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SENSE Method of Movement Education

Maximizing Performance & Minimizing Injury

Whatever equestrian sport or style of riding we participate in, we all want our horses to stay sound and free of injury. One way to do that is to help them perform as tension-free as possible. Of course, we want the same for the rider too.

Many riders believe that they need to work out at the gym to be strong enough to ride well, and that they have to work, work, work their horses to make them strong.
Of course reasonable and appropriate cardiovascular fitness is imperative, but what would you say if I suggested that both we and our horses are better served by placing greater emphasis on nurturing suppleness and flexibility than on strength training? Why? To help answer that, let’s start by briefly reviewing how muscles move limbs.

Muscles Don’t Push
Skeletal muscles involved in movement are attached at each end to different bones and most muscles are found in opposing pairs. To bend your knee, for example, the flexor muscles attached above and below the knee at the back of your leg contract, or shorten, while the extensor muscles also attached above and below the knee but on the front of your leg, relax. If you then want to straighten your knee again, the flexors release and the extensors contract. The flexor muscles are not able to push the knee open because muscles only function through contraction, however they do release to allow the extensor muscles to function easily. Your horse’s muscles work the same way.

Most movement is a direct result of muscle contraction. To control the amount of movement in a joint or to stabilize it, each muscle of an opposing pair will contract or release to varying degrees to complement or restrict the other’s action. So if for example you wanted to bend your knee just a little, both the flexors and the extensors would contract, with the flexors overriding the extensors initially to allow the knee to bend, then the action of both flexors and extensors would equalize to stabilize the knee in the bent position.

Fit or Overfit?
While some strength is of course vital to fitness and muscle tone, too much strength can interfere with flexibility. When muscle tone (strength) is too high, flexibility is impaired and movement requires more effort and may become less fluid. Reduced flexibility in riders may cause unnecessary fatigue and interferes with their ability to follow their horse’s movements, to maintain their position, and to apply clear aids. Reduced flexibility in horses can make them rough to ride, make training more difficult, and may contribute to unsoundness, because among other factors the reduced elasticity in the horse’s joints reduces their shock absorbency.

A certain level of muscle tone/strength is of course essential, to allow a rider to maintain a stable and effective ‘seat,’ and to allow a horse to carry his rider while in self-carriage, and to be able to respond to the rider’s requests. However, it is neither necessary nor desirable for either the horse or the rider to develop the strength of weightlifters.

Muscle tone reflects muscle fitness. Overfit muscle is just as inappropriate to optimum performance and health as underfit muscle. Overfit muscles (high tonus) are in a permanent state of semi-contraction—they feel hard and movement is impeded. The tighter, or more contracted, a muscle is prior to moving a limb the more effort is required to move the limb. Try it out on yourself—while sitting, allow your arm to lie relaxed on your leg. Note how easy and effortless it is for you to lift it part way to shoulder-level. Start again, but this time tense your arm muscles and then lift your arm without releasing the muscle tension. Can you feel the difference? Can you feel how much more effort you had to make to achieve the same movement? Not only does it require more energy, but the joints are unable to move as smoothly so the joint surfaces are stressed and the tight muscles/tendons are more vulnerable to strain. Injuries or pain will also cause an individual to tighten adjacent muscles to minimize pain or damage. But sometimes the brain “forgets” to release them again.

Can you see how this could affect a horse’s stamina and performance—and longterm soundness— if he has sore, injured, or overfit muscles, or if he is tightening up to compensate for poor hoof balance, ill-fitting saddle, unbalanced rider, or…? He will have less power, decreased ease of movement, and will be prone to fatigue, increased risk of muscle strain and increased shear forces on the joints. In addition, tight muscles restrict bloodflow so oxygen is not as readily available to the muscles, and by-products of movement such as lactic acid are not carried away as efficiently.

What can cause muscle interference?
The skeletal system is designed to support and propel the body without interference from muscle tension. Both horses and people have to learn how to use their bodies when they are born and they do so by trial and error. Basic balance and locomotion patterns are arrived at individually but some individuals are less successful than others and many settle for less than optimal movement patterns. As the individual matures and experiences injuries, perhaps surgery, and the stresses of everyday wear and tear, compensatory movement patterns add to the patterns learned as youngsters. As the individual adjusts to these compensations, he becomes less efficient in his movements, and if the inappropriate contractions are not later released he is set up for further functional stresses.

Can bodywork techniques improve muscle function?
If muscle function is compromised by a recent traumatic injury that affects skeletal alignment, bodywork techniques such as a chiropractic adjustment, physiotherapy, and/or massage may be appropriate.

In many cases, however, and particularly if chronic muscle contraction is responsible for faulty movement patterns of long standing from whatever cause, bodywork techniques may provide only temporary relief: the body’s ability over time to shut out or diminish the awareness of pain and of the affected area can interfere with the voluntary release of contracted muscles. Even though the musculoskeletal system may be realigned via bodywork techniques, the effects may not be permanent because the body tends to revert to movement patterns that are familiar and habitual. With issues of long standing, addressing the musculoskeletal system often proves frustrating because it is the brain that needs reprogramming, not the body.

How Can Movement Patterns Be Improved?
Sensory awareness may be restored through somatic education involving slow, gentle movements that not only bring the presence of muscles “stuck” in contraction to the attention of the central nervous system (CNS) but also suggest more efficient movement options which allow the contractions to release.

For people there are several educational approaches including the Feldenkrais Method, the Alexander Technique, Somatics, Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF), The Trager Approach, and others.

Riders who pursue somatic education by a technique such as one of those above will discover an entirely new ease and efficiency of movement both on and off the horse. They will tend to be more flexible and looser yet balanced, and more aware of riding posture and their effect on the horse. Riders of all ages and skill levels can benefit.

Bodywork techniques focus on structure and achieving some structural ideal, while movement education tends to focus on function and allows the nervous system to determine what is ideal. For example, rather than saying, “This spine is poorly aligned and I must correct it,” movement education focuses on showing the individual how the vertebrae can move relative to each other and allows the individual’s nervous system to determine their alignment. The advantage of this approach is that learning occurs and the individual is less likely to return to the old, inefficient movement patterns.

Can Horses’ Movement be Improved Too?
Yes, absolutely! Horses (dogs and cats too) are just as able to learn more efficient movement patterns and as athletes horses benefit from it as much as people. The SENSE Methodsm (Strength with Elegance through Natural Somatic Expression) is one movement education option for horses. SENSEsm utilizes skilled touch and gentle, non-invasive exercises to provide kinesthetic information to the horse’s nervous system in a non-threatening manner that results in improved flexibility, elasticity, coordination, athletic performance and enhanced wellbeing.

Can All Horses Benefit from Movement Education?
Because movement education helps the horse learn to move with greater efficiency and ease, it can benefit all horses, whatever their age, discipline or activity level. Healthy horses stay healthy longer and horses in training are less prone to repetitive strain and other sport-related injuries because they learn to use themselves more efficiently, and subclinical symptoms are addressed before they develop into something serious. Even the arthritic horse benefits by learning to move without twisting or excessively loading his joints.

Where Is Movement Education Available?
Practitioners of movement education may be located via the Internet or possibly in local magazines. To locate a Feldenkrais or Alexander Technique practitioner anywhere in the world visit their websites.

In Canada, the SENSE Method (for horses, dogs and cats) is available in the BC Lower Mainland and on Vancouver Island through the email below. For practitioners elsewhere or for more information on the SENSE Method of equine /canine movement and awareness education please visit the SENSE website.

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Last updated July 26, 2001

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