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Bending problems, balance, and anatomy
 Moderated by: DrDeb  
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Joined: Mon Apr 16th, 2007
Location: Texas
Posts: 282
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 Posted: Mon Aug 24th, 2009 07:57 pm
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As some of you may recall, I have been rehabilitating a 26 year old Arabian gelding, with good success.  In fact, he and I now do workouts 4 nights a week and take a 4 to 6 mile hack early every Sunday morning, weather permitting.  He is healthy, energetic,  and fairly well muscled.

One area where Dancer is still deficient is in bending, especially to the right.  He is very much "sided."  We have talked about this in other threads, and considerable progress has been made through the use of turns with the outside legs fully weighted, serpentines ditto, and shoulders-in on the diagonal. On wider curves, if I keep my attention to it, he now does well where he used to counter-flex on right turns.  However, I had noted that his bending to the right was better but still not smooth and even, and that he often resisted striking a canter on the right lead from a halt.

Now, I know this may seem odd, but we were working without a round pen.  We have enclosed areas of different sized and we have longe lines although I stopped longing him because he would use the line as a crutch to balance on right turns.   Because of the needs of another horse, I built a round pen about six weeks ago.  It is somewhat octagonal. but the full diameter is 52 feet and the actual working diameter is about 46 to 48 ft.  That makes it 14 to 16 meters.

Working him in the pen without a longe was a revelation.  All went well counter-clockwise.  Clockwise was a disaster.  He counter flexed at every gait, trotted in a way that looked almost like lameness, and could not canter.  The best he could do was to four-beat with difficulty in a very off-balance way.

My response has been to work him under saddle at the walk n the pen four nights a week, urging him to bend with tactful application of the rein of indirect opposition behind the withers and taps from the inside leg.  We don't do this for long, as it seems to be strenuous for him.  Just a very few minutes a night so far.

As he has loosened up I have gone to more regular shoulders-in work on the diagonal (outside the pen).  Of course, to keep things in balance, I do all of this both ways.

SO far, so good.  He is now more balanced both ways, and the clockwise bend is becoming more smooth and even -- still not not perfect -- although if I do not mind closely and also guard against him throwing the outside shoulder, things will fall apart.  I an not asking for a trot or canter in the pen.  We work on canter departs in a much larger space.  There, too, I see and feel improvement.

SO here are the questions:

1) Am I approaching this right

2) What else should I consider

3) What is it anatomically and physically that causes the problems in all gaits to the stiff side?  I study the charts and read DD's work, but cannot quite visualize the system in action in this case.


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Joined: Fri Mar 30th, 2007
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 Posted: Tue Aug 25th, 2009 06:00 pm
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Joe, the reason the roundpen revealed deficiencies is that in there, the horse is much more at liberty to do things the way it seems most comfortable to him. He is not constrained, or guided, by your legs, hands, or whatever acting as aids.

In an elderly horse, there can be all kinds of physical problems that would induce him to move crookedly. Typical among these are arthritis in the hocks and in the intervertebral joints, and low-grade chronic foot pain.

But of course, in addition, a lifetime of moving crookedly - the sheer habit of it -- will also reveal itself when the animal is at liberty.

If the horse will bend correctly -- in other words, if he will bend with about equal ease and willingness to either direction -- when under saddle, you may assume that if he does have arthritis in his back, that it has not progressed so far as to ankylose any of the joints. The same may be said of arthritis anywhere else; it is mild enough that the horse will go straight when aided to do so if he will do this without signs of any great distress.

Now, Joe, the other thing you need to think about is the special conditions presented to the horse by a roundpen. First, yours is fairly small; the smaller the diameter, the more difficult for any horse to maintain the correct bend. Also, the faster the gait and/or the more vigorous the energy output, the more difficult. This has nothing to do with your particular horse; it applies to all horses, of all ages and conditions.

There is also "fence effect" to consider. All horses react to a boundary fence or wall as if it had a force-field coming out of it. They all counterflex their bodies away from an outside rail. The closer to the outside rail they are made to travel, the stronger the effect. Your roundpen is small enough that it is impossible for the horse to get far enough away from the boundary fence and yet also far enough away from you. In other words, your roundpen is too small really for any horse to benefit from working in it, and I would advise you to enlarge it so that the diameter is right at 20M, i.e. about 60 to 65 ft. across. Smaller roundpens are used for circus-type trainers, but that is for other reasons. For your purposes, Joe, you need a general-purpose type roundpen and that's the best size. Any bigger than that and you'll walk your legs off; any smaller and it's too difficult and confining (and sometimes too scary, too much pressure) for the horse.

Now after you enlarge your roundpen so you can work in it to good effect, the first thing you need to learn to do is to call the horse in by his OUTSIDE eye. You already know how to call him in by his inside eye. So you do that at first, but then as the head starts to come around, then you throw your thread wide so that it goes around the outside eye, and you pull on that eye instead of pulling on the inside eye.

At the same time, you are always mindful I hope of the key PHYSICAL thing that makes roundpenning work, which is that you are telling the inside hind leg to step under the body-shadow. So you push on that leg and you pull on those eyes, but especially the outside eye, and thereby you teach yourself how to get him to turn in so that his head and shoulders come off the track to the inside. This is a shoulder-in, and there is no reason whatsoever to practice it on the diagonal, by the way. When you do shoulder-in, the wall becomes your ally and you need the wall there so that you can make use of that ally.

When he is coming in very well, then you will teach him to reverse through the center of the pen, so that you have him come to you and then pass you and change directions. If he's been going clockwise then you call the outside (left) eye in, and then when the eye arrives to you, you direct it to your left and drive the animal's left hind leg, so that he then departs from you to the left of the pen.

I suspect that it is at least as much that you have not been aware of, or in control of, BOTH of the horse's eyes as it is that he might have some physical problem such as arthritis. Most people are not too aware of which of their horse's eyes is the one he always tries to lead with. In your horse's case it will be that he always wants to lead with his right eye. So this little insight into how to use a roundpen and what kind of roundpen is useful, will give you the opportunity to practice calling one eye and then the other, and you do that gently but quite a few times until he begins to even up.

Once this is working in the roundpen you will, of course, want to try it under saddle wherever you may be. You want the horse to turn "by the birdie". This is the same as saying that you call the eye to your hand. When you can do that, you will have left the realm of riding by physical aids, and entered a new region of horsemanship in which mental and psychospiritual guidance predominates.

Let us know how things progress. -- Dr. Deb



Joined: Mon Apr 16th, 2007
Location: Texas
Posts: 282
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 Posted: Tue Aug 25th, 2009 06:23 pm
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Thanks for the quick response. Dancer does have some diagnosed arthritis all right, although as with humans that has been improving with exercise and movement over the last year or so.  However, his response to bending exercises suggests to me that arthritis is not the whole answer.  It is also true that he is straight and does not favor when not in a curve of that size of less.

I can easily enlarge the pen, as soon as I find time.  The thought on the dimensions for this one was pretty simple -- it was about the same radius as a longe line.  So, I'll just make it bigger.

I was NOT mindful of the inside leg, but will be now.

Really not sure how to visualize calling with the outside eye.  I'll have to go down there and work on it.  Right now he will stop, come in or turn on request.  However, the turning has been a matter of looping around in a bit less than half the radius and going back the other way.

More to learn. More to do,


Last edited on Tue Aug 25th, 2009 06:24 pm by Joe

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