Having seen that Red Bull has been sued over their slogan ‘Red Bull gives you wings’, I should be careful with the use of this saying!
Just to clarify that for the record. While who knows if anyone actually thought that Red Bull will grow the partaker a pair of wings after drinking it, the advertising was found to be misleading due to the caffeine content being less than a cup of coffee….anyway, back to my post.
This post is about why teaching horses good posture, and even ourselves for that matter, will lead to better nervous system functioning and more resilience (giving us the imaginary wings).
There is increasing evidence in human studies that posture alters the nervous system state. A pose can be high power, such as lifted and filled out, or low power, such as cowering. Lower power poses activate the sympathetic nervous system and cause stress. Higher power poses result in lower stress and more calmness via the parasympathetic activation. Given that horses share a very similar nervous system framework and that other physiological findings for humans have also applied to horses, it is likely that the powerful postures will cause similar effects. I am working from observations in the horse, not just in my experiences, but also a variety of accounts that verify the same resiliency gained from building up powerful postures. However, this is something that research may confirm for more mammalian species other than humans in the near future.
Animals fighting or fleeing have an impressive posture. They appear larger and fluffed up for displaying power. This is likely to be helping them recover from traumatic circumstances more easily which makes them more resilient to being under stress.
When used often, a pose in either a low power or high power posture, can develop into a pattern, like an anxious dog that reacts with cowering when under stress. It will be repeated automatically as a response. This is why it is useful to become aware of postures and consciously act to change low power poses since the studies reveal that high power poses are better for our resiliency.
To relate how posture enables optimal functioning and thus a parasympathetic activation – which is where our bodies want to be most of the time; able to be comfortable, digest food, rest and recover. When we are aligned, supported efficiently by our muscles and joints, and have the space in our bodies to breathe and maintain optimal functions then we are in homeostasis. In this state, we do not need to overcome obstructions and resistance to keep ourselves functioning. When stressful circumstances arise, if we are able to conform our bodies to meet the challenge then we will be less affected by stress, and thus more resilient.
Teaching the horse good posture involves connecting their long bodies into one fluidly moving part. It is like the chain on a bicycle connecting parts together – a front to back to front again connection. The horse needs to engage their thoracic sling in order to engage the hind legs, otherwise they are merely falling forward and catching themselves. This is the start of balance, to lift and place the foot like a ballerina rather than lean over and stomp it down. Both achieve the same goal in moving forward but one is powerful and the other is not. It is the difference between being ready and agile vs. reactive and stumbling. The horse that is ready and agile will be empowered by their body control and have a greater willingness to attempt challenges (a resiliency to stress).
Balance is improved by working in different areas of the body separately as well as asking for slower movement. If you think about riding a bicycle or even walking, it is harder to balance at a slower pace. Balance is disrupted by leaning on something (the riders hands) or using counter forces to assist (taking corners like a motorcycle). A simple exercise is in walk, to slow down coming to a very smooth stop by decreasing the size of the steps, staying upright and straight. The horse must keep an even balance between front and back to be able to stay upright (not move the neck or drop the shoulders as the horse slows). They also must stay evenly balanced between left and right in order to stay straight. Adding to this, a few steps backwards in a straight line, will also encourage the front to work together with the hind using the same techniques as the forward balanced movement. It should not be rushed and the neck does not counterbalance by lifting up or overbending (rather staying still and quiet), with the hips rotating in engaged flexion to carry the weight coming back, and the diagonal pairs of legs coordinating.
Slowing the horses pushing movement down will teach them to balance. Unbalanced horses will thrust themselves forward to counteract gravity which is commonly a sign of stress and anxiety. A balanced horse is more in control of their weight and has the ability to use all of their limbs equally. This gives the horse a stronger posture and a better capability to carry a rider. In the wild a horse does not need equal balance since they are not carrying a load. They use their necks to counteract gravity very efficiently. An important reason to teach balance to a domesticated horse is so that they are able to cope with being ridden. But it is also a way to develop a relationship with a horse through groundwork. Balance will enhance proprioception and coordination, enabling their body to function well at rest and play.
You should be able to see the parts of the horse working together. In backwards steps, the diagonal pair of legs will coordinate when they are evenly balanced. The neck will not be used to counter balance. Slower steps can be maintained. At first it may be a difficult task even for these simple exercises, so this should be built up gradually. Like doing sets at the gym. Many sets with breaks in between for the body to adjust and process the changes is much more productive than too much at once and too little rest between. Horses, with their large bodies have a lot more to process than humans. Extra time is needed for their nervous system to adjust to changes. By watching them carefully and reading their body language, they will tell you when they are ready to proceed.
Sometimes it does take longer than we think it should. Be patient and there will be profound changes over time. Developing resiliency leads to a higher capacity for learning in the long run.