Equestrians embrace “mindful approach” for horse lameness and rider challenges

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Leading equine industry experts and riders have gathered in the US for new masterclass series “A Mindful Approach to Horse and Rider”.

Several top riders and practitioners shared their knowledge on maintaining soundness in horses and coping with mental and emotional challenges.

The dual panel-format event featured discussions on “The Soundness Spectrum: Maintaining Horses’ Soundness Through Proactive Management” and “In Good Company: Top Riders Discuss the Skills and Practices That Help Them with Mental and Emotional Challenges.” Both panels are available to view on the USEF Network.

Preparation of the horse

Dr Tim Ober, team vet for the US showjumping team, was joined by fellow veterinarian Dr Sheila Schils, FEI level groom Danny Ingratta, and Olympic showjumper Daniel Bluman for discussion on topics including assessing a horse for soundness, defining and maintaining soundness, the impact of stress on horses, and steps owners can take to immediately improve their horses’ soundness – including improving their own education.

“Familiarizing yourself with anatomy enough to run your hand down the legs and know where that swelling is and know that it’s different from one day to the next [is one of the first things you can do to improve soundness],” Ober explained.

“Most of us vets appreciate clients who have gone through the process to form an opinion in that manner. Focus on your own education; get what you can from each example.”

Dr Sheila Schils at work with a patient using FES.
Dr Sheila Schils at work with a patient using Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES).

In addition to Ober’s veterinary perspective, Schils, an innovator in the field of equine rehabilitation and injury prevention, was able to provide insight and practical advice on many of the topics, including the impact of stress on horses from a molecular or biomechanical perspective.

“Stress to muscle is necessary for that muscle to rebuild,” explained Schils, a professor in the pre-vet program at the University of Wisconsin for more than 20 years.

“The only way that you’ll get a stronger muscle is to break down muscle fibers. Often what we see in our horses is they get done with a competition, and we feel their backs and immediately feel, ‘Oh they’re sore.’ In my world, as long as that soreness doesn’t become pathological, I’m in the back going, ‘Yay!’ Because now, next week that horse is going to become stronger.

“We don’t want to over-stress those muscles, but we have to look at this discomfort and pain in a different way,” Schils said. “The way that we reduce this stress, so it ends up making a stronger muscle as an outcome rather than resulting in injury, is we use the muscle more. The worst thing after the muscle has been stressed is to let it sit in the stall and rest, because then it becomes inflamed. If I have my preference, you ride them, because you have such a good sense of when that horse becomes fatigued. If a horse as had a strenuous week, and then you put them on a treadmill, or especially a water treadmill, then you could be not giving them that appropriate recovery time.”

When it comes to planning what is the appropriate recovery time and what exercise is best for each horse, Ingratta, the head groom for Millar Brooke Farm (home of 10-time Canadian Olympian Ian Millar), and two-time Olympic show jumper Bluman were able to provide insight into their own programs and advice for what may work well for others.

“In our program, we have these lovely weekly sheets that we have come up with,” explained Ingratta, who studied animal biology at the University of Guelph.

“We have written down that they’re going to jump today; they’re going to treadmill; they’re going to ride; we have exactly what they’re going to do, more or less, throughout the week.”

The same sort of daily plan and clear schedule is used by Bluman. “I think it’s very important to have a plan. Through the years, I’ve learned that from better professionals,” said the three-time World Equestrian Games (WEG) contender who represents Israel.

“In our organization, we know pretty much for the month, per day, what each horse is going to do. It’s definitely very important to have a good plan, to keep the horses fresh, and to know when it’s time to say cancel that show or the horse is not fit enough. With the routine being so precise, it makes it easier for me to notice if there are differences.”

Third placegetter Daniel Bluman (COL) and Conconcreto Sancha LS.
Daniel Bluman and Conconcreto Sancha LS. © FEI/Stock Image Services

At the end of the day, the decisions of managing each horse’s schedule comes back to the same concept advised by Ober: improving your own education. And for Ingratta and Bluman, they find that comes best through time spent with and getting to know their horses.

“For me it’s daily; every day I’m looking at the horse,” said Ingratta. “I’m feeling the horse … everything from acupuncture points to if their legs are a little bit bigger. We create a program to help the horse.”

Bluman added, “You just have to do it a lot with feeling, and your feeling gets better with time. The more experiences that you have with different horses, the more that you learn what to do and what not to do. Be organized, and then just judge what your feeling tells you. It’s all about spending many hours with the horses so that you have as much information as you can.”

The mental aspect

The second session of the evening, featuring Bluman, Kasey Perry-Glass, Adrienne Sternlicht, and moderator Tonya Johnston, MA, discussed the practices that riders use to handle mental and emotional challenges including maintaining confidence, handling mistakes, developing routines, staying present, and more.

“Before a big class, I have a very distinct routine,” said Sternlicht, who claimed team gold at the 2018 WEG with the US show jumping team. “All that routine does is bring comfort to uncomfortable situations. I was so freaked out the first day at the [WEG]! I had no idea what to expect. I found comfort in being able to a) meditate and b) listen to books. There are certain chapters of certain books that I listen to that I really, really like.

The US team of McLain Ward, Adrienne Sternlicht, Laura Kraut, and Devin Ryan at their presentation ceremony. 
The US team of McLain Ward, Adrienne Sternlicht, Laura Kraut, and Devin Ryan at their presentation ceremony at WEG 2018. © Sportfot

“Mental health, I think of it like a pendulum, so I’m constantly trying to bring myself back to a place that I know works for me,” said Sternlicht, who often listens to two chapters of Letting Go: The Pathway of Surrender by David R. Hawkins, M.D., Ph.D, as part of her pre-competition routine.

Bluman and Perry-Glass, a US Dressage Olympic team bronze medalist and a WEG team silver medalist currently ranked fifth in the world, also shared the routines that they have developed over the years and emphasized the importance that they have found in developing and keeping these habits.

“For me, personally, I just try to focus on the reasons why I do the sport,” continued Bluman. “I didn’t start riding because I wanted to win a five-star grand prix anywhere in the world. I didn’t even know that five-star grand prix existed. I really just started riding because I loved horses. In times when I’m really anxious or I feel my head is getting ahead of me, I just really try to remember that thankfully we work with horses and not with motorcycles or with cars. We work with actual animals that have this incredible power to give us that feeling of calm or peace.”

All three riders place high importance on mental health, and Bluman and Perry-Glass both spoke of the benefits that they have found in working with sports psychologists.

“I had a traumatic experience leading up to the Rio Olympics. My horse got overfloated with his teeth. He wouldn’t eat; it was just horrible,” said Perry-Glass, who had quickly shot up into the high-performance dressage world and felt that she soon found herself mentally under-prepared to handle those sort of traumatic experiences alongside the high level of competition. “After Rio I went through a pretty big depression through the season of 2017; at the end of 2017 I took a big break and started talking to a sports psychologist, just getting my mind right again.

“I think it’s really important to be mentally strong,” she continued. “Just because you’re emotionally strong doesn’t mean you don’t have feelings. I think it’s important to stay true to yourself and take care of yourself and your mind.”

“It’s a constant battle,” added Bluman. “To say that after the competition I’m not angry if I had a rail down, that would be a total lie. If I keep dwelling on it, then I start affecting other people. It’s important to bounce back from it. Even if you have to fake it, fake it, but you cannot dwell for too long. There needs to be a balance between work and sport, especially in our industry where we compete until our 60s. If we’re going to take it that seriously that we’re going to be dwelling from the time that we lost until the time that we win, we’re going to spend most of the year dwelling!”

The Masterclass Innovation Series was created by the Equine Tech Collaborative as part of its mission to support the education of equestrians and equip them with the knowledge and tools needed to facilitate the best practices in horse care, welfare, and management.

The inaugural masterclass took place on March 19 in Wellington, Florida.

“We formed the Equine Tech Collab with the idea that we are ‘stronger together,’ and that’s become our tagline,” said Nicole Lakin, the founder and CEO of barn management software BarnManager. “Together we’re able to reach more people, providing them with technology solutions and education through events like this that would not be possible on our own as individual companies.”

All proceeds from the Masterclass Innovation Series went to the USEF Equine Disaster Relief Fund.

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