No herd…?

May 8, 2015

No hoof, no horse, we’ve all heard this before but no herd? Day five of Dan’s hoof poultice regime; I arrived at the yard that morning as usual and headed for the field. To my relief I straight off saw that Dan had some weight on his near fore and more importantly was standing with the herd! Poor Dan had been ostracised from the herd about five days before. Why? Because he had picked up an infection in his hoof which turned nasty and travelled up into his lower leg, basically turning him into a liability. Now bearing in mind Dan’s herd consists of a Connemara gelding with navicular, and a 20+ y/o mare struggling about with stringhalt, not exactly up for battle should a predator come looking for them.

This is me, Dan and his old herd.

1655858_773343592724667_5710477744780106421_n1I headed into the field feeling a lot chirpier than I had been over the past week but still can’t say I enjoyed the run-around I got from my previously dog-lame TB, who even yesterday couldn’t put weight on the aforementioned leg. Now I was struggling to catch a sprightly 9 y/o who looked to be feeling on top of the world, even though still clearly demonstrating a gait discrepancy.

What this scenario highlights to me is the effort our horses will go to, to conceal an injury, mask the pain and just get on with life as best they can. Why do horses do this; despite our best efforts to domesticate the horse we can’t change how Mother Nature designed them. Dan, once the proud herd leader, had become a liability and although animal predators don’t really exist for the domestic horse these days, their instinct to flee remains intact. So Dan’s priority was to regain position in the herd, for group safety, and also to display agility to discourage any hungry predators.

The horse is considered the 11th fastest animal on land so we can appreciate why a healthy horse could put a lot of predators off the chase.

This predator alert response, known in lay terms as the fight or flight response, is initially activated through the amygdala in the horse’s frontal lobe. This then triggers a response in the hypothalamus and results in the release of adrenalin. The hypothalamus, situated in the base of the forebrain and connected to the pituitary gland, is itself an endocrine gland (hormone releasing gland) and is the main link between the endocrine and the nervous system. It makes sense of and then directs signals from the five senses and the internal organs. Mini memos are then issued to either the nervous or endocrine system to dictate the body’s response. That’s the short version but if you’re interested you can read more about it here ;

So what happens if we have a situation where our horse isn’t motivated enough to fight and isn’t able to flee. When does this even happen you may ask yourself, well I’ll give you an example that’s all too familiar to me. Imagine you have two horses in an arena suffering with chronic front limb lameness with resulting secondary compensatory tension and restriction in the body. The first horse is a young hot-blooded TB and the second a middle aged “reliable, bombproof” colder blooded pony. The first horse is super sensitive, full of his own self and is determined to demonstrate that he is in pain and proceeds to buck his way around the arena when the pressure of the requests are increased. This is the fight and flight response in action. Not to anthropomorphise the horse but when I think of this situation I visualise a beautiful and proud animal determined to be heard. On the other hand we think of the colder blooded, less sensitive older horse, but one who regardless still feels pain. Maybe they used to fight or attempt to flee but have since resigned themselves to not being heard so instead brace their mind and body and block out the stimulus until the ordeal is over; not exactly the golden road to “partnership” most people are hoping for with their horses.

It was only during my Masterson Method Practitioner training that I started to realise the extent that horses do this, this being to brace against pain and unpleasantness. Jim Masterson used to say that it is the horse’s natural instinct to move or flee but when we take away this option, simply by putting on a head collar and tying the horse up, instead we activate the “brace response”.

An example I regularly use to explain this to my clients owners is to put ourselves into the therapist chair. Unless you’ve opted for a non-invasive therapy, examples of these, among others, would be energy work, MFR etc, anyways if you opt for the more hands on therapy at some point you are going to want to brace your system in anticipation of pain but you know that this is good for you so you instruct your muscles to stay relaxed. The Masterson Method describes itself as, an Integrated Equine Performance Bodywork that follows the horse’s responses to help them release pain and tension; nicely demonstrated by some of my clients below.


This is done by activating the four key junctions, (the poll / atlas, the shoulder / wither junction, the hind end and the back), in a relaxed state, consequently increasing range of movement and releasing tension the body is holding.

The key phrase here is Range of Movements in a Relaxed State; by working with the horse to stay under their brace response, what we now know to be the body’s response to stimulus it can’t escape from, we can help the horse release long held tension and restrictions. What’s so exciting about this is that by doing this regularly we can not only improve our horse’s performance but also their longevity. I say longevity because if we think back to Dan on day five of his hoof poultice regime, he is still some way from being 100% but as a horse he does his best to conceal his pain, as is natural and instinctive to him as a prey and herd animal. Fortunately for Dan I am not only aware that he is not yet 100% and as a result he won’t be back in work until he is properly sound, but also that with compensation his offside will be overworked, unbalanced, tight and tender. A lot of the time the injury has long since passed but the knock on changes in the body are overlooked and with no treatment being provided only become tighter and more restricted. This not only impacts performance but also contributes to the slow demise of the internal structures.

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