Could it be a Movement Issue?

Could it be a Movement Issue?

A year ago, when I introduced this column, I said that I would be writing about my experiences (and yours) with animal communication and Reiki energy healing. Beginning this month, though, I am also going to occasionally write about my experiences with neuro-muscular retraining (which Iíve been practicing for about 12 years). Simply put, neuro-muscular retraining is movement re-education, a method of teaching an animal to trade inefficient movement patterns for more comfortable, effective ones. Most of us have probably had the experience of thinking our horse was misbehaving and then finding out that the issue was really the result of pain (ill-fitting saddle, unbalanced feet, stiff ribcage or neck) rather than a behavioral problem. We always feel awful, of course, wonder how on earth we missed the signs, and swear it will never happen again. Many of us may have also thought at one time or another that our horse was purposely giving us a hard time when he or she refused to comply with a request, only to find out that the horse was reacting from fear, not belligerence, and that we needed to take a few steps back and fill in some gaps in the horseís training.

I wonder, though, how many of us have considered that our horseís refusal or reluctance to do what we ask could also be the result of an inability to effectively move in the way we are asking. In other words, he doesnít do it because he canít. This may or may not be a pain issue, but for the moment, letís assume that itís not. To illustrate, Iím going to share an experience I had with my beloved thoroughbred, Nikos, who passed away three years ago. At the time, of this story, he was 23 and had been with me for five years. Together, we had transformed his movement from stiff, rigid, rushing into limber, fluid, and powerful.

I had a friend who was a natural horsemanship trainer. Iíd done some work with her horse, and so (because barter is a wonderful thing), she was giving Nikos and me a lesson. The woman was a wonderful, soft trainer, and although Nikos already had excellent ground manners and had become very soft under saddle, I thought it would be fun to take a few lessons with her.

In this lesson, she was showing me how to use a soft rope to teach a horse to give to pressure (a fundamental rule of natural horsemanship). She placed the rope around one of Nikos’ legs at a time and gently pulled upwards; Nikos lifted his foot. Then she draped the rope around his hind end, gently pulled to the left, and Nikos stepped over with his hind legs, right leg over left. It took very little pressure because Nikos already understood the premise of giving to pressure and was very light.

Then my friend placed the rope around Nikos’ barrel and gently pulled to the left. She wanted him to move laterally, to step right leg over left in front and back at the same time. But he didn’t. She applied more pressure to the rope, then more. But Nikos did not move. He stood rooted to the spot, clearly thinking, beginning to look perplexed.

I told my friend that I was sure Nikos knew what she was asking him to do, but that for some reason he was having trouble doing it. I continued watching him. My friend applied more pressure to the rope. Nikos clumsily stepped over with his hind legs. She released then tried again. This time he stepped over with his front legs, just as clumsily. Aha! Now I understood. I told my friend again that Nikos was unable to do what she was asking. She told me, very kindly, that he had to learn.

“But,” I said, “You aren’t teaching him. You are asking and asking, but you aren’t teaching him how to do what you are asking.”

From watching Nikos, it had become apparent that, for whatever reason, he was feeling disconnected between front and hind. He could move the front, he could move the hind, but he could not perform the simple lateral move my trainer friend was asking for (a movement that he ordinarily had no problem with).

“Let me show you something,” I said and asked her to remove the rope.

Standing behind Nikos, I placed one hand on the left side of his seat bone and gently pushed toward his head. When I released, just as gently, I watched for the tiny head bob that would indicate the movement had traveled along his spine all the way from hind end to front. There. I then stepped over and placed my hand on the right side of his seat bone. Again, I gently pushed, gently released. Again his head gently dipped and raised.

I stepped away. “Now try again,” I said. My friend placed the soft rope around Nikos’ barrel and applied gentle pressure, asking him to step to the left. He gracefully stepped over, crossing his right feet in front of his left. My friendís eyes widened. She moved to the other side, placed the rope around Nikos’ barrel, applied gentle pressure. He gracefully stepped to the right.

“See,” I said, “you had to teach him how to do it. I don’t know why, but he was disconnected today.”

Perhaps the rope itself, draped as it was around his middle, had disconnected his front end from his hind (in much the same way that a girth does over time). Pushing through his seat bones, sending a gentle force up along his spine, had reminded Nikos of the connection between front and back, and in less than a minute he had been able to gracefully and willingly comply with the trainer’s request.

I remembered this incident recently as I worked with my green TB cross. On a large lunging circle, he kept tossing his head going left. He can be a pickle, and my first instinct was to ask him to knock it off. But then I noticed that he wasnít lifting his left hind leg as cleanly as usual, that there seemed to be a tiny bit of stiffness in his hips. He wasnít in pain, just wasnít able to move efficiently until I addressed the issue. I can get pretty focused on tasks, so I was glad I hadnít pushed him, glad Nikos popped into my head with a reminder.

Until next month,

Be well,


*This column originally appeared in From the Horse’s Mouth in June 2007.

© 2007 by Pamela Sourelis