Monday, June 29, 2015

Cowboy Dressage as Physical Therapy

As a veterinarian, one of the things that I love most about Cowboy Dressage is that it is the ONLY equine discipline that I can think of that I believe is actually good for the horse's body.  Nobody that rides and loves horses truly wishes them harm.  Of course the things that we ask our horses to do put unnatural stresses on our horse's bodies and minds.  The horse wasn't truly meant to naturally carry a person.  We have evolved in concert with the horse, each shaping the evolutionary and cultural path of the other species through our interaction.  John Trotwood Moore said, "Wherever man has left his foot print in the long assent from barbarism to civilization, we find the hoof print of the horse beside it".  But, the conscientious horseman wants to leave the smallest human footprint on the horse as possible.

Within equine sports medicine specialties we recognize and categorize lameness and performance related injuries as they are associated with specific disciplines.  Barrel racers have hock issues.  Reiners have fetlock, hock, back and sacro-illiac issues.  Race horses have forelimb injuries.  Dressage horses experience cervical trauma (from Rolkur, generally).  Western pleasure horses have navicular pain.  It's tough being a horse and I treat all kinds of performance related injuries even in my humble rural practice.  When you ask your horse to be an athlete, some soreness is to be expected.  But, we can mitigate that damage with proper conditioning and balanced riding.

Let me tell you about my horse, Chico.  Chico is a 13 year old Morgan gelding.  He has performed in various equine sports with back country riding being our primary source of time under saddle until the past 2 years when we started focusing on our Cowboy Dressage training.  As a 10 year old, Chico began to develop uneven hoof growth.  I noticed what I called his "homey walk", especially in the winters without shoes.  When left barefoot without the constant correction offered by my farrier Chico began to be club footed on the left front hoof.  It was most marked in the winter months reaching over a 5% deviation from the left to right foot.  I could hear it in his foot fall pattern when he walked down the barn alley.  Imagine, if you will one of the characters from Fat Albert doing his exaggerated extra cool sauntering walk and the rhythm that would create.  That's the way he would walk.  There was no lameness per se and I couldn't track down a source of pain.  Flexion and x-rays were clean.  It was also about this time that I began to notice I was having trouble with saddle fit. My saddle seemed to suddenly ride low on his withers and often off to the right so that I felt like I was constantly having to adjust it back over to the left.  Massage and chiropractics helped only minimally. Chico continued to be off 2-4 degrees from the right to the left hoof on each trim.  My farrier would get the hooves even only to come back in 8 weeks to find them uneven again.

At no time did I feel this was a performance issue.  Chico never felt "off".  He was never lame or inconsistent in his gaits.  I knew something somewhere was off but I'll be jiggered if I could figure out what.

Then last fall as I was preparing for the Cowboy Dressage final gathering in November and doing only Cowboy Dressage I noticed a marked change in my saddle fit after just one month.  Evenly and consistently working my horse's bend and lateral movements seemed to fix my saddle fit issues.  At the end of September I was struggling to find pad combinations that didn't cause whither rub and by the first of November I was having no trouble at all.

When I rode at Cowboy Dressage school in April with Eitan he noticed the "stickiness" in Chico's shoulders.  Chico has always been somewhat bracey through his shoulders.  We have struggled with it since he was two.  With Eitan's help I worked through much of that braceyness that week at CD school and have continued to exercise and work those shoulders since I have been home.  Eitan noticed Chico's stomping gait and we talked about the source of the problem but didn't really worry about it.  Like I said it's not a lameness, more of a mechanical or physical brace.

So this spring I have had little opportunity to do anything other than Cowboy Dressage with Chico.  I have been traveling and teaching and spreading the word about Cowboy Dressage since I came home.  With teaching and it being the veterinarian's busy season that has taken up all my time leaving no time for my coveted mountain riding.  My farrier was here today to reset our shoes before heading off into the mountains on our annual week long back country trip for which I feel woefully unprepared this year.

Maybe I am more prepared than I have ever been.  When my farrier checked Chico's feet, he was only off by 1 degree.  That's the first time in 3 years that he hasn't been off by as much as 4 degrees at a farrier visit.  The hollows that he has carried behind his withers for the past 3 years are gone.  He is even with excellent muscle tone through his entire body and top line like I have rarely seen him.  He is also quiet, content and happy mentally.

In researching the various associated causes of non congenital club foot in horses I have found that for Chico the most likely cause was due to voluntary pain contracture.  The horse, feeling some source of pain (rider imbalance, saddle fit, injury) moves away from the source of pain, carrying more weight on the opposite side and under weighting the affected "clubby" side.  This is a condition that becomes chronic and is exacerbated by muscle memory until it becomes the horse's normal way of travel.

I don't know for sure what caused Chico's voluntary pain contracture.  Perhaps saddle fit or poor rider balance (hey, I'm not infallible!) but the exercises and bending and stretching that I am asking him to do in Cowboy Dressage is without a doubt fixing it.  I have not had a change in saddle, rider or anything else other than discipline of choice that has created these changes in my horse.

Cowboy Dressage is like yoga for horses.  We ask our horses to softly and properly come into various body positions beginning with bend and the soft feel that we ask for in the working gaits followed by the downward stretching of the free gaits.  With properly training your horse's body and your hands and soft feel we can help our horses to rehabilitate after damage that was done in a different venue.  Veterinarians will likely never publish articles about the injuries associated with Cowboy Dressage horses.  We aren't going to make a lot of money keeping these horses sound.  Cowboy Dressage is going to do more for keeping Western performance horses sound than phenylbutazone has ever done.

I am passionate about Cowboy Dressage because I am passionate about the horse.  Keeping horses happy, healthy and mentally and physically sound may put this veterinarian out of business, but I'm okay with that.  That just gives me more time to ride my horse!!


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