Saturday, April 13, 2019

Sometimes You Have to Go Backward to Move Forward, part 1

In my last post, I wrote about riding Nimo out on the trail and trying out collected trot. One of
the things that I mentioned in passing was that his trot didn’t feel quite as smooth as it did in the
arena. At the time, I assumed it was because he was moving over uneven ground, and I was
thinking it was probably harder to move well.

It turns out that there was a problem brewing and I didn’t realize it until the following week
when I rode in my lesson. After my trail ride with Nimo, I had continued to feel that the
movement wasn’t quite right, but I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what the problem was. My
instructor, however, was able to identify it right away – Nimo was putting his left hind hoof
down too early in the motion of the stride. You might have heard it referred to as short-striding
(at least that’s how I have always thought of it).

In Nimo’s case, he did not appear to be lame in the classic sense. There was no head-bobbing or
other indicators of pain. He simply didn’t move his leg far enough forward before putting it
down, which gave an asymmetric look and feel to his walk and trot. It appeared to be a range of
motion issue rather than an impact issue, if that makes sense.

I will note that Nimo’s left hind leg is his “weak link,” so to speak. He has had trouble fully
engaging it for most of his life. As far as I know, he has never had an injury to that leg nor does
he have a specific conformation flaw that would contribute to an issue. But over the years, that
particular leg has sometimes just failed to contribute to the movement as well as his right hind

In fact, one of the things that sold me on the usefulness of the Masterson Method of massage was
that the first time I used it (probably 7 or 8 years ago now), Nimo had a significant reaction when
I worked on his left hind leg. It ended with him fully stretching the leg out behind him (kind of
like how you see chickens and cats do from time to time). I’d never seen a horse stretch like that
before, but it was such an obvious release that it convinced me the bladder meridian technique
from the Masterson Method was a valid strategy for addressing tension and soreness.

Anyway, the movement of Nimo’s left hind leg intermittently shows up as something that needs
to be addressed. I’ve spent more than one lesson working on it over the years, but I really
thought we’d moved past it when it cropped up again last month. And it was not as easily
worked through as it had been in the past.

My instructor even got on during my lesson. She didn’t say anything other than that she wanted
to feel what I was feeling to help her work on coming up with a solution, but I suspect she
thought she was going to get on Nimo and identify a simple fix for the issue.  I also think she
thought she was going to be able to demonstrate how to easily canter him, because I was still
having trouble with it.

I will note that only two other instructors that I’ve had have ever ridden Nimo. In each case, it
was a brief affair. One of my instructors was almost bucked off at the walk (despite being an
international level dressage and event rider) and the other could not get him to canter to save her
life (despite working with Nimo over the course of several rides).

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Nimo is the most difficult horse I have ever ridden. This
difficulty is despite his amazing work ethic. He requires that his rider is absolutely focused on
him. Even a nano-second of wandering attention will get you a complete stop, a random darting
around the arena, a different gait, or even an attempt to unseat you. Half-assed, partial, or too-
strong aids will either get you no response or something very unexpected. If you even think you
might want to slow down or halt at some point in the indefinite future, you can expect a dead
stop that threatens to launch you out of the saddle. And cantering? You better be prepared for endless frustration. Also, the spooking. Dear God, the spooking…

Anyway, I turned Nimo over to my instructor. It was her first time riding him, so I mentioned
that it can sometimes take him awhile to get used to new riders and that I haven’t seen anyone
else have a lot of luck with him. Feeling like I did my due diligence, I stood back and watched.

My instructor rides much the same way I do, so Nimo did not try to buck her off because she
irritated the crap out of him with a strong seat or fail to respond to aids that made no sense. In
fact, he did pretty much everything for her that he does for me. He willingly moved forward and
worked very hard for her. He also wiggled and wobbled. He went sideways and backwards as
she tried to convince him to fully use his left hind leg. She did counter bending exercises and
lateral movements and even asked him to canter. Her results were almost identical to mine that
day, which is to say, not that great. She also kept saying things like, “This is a lot of horse!”
“He’s so wide!” And perhaps most importantly, “Now I understand more about what you are
going through when you ride him!”

You might think that these results were a bad thing, but I was so relieved. If my instructor had
been able to get on Nimo and ride him beautifully and canter him gracefully around the arena
with minimal effort, I would have been destroyed. I have been riding this horse for almost 14
years, and I learn something almost every time I ride. He is both sensitive and stubborn and
works hard but not any harder than he has to. He loves to do movements and gaits that he feels
comfortable with, but he gets anxious when asked to do something that he doesn’t know how to
do or doesn’t feel confident doing. He likes to learn new things but sometimes new things scare
him. He loves to go new places and explore, but sometimes feels overwhelmed if there is too
much new stuff going on. All of this can add up to what feels like inconsistency, which can lead
to frustration. I am mostly able to cope with it all now, but it has taken a long time and a lot of
reflecting to get to that point. (And as I wrote all that out, I realized just how much like me he
really is!)

Over the past couple of years, I feel like my riding and my position have improved so much. I
feel much more able to communicate with Nimo and be sensitive to his sensitivities. The vast
majority of our work is enjoyable and occurs much more easily than it used to. But we hit a little
bit of a hiccup with the function of his left hind leg. And I admit to feeling disappointed and sad
and frustrated and even a little angry at how quickly we went from making huge improvements
every week to going backwards. I had gotten so much more confident about my riding and I felt
like my confidence in myself must have been misplaced. That I must have somehow caused the
issue with his hind leg through bad riding.

I said something like that to my instructor, and her response was that it really wasn’t productive
to think that way. For one thing, there was no real evidence that I was riding him badly. My
instructor got exactly the same results that I did when she rode him, and I consider her to be an
excellent and sensitive rider. For another thing, Nimo has a history of not using that leg

My lesson ended without getting Nimo to use his left hind fully. But my instructor gave me
several suggestions for things to try with him over the next two weeks before our next lesson to
see if he improved. Her assessment was that his short-striding was likely due to an improper
rotation in his pelvis. Of course, there was always the possibility that he was having an issue
with arthritis or some other breakdown of his body due to the aging process (he will be 17 this
year!), but because the issue came up so suddenly without apparent injury, I was tempted to think
that one likely possibility was that he simply tried moving that way every once in a while to see
if I would notice. When I didn’t react, he started moving that way more consistently. And while
I could feel something wasn’t right, without knowing what it was, I didn’t have a good
foundation for correcting it. So it became a case of bad becoming normal, to use a phrase coined
by Dr. Temple Grandin.

My instructor recommended cantering more because canter can really help a horse’s pelvis
engage and move. She also suggested trying counter bend on a circle to the right (meaning Nimo
would be in left bend) and then coming out of the circle to a half-pass to the right (meaning that
he would have to change his bend). Another possibility was to use shoulder-in to the left with a
lot of angle to help engage and strengthen his hind leg. And finally, the saddle. As you may
recall, I bought $100 saddle off of eBay last summer and it has been working well. But Nimo
has gained a lot of muscle tone (I’m thrilled to say that his topline has definitely been
improving!) and it was clear to me when I watched my instructor that while the saddle didn’t
appear to be causing any pinching or pressure points, it just wasn’t sitting remotely level even
when Nimo had fully engaged his back.

So I headed home that day trying to stay positive about finding a solution, even though a part of
my brain was trying to have a meltdown.

1 comment:

  1. I hope some of those exercises can help him feel freer in that hind leg.

    YAY muscle! I know you've been working hard to build that! But boo potential saddle shopping, always such a stressful time.