulling the head and neck up all the time is not going to help the horse off of her forehand, nor does it help to teach her to flick her front legs out – all of these types of techniques simply hollow their backs further and then they will never develop off of their forehand. In fact, they may load their forehands even more heavily than they would without these human inferences. Nature actually designed the horse to spend most of the day grazing with their heads down – something like 20 hours out of the day – and thus there is this ingenious suspension system that nature has installed in a horse’s neck and back for this thousand-plus pound animal to be able to graze all day with minimal muscular exertion. When the muscles in the neck and back are released rather than contracted, the ribcage lifts, the abdominals engage, and the hind end is then free to share the weight of the horse with the front legs. So we are using Nature to our advantage here to help the horse carry us – which Nature did not design the horse for, by the way. The only snag in this system is that it takes tremendous time to develop them off of their forehands, at least a year of undoing and healing and rebuilding entirely in the stretch before the topline even begins to execute with any kind of optimal efficiency.
You can tell just by looking at Ariel that she is going to take a long time to develop her topline. If you look right there behind the saddle as she goes by, on the top of her hips right there before you get to the base of the tail, you can see a really sharp, steep pointy peak almost like a mountain right there on top of her hips – that’s what’s called a Hunter’s Bump. These bumps often develop in horses that are ridden hollow, especially in fast gaits – trots, canters, especially jumping hollow, so a lot of hotter horses, like Arabs and Thoroughbreds, are prone to develop these pretty quickly since they tend to be the types of horses people ride fast, and hollow. Though a coldblood certainly wouldn’t be immune to this type of lower back injury. So what the Hunter’s Bump is is where the sacroiliac joint, which connects the spine and the pelvis, the muscle and ligaments surrounding the joint have sustained injury from repeated shallow and rapid movement. The muscles that should elongate and extend across the low back and buttock as the horse steps deeply with the hind leg under the body are not lengthening like they should, so they atrophy, which simply means the muscles gradually weaken and wither from dormancy. And so then the muscles who contract (instead of the muscles that extend) take over instead. So without the support of the muscles of extension, the sacroiliac joint, which, again, connects the spine and the pelvis, it loses its ability to absorb and softly rebound the concussion of movement and thus the range of motion of the hind legs becomes greatly minimized. That’s why she takes such short, hard, jarring, stiff steps with her hind legs. So now she has to reconnect the lines of communication between the sacroiliac joint and the surrounding muscles and ligaments and reassign who does what. You know, if you’ll follow me into an analogy here, it’s almost like let’s say you’re the boss at a corporation, okay – we’ll call it “hind end incorporated” – and you of course have employees, one group with short attention spans who get everything done with as much speed as possible and thus tend to mess up on the details and accuracy of their work, even though they get everything done in record time. Okay, and then you have your other employees who take significantly longer to get things done since they’re constantly double checking the details and are dedicated to producing quality rather than quantity. But these particular employees are all asleep at the wheel because your other faster employees get everything done instead. So basically your company is doomed because you’ve got inefficient people doing all the work and your efficient people are bored and underutilized and now you’re paying them to curl up for a cozy catnap. So now, it’s up to you to wake the right people up, and fire the others. Or at least reassign them somewhere where they could be more useful to overall company production. This is kind of what we’re doing for the horse with the Hunter’s Bump – we’re waking up the right employees, the right muscling, and telling the other less-useful muscles to simmer down and let the others take on the majority of the work instead.
So eventually all of that pointy gluteus stuff back there is going to round out and start to look fuller with good work, but it takes quite a while to get to that point, to reassign everybody in the company. The glutes I find are typically the last to develop. The neck tends to become and look the most developed sort of first, and then the withers will follow and rise up from the shoulders, and then the back will rise and look straighter, and then the hind end is usually, what I’ve found, the last to sort of look the part.
But even a horse as damaged as this one can get to a better place. So next time I am going to show you our training session about a month from now and you can follow us on our journey toward the day you saw in the first clip and beyond. So, again, this is Ryanne Davis, this is my first submission, and I am looking forward to sharing the next one with you all!