“Maybe it’s Maybelline”

My friend’s horse has always had a mane to be proud of. It’s very long, full of volume and in great condition. Her owner is very proud of it.

Was very proud of it.

Above, is one of Rose Lewis’s fantastic black background shots of this pony and her mane, which hangs below her elbows. I’ll wait while you go and check where the elbow is on a horse.

If you already know this, then while we’re waiting, have a look at Rose’s website – www.daydreamequineart.co.uk/ – there are lots of famous faces in her portfolio, as well as yours truly. But I don’t think I qualify for the famous faces category.

Anyway, back to the purpose of my post.

This pony’s behaviour has changed recently and I became obvious that she was uncomfortable in her back. My friend started investigating the saddle and booked her in with the physio.

The physio found quite a lot of tender spots, so gave her a good massage and prescribed rest and light, unridden exercise. Last week was her second appointment, and the physio made a horrifying suggestion.

“Why don’t you pull her mane?”

Once my friend had picked herself up off the floor, the physio explained further. The little mare has a lot of tension in her epaxial muscles (the muscles that stabilise the neck), particularly on the right. The physio thought that whilst the quantity and weight of mane didn’t necessarily cause the hypertonicity, it will hinder her recovery.

If you think about when you have your hair cut significantly, like when I had eight inches off in the summer, you can feel the weight difference. If you also have thick hair and get it layered or thinned, then you feel inches taller without the weight of your hair. Likewise, if you have your long hair tied up in a high ponytail (think Ariana Grande) you invariably get a headache after a period of time.

After some counciling, my friend set to work. She started by thinning it before taking out the length, leaving a huge pile of hair on the ground. The mare looks like a completely different pony! The below photo is after the first session, it will be neatened over this week, but you can see the he difference!

Hopefully the physio finds less hypertonicity in the neck and front of shoulder muscles on her next visit. I found it fascinating, because a long, thick mane causing muscular problems, had never occurred to me. In the wild manes wouldn’t grow as long and thick as you often see because they’d be pulled out on brambles or rubbed off on gravelly ground when they roll.

I’d be really interested to know if anyone else has come across physiological problems associated with voluminous manes, or even with shorter manes that are regularly plaited for competitions. I’m not going to tell all my clients with long manes to chop them off, but I will definitely be more open to reducing it if we find soreness or asymmetry in their neck.

Rider Biomechanics Workshop 

A few weeks ago I attended a Rider Biomechanics evening, as ever eager to learn a bit more about riding posture and how to help to improve my riders.

It was organised by my Pilates teacher, and it ties in very closely to Pilates, which I advocate everyone to do – even to just improve your proprioception. 

Anyway, we had a short lecture at the beginning about how the skeleton and muscles work, with Harry The Skeleton to demonstrate. A lot of is it basic biology, but it’s good to revise the remind ourselves that in order to turn to the left we need to use our neck, shoulders, upper and lower back, and pelvis, and as one body part moves another will follow. Then we were shown how by sitting correctly on our seat bones we can be in balance, thus minimising the effort involved in keeping ourselves there. This was cleverly demonstrated by balancing the skeleton on a saddle that was perched on a peanut gym ball … it stayed there! 

Then we discussed core muscles, as the deep muscles which are in between and around the vertebrae before getting out the gym balls. Gym balls are useful for us riders because the slight wobble of them mimicks the movement of the horse, thus meaning our core muscles learn to stabilise us better for ridden work. On the gym balls we did some balance exercises which were far harder than they looked! I won’t go into all the exercises, but if you ever get the opportunity to use one, have a go! My muscles were aching by the end. 

One thing I found contradictory was where I should be looking. When we do balance exercises in Pilates we’re told to look into the middle distance, and by having a soft focus I’m usually fairly successful in the exercises. However, whilst balancing on the balls we were told not to look at one thing, but to keep our eyes moving because in real life you can’t focus on just one object. Which proved too difficult for me. But have you ever been concentrating so much on doing something you don’t see or take in your environment? I do that all the time. So perhaps I need to use my soft focus until I grasp the exercise and can do it easily, and then try roving my eyes around.

With our balance thoroughly tested on the gym balls we had a go on some wobble boards. This was good fun because we had to find our balance whilst throwing and catching a gym ball. Wobble boards look easier than they actually are. Can you remember those toys that looked like a planet and you had to balance on them? It’s like those!

Anyway, the most interesting part of the clinic for me was when we had a go on the FlexChair. Now it wasn’t quite what I was expecting: I thought it would show how level you sat, your posture and weight distribution. What it does, however, is improve your control over your body weight, increases the suppleness of your core muscles and  flexibility of your back.

The premise is that the more control you have over your core muscles the easier it is to balance, and the more efficiently you’ll maintain your posture because if you have a flexibility range of 1-10 then holding your body in position 5, central, is far easier than if you had a range of 3-7.

There’s only one flexchair in the country I think, or at least there’s very few, and it’s an adjustable stool, contoured to get you sitting in the middle. You adjust it so your feet are flat on the floor and then turn your attention to the screen in front of you. The screen shows a white dot in the middle and tilting your seat and shifting your weight moved this dot around.

Firstly, we had to move the dot vertically, which involves tilting the seat and lower back forward and backward. It turns out I’m quite stiff there. I used to have a lot of problems with my lower back but I haven’t had problems for years and I think it’s because my back muscles are very strong so hold me in place. Once I’d got the hang of tilting my pelvis to aid the flexing of my lower back it did get better.

Then we had to move the dot left and right, which focuses your attention on the pressure on your seat bones. This one, I found much easier. Then of course there were exercises which developed this, such as having to move the dot around a figure of eight, or diagonal lines, or whatever configuration you can think of. 

It was definitely an interesting exercise, and it was fascinating how as everyone concentrated they developed a flaw to their position, like lifting a heel or clenching a fist. Which would mean a lost stirrup or heavy rein aid when riding. After all, we all have go-to positions that we adopt when scared or highly focused.

The one thing I came away with was that I need to work harder at the shoulder bridge exercise in Pilates to improve the forward-backward flexibility of my lumbar spine. It was an interesting evening, and I think all riders would benefit from trying the exercises, increasing their proprioception and seeing any asymmetry in their ability on the FlexChair, which will have a direct impact on their horse’s way of going.