Moonsong Highlight: Toby

“The high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule.” – Albert Einstein

It’s Toby, such a fine fellow! This 9-year-old Percheron/Thoroughbred cross has recently begun his journey as a dressage horse, having been acquired and evented by his loving and devoted owner Lisa 3 years ago. Prior to their meeting, Toby tried his hoof briefly at foxhunting, but for the majority of his young adult life, he was a driving horse.

What do driving horses do? They pull things: carriages, wagons, plows, carts, sleighs…anything that is attached to the horse by a hitch and other rigging. Generally, larger-boned horses (like Clydesdales and Percherons) pull heavier equipment, like plows and wagons. Finer-boned horses (like Thoroughbreds and Standardbreds) pull lighter equipment, like carts and buggies. Driving can include work- and agricultural-related practices (like logging or plowing), agility and speed events (competitive driving), showing, pleasure and entertainment (like weddings and city carriage rides), and many other subcategories.

I see many horses that are in the process of transitioning from driving to another discipline. Physically, there are lots of variables contributing to the complexity of that transition, such as the horse’s own conformation, the age when he/she first began pulling equipment, the nature of the work itself, and how long that lifestyle lasted.

As you would imagine, the journey can be demanding at first, but there are ways of approaching it so that a new way of being is attainable, enjoyable, and successful for everyone involved.

Luckily, the vast majority of these horses are very agreeable partners during this process. For safety reasons, an amenable and unflappable temperament is bred into horses intended for driving. Generally, they have also been handled quite a bit in their lives, so they are not typically apprehensive about touch or manipulation of their bodies. That said, you can believe that if an otherwise stoic or mellow horse reacts during bodywork, there is good reason!

What I find most frequently in ex-driving horses are two things:

1.       Asymmetry in the development of the musculature of the body.

Because they’ve been required to constantly pull against a breastcollar, harness, or other equipment, and generally bred to be wide-chested, driving horses are often over-developed in the front end and resistant to pressure (because they have been taught to pull against it, rather than give to it, as we often expect).
If they were started too early in life, or required to regularly pull too heavy a load, they may have engaged the hind end in a desperate, rather than efficient manner. This means using the toes for leverage and tilting the pelvis anteriorly, which shifts an overabundance of weight onto the stifle (an unstable joint to begin with!). This results in an incorrectly developed hind end.

2.       Instability of the pelvis.

Since these horses typically balance themselves against a very heavy object, unless they were trained excellently, they have probably developed locomotive muscles more readily than postural muscles. Locomotive muscles allow us to move. Postural muscles allow us to balance and stabilize.

Postural muscles are required for the pelvis to find a neutral position, and to function properly as a movable anchor for many other structures of the body. Many of these structures are, in turn, required for proper movement.

How do we help develop postural muscles? First, we simply bring awareness to them, using careful manipulation. Then, we use gentle range-of-motion exercises to gently shift the center of gravity, which isometrically strengthens. Next, we use tools to transfer these ideas to exercise, to help the horse build confidence integrating the ideas during locomotion.

This can be challenging at first, for ex-driving horses (particularly the larger-boned breeds), because often they are bred to be “cow hocked”, which means the hocks are close together. This causes horses to be “toed-out” and affects the hip angle, pelvic tilt, and ultimately changes a horse’s gait. It is possible to positively affect all of these issues, but it takes true commitment to all of the methods listed above.

Horses let us know how much they can do, what is fair to ask, and what is realistically possible. It’s up to us as humans to trust their wisdom!

In Toby’s first session, he was participatory and cooperative with exercises, which told Lisa and me that he was comfortable enough to proceed. We could appreciate a visible difference in his posture at the end of his session, which told us that his body is capable of receiving and responding to new information. We could feel a difference in the weight and range-of-motion of his extremities, which indicated that he was beginning to engage himself differently, by choice.

All great and encouraging signs from this handsome, versatile, and endearing guy!!

Toby is so fortunate to have an owner that puts his needs before her own. Lisa knows what she wants, and she is entitled to that 100%!! However, she does not pigeon-hole Toby for her own sake. She gives him what he needs, so that he can be exactly who he is supposed to be, and time will tell where his journey leads.

We all know that unfortunately, true compassion and patience are uncommon, in our primarily utilitarian horse world. We can change that paradigm, one person at a time. Thank you, Lisa, for reminding us of this!