In this article, Margret explains Conformation Balancing and how to release the potential of your horse.
Conformation Balancing: Progressive Fitness for Your Horse
by Margret Henkels
Today’s Horse Trader, January, 2010
Horses are superb athletes. That said, like us, horses have a life. They slip in pasture playing, knock their heads in trailers, get kicked by other horses, to name just a few of the ways they can get injured without us ever knowing about it. There are work injuries, stress, aging, accidents and normal living that add to the list of factors keeping your horse from moving as smoothly, gracefully and powerfully as he can.
Did you ever have an injury that seemed to heal okay, but your body never went back to 100%? You always felt little pulls and stiffness in other areas—almost like a set of long johns that didn’t fit right? That poor fit is the tightening of the connective tissues, also called fascia, which hold our horses and us together.
Now, imagine bodywork that smoothed out these areas of stiffness and binding, so that flexibility and freedom of movement returned. Hips are even. The neck regained full range of turning. Muscles along the spine become equal on both sides. For your horse, grace, flexibility, lengthened strides, easy natural carriage, power and mental freedom to enjoy their work and life are just a few results of this bodywork.
Maybe you’re thinking, “My horse doesn’t have an injury or movement problem.” All horses, even healthy ones, develop inefficient movement habits and accumulate a history of kicks, falls and bruises. Over time, these travel through the horse’s body, compromising his comfort and movement.
For example, a pulled muscle in a left foreleg can cause the horse to favor his left leg. Over time, this will cause greater strain on the right leg and right shoulder. This produces strain in the right neck and upper back. The horse then feels unbalanced and is more limited in movement choices and won’t function at his best. Eventually, his body will rigidify the fascia into a more fixed position to support the imbalance as other parts of the horse’s body compensate further. Don’t forget, for a horse as prey animal, showing an injury could be fatal: horses go to great lengths to prevent the showing of an injury.
In Western riding, cutting horses can experience tightening in their shoulders, which eventually affects their stopping ability and time. By opening the shoulder muscles in ENM sessions, the horse regains that linkage to their rear. Suddenly, that lost time on quick stopping is regained.
Sound like magic? Well, we all know that the body has wisdom of its own and a remarkable capacity to heal. The warm strokes of the ENM practitioner facilitate the change in the connective tissue transforming from rigidity into flexibility. It all starts with the connective tissue. Connective tissue, or fascia, surrounds all the bones and organs in the body and envelopes and permeates each muscle. Its purpose is to connect the entire system into one working whole. The life factors mentioned earlier can cause the connective tissue to thicken into glue-like adhesions, which reduce flexibility, distort alignment and slow down movement.
Ideally, connective tissue is elastic and gel-like, allowing each muscle and bone to glide by its neighbor, supporting and working in harmony with each other.
ENM is the most powerful method available for restructuring and realigning the horse’s body. Sessions unwrap structural and neuromuscular holding patterns in the connective tissue that compromise fluid movement. These sessions help horses organize themselves so strides become longer, backs lengthen, gaits become smoother and the horse carries himself in natural self-carriage effortlessly.
I begin each session with a pat-down which is a fact-finding pass over the horses’ body. Here I am looking for sensitivities and areas of tightness or irregularity. Then, there are 15 stroke patterns, which I do on each side, in two passes. These strokes, which are often very light and low in speed, fully restructure the horse in five sessions.
Even one session can produce a great deal of positive lasting change for a horse. I also include other techniques such as dural stretches, which stimulate the circulation or dural fluid from the horse’s poll to its tail. There are myofascial release techniques that can address problems such as forging, uneven hips, subluxated ribs, head carriage and the gelding scar.
Your horse’s participation is a vital aspect of this work. The horse not only allows the work, the horse’s body directs the work while the practitioner facilitates. As the practitioner’s hands soften the tissue, it opens and change occurs as the tissue lengthens and space returns to the dense compressed compensation areas. Because the horse must approve of the work, there is only a positive effect. Make no mistake about it, working under a horse’s skin is a cooperative effort!
A major, if more subtle benefit from this work includes helping the horse to experience somaemotional recall and release. Connective tissue is known to have memory. The energy from traumatic event often enters the body of the hone and becomes stuck in the tissue. It can stay walled off in the body and become what is sometimes referred to as energy “cyst.” These can be released through ENM session work, especially with jaw and poll techniques. This is exciting and cranial work can bring dramatic change for a horse.
Moaner, a large paint horse with an unknown history of traumas was transformed by five sessions with special focus on his head and poll. His habit or moaning disappeared and he became more “available” to his trainer.
Another example is Kleka, my own 35-year-old Spanish Barb mare who still can take a 9-year-old girl on a rollicking trail ride, thanks to bodywork helping her with her arthritis and age. There are many cases where the sessions lift the horse into the blue ribbons by soaring past performance plateaus. Many of these results are lasting for the horse.
So by now, perhaps many of you horse owners are intrigued and wish to help your own horse with bodywork. Here is a technique that you can practice on your own horse right away.
The mane lift: grasp the hair of the mane near the roots in large handfuls, gradually begin to lift, pulling the mane hair straight up and away from the horse. Apply as much pull as the horse enjoys for bout 3 minutes. The forelock can also enjoy a pull. Grasp the forelock hair, pull down and away from the horse’s head. Apply only the pull that the horse enjoys and hold for about 3 minutes.
These simple releases can be a part of the grooming routine and they will give your horse a new connection with you, something nice just for him or her.