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Revisiting the Importance of the
Horse's Nervous System in Training

by Mary D. Midkiff

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The Women & Horses Newsletter - October 2005

I know I have discussed some of this subject before but it has been a year or so and I feel it needs to be emphasized on a regular basis, so here is this year's installment.

I meet well trained, well "broke" horses quite often in my travels and am always surprised that these "made" horses are high strung, nervous, touchy, spooky, over reactive, highly sensitive and potentially explosive. To me a well trained horse is a horse that is safe, happy, comfortable, and quiet, relaxed in his work and play and can think through difficult moments and come out of them with confidence and trust. Sure every horse has their scary and spooky moments, but how they handle fear and recover can be quite different.

Just like any animal that has been raised with trust, support, patience, respect, understanding and compassion from a very young age, a fully made horse is a horse that is well-adjusted, trusting and fully realized. It doesn't matter what the breed or size, the discipline or use of the horse is, if he has the foundation of a balanced nervous and immune system he will find his or her full potential in life.

So how do you establish a balanced nervous and immune system in a horse? If you are lucky enough to start with a wild or domesticated foal or even a yearling you have all the advantages. You are the one that will establish the respect, the boundaries, the trust, the language of communication, and the connection between you. If you are well-adjusted and balanced within yourself, and know when to be firm and strong and when to be soft and allowing in your mind and in your body, this will pass along to your youngster and give him or her a very good foundation for a good long life.

I am working with two yearlings now and they are both coming along so well. They are both Arabian/Quarter Horse crosses from Canada who are healthy and happy in their environment. Since I started working with them and their owners 4 months ago, they have progressed quickly to being willing partners who enjoy their "work" time. We only work for 20-30 minutes once per week and focus on the nervous system (NS) and getting their focus on the partner.

With a horse that is young but has been handled by others you may have to start over unless you know they have had the proper introduction to people, to ground work, to manners, and to work under saddle or in front of a cart. Unless you were witness to the horse being trained before he or she came to you then you cannot know what internal thinking layers have been put into or left out in the horse.

I think it wise to spend a lot of quality time with a young horse and especially a new young horse. Do lots of positive ground work a few times a week and other times just hang out together in the pasture or take walks together around the property or over nearby trails. You will be starting the bond and shifting the nervous system toward relaxation if you begin this way.

With an older more experienced horse that comes to you or you decide to take on, the shift of the nervous system will take longer and you will need to be very patient. He or she may revert back to their old habits and old ways occasionally and you must understand this, be patient and give them a nice break with an endorphin release from acupressure or massage. This is difficult because the horse may be rideable and may know a lot but still has no foundation of comfort and confidence within themselves. They need to learn a different way of using their mind and body to function in performance. You will find a lot missing in a horse like this and it will be hard to identify what is wrong. So he walks, trots, canters, and lopes, whatever and does a few tricks well but he's just not present. He has been trained with a "rote" approach or repetitive learning from force rather than a thinking, understanding and processing approach. In other words his nervous system is shut down and not operating or functioning overtime, therefore, you have little or no brain to work with which can be dangerous and frustrating.

So what are the steps and how do you make changes to connect the brain to the body and to you?

First, let's create a Nervous System rating system, 1-10.

  • 1 - being malnourished, barely functioning, shallow breathing, lifeless, completely shut down
  • 10 - being so strung out and hyper as if a pack of wolves were about to attack

You want your horse to always function around 5-6. This would be the place that he or she is balanced, sane, happy, comfortable and thinking. They are present with you and always look inside of themselves rather than outward at the next scariest thing. They are normally reactive but always come back into themselves automatically and quickly when they are initially scared. They learn to process information and education and store it inside of themselves as useful and meaningful and will put it together with other pieces to figure out the next challenge.

Here are many of the steps to achieving this with a horse. Developing a balanced NS comes quickly if you have a blank slate like a foal or yearling, and some horses are simply smarter than others and may "catch on" to the whole process sooner than others, but remember there are late bloomers in horses too. Give all of this information plenty of time; you are shifting an entire chemical system of the horse. It has taken my new horse one year and three months to see a significant long lasting shift. What a joy he is today! It is absolutely worth the time.

1) The horse must be physically comfortable before you can make changes. You can start to make the NS changes while you are having his body work done but he will not be able to fully receive the chemical shift until he is totally clear through his spine and into his brain.

a. Complete Body Work and Immune System Support: Professional dentistry, feet are balanced, body skeleton in alignment, ligaments, tendons and soft tissue are healthy, airways and breathing are normal, temperature is normal, healthy weight, bright eyes and coat, skin is soft and supple and well hydrated, coat and mane will lie flat and not stand up on end like with static electricity flip flopping in all directions, tail is fully functional and the horse is not carrying it off to one side (except for Arabians which may have this trait innately), joints are healthy and fully supported with nutrition. Make sure your horse is not overly toxic with too much worming, supplementing, feeding and vaccinating. There is a healthy balance that needs to be established. A horse that is toxic is a horse with a chronic hangover and you can imagine trying to work and think in this foggy state.

2) Start with mouth massage. Many horses hold their stress and tension in their jaw and mouth, biters and mouthy horses will especially benefit from this work. First of all, I like to wipe out their nostrils and clean up their muzzle with a wet cloth to get a good clean airway. I place a couple of drops of W&H "The InBalance Horse" oil on my hand and rub it on their muzzle and around their nostrils. I have now created a very relaxing environment to start. If you are standing on his left side, place a flat left hand underneath his top lip and on top of his upper gums and slowly rub back and forth staying under the lip but on top of the gums. Do this for about 10-15 seconds and bring your hand out and watch his reactions.

*To see an endorphin influence watch the blinking and rolling of the eyes, sleepy eyes, the shaking of the head, the shaking of the body, yawning, licking, chewing, lowering the head and generally relaxing. If the horse fights you, try and stay in the mouth and keep massaging the upper gum. Then let him think about it for a minute and go to the other side of the horse, use your right hand and repeat.

You can also massage the corners of the horse's mouth by placing your fingertips in his nostril and using the heel of your hand to circle and massage his corners. Watch for the same endorphin release as above, you know you are giving the horse good chemical feelings and affecting his nervous system.

3) Try acupressure. Place two fingers in the cavity hole or socket above the horse's eye and gently press and hold for a minute or so until the horse shows signs of release as mentioned above. If you have wide hands you can place a thumb in one eye socket and your pinky in the other and hold.

Another great spot is about 4 inches behind the ears on either side of the neck. Place a hand behind the ear and run your fingers down the neck about two inches below the mane line and feel for a dime sized hole. Once you find it place two fingers in the hole and gently press and hold. Watch for the signs of the chemical release. Do this on both sides as horses will react differently on either side of the body.

4) Stroke the ears. Get your horse used to you stroking their ears from the base out to the tip over and over. They get a lot of good chemical release from this feeling and it will help you with bridling and with trimming when you need it. Mares especially get a benefit from this massage as they have hormonal points near the tips of the ears.

5) Rub the coronary band just above your horse's hoof. Place one hand all the way around the band that connects the leg to the hoof and rub back and forth like you are washing a jar. These are beneficial acupressure points there for relaxation and connection into the body.

6) Learn to give your horse a massage or have him or her professionally massaged as often as you can afford it. I have my horse done once per month professionally and I do it for him every now and then myself. This will benefit all of the systems and bring your horse into ultimate health. You will get to know your horse's body really well through this process. You will also get to know the spots that he really loves to have rubbed or itched which is fun.

7) Look into alternative methods of release and relaxation for your horse. Horses are athletes and they need support. Use acupuncture, chiropractic, rolfing, energy work and magnet therapy when you can.

8) In training, do as much ground work as you do under saddle. Use the "S"ing exercises on the ground that I define in my "Fitness, Performance and the Female Equestrian" book or that I describe on my website. Integrate what you learn from "Natural Horsemanship" techniques with your own methods and with methods that you feel will work for you. Don't stick with one way and only one way with horses, constantly be adjusting and adding to what that individual horse needs at the time. I am a real believer in changing it up for horses as often as I can and finding what works.

9) In riding, train the nervous system instead of riding the wheels. In other words, always train and ride to educate and encourage rather than just exercising your horse's legs. I see riders that go out and trot and canter their horses thoughtlessly for an hour and the horse doesn't learn a thing or think once during the entire session. So the rider has just been going round and round getting the horse fitter and fitter and putting more pressure on the joints with no benefit. They haven't accomplished anything.

If fitness is a goal, the horse needs to go out on trail rides and climb a few hills and do some road work if possible. Your fitness training should be on straight-aways as much as possible or in a very large arena or track.

Most horses, unless you are training to race or for upper level performance or endurance competitions, don't need a tremendous amount of conditioning. If you are working them 4 days per week with positive exercises, strength work and a bit of aerobic work,(and of course you are equally as fit as your horse) you and your horse can complete most types of competition successfully. If you are not fit and not doing your part you are putting unnecessary pressure and drag on your horse's body.

Training with NS health as the basis and bringing them up to working in self-carriage (the goal of every horse and rider) gives them everything they need to do jumping, dressage, reining, roping, barrel racing, hunter under saddle, pleasure riding, trail and endurance competition, whatever. You can always add your style of dress and saddle and the areas of specialty once you have the healthy foundation.

I had one trainer a long time ago tell me "It's always easier to start a fire than to put one out." By taking the approach to balance the nervous system first, then create the physical athlete through training for self-carriage you will always have the grounded horse you want and can always build on up to the highest levels.

If you are considering or currently work with horses that have a naturally hot or sensitive nervous system such as Arabians, Thoroughbreds, National Show Horses, Saddlebreds, Akhal-Tekes, some warmbloods and cross breds, this approach is absolutely necessary. These horses are easily ruined and unrecoverable once their nervous systems have been blown. They will never be safe, comfortable or happy in their body or their work if their nervous systems have been severely damaged. It is very sad but true. Pay particular attention to these breeds when you are working with their delicate mental chemistry.

The more naturally quiet breeds will be less sensitive but can be abused because of their gentle and giving natures. Make sure you give them all the credit and time they deserve to adjust to a healthy balance. Some horses that have been on dude ranch or commercial strings will go into a deep dark depression and seem very quiet when they are severely damaged and may explode when unexpected. Make sure if you take on one these horses that you give them lots of good nutrition (not overfeeding protein), all the body work I mentioned at the beginning of this newsletter and plenty of time to come into health before you expect them to think clearly.

Most horses can be recovered if given time and the proper support. I hope you will honor your horse by working with him or her in this manner from now on. It makes a huge difference in how they view their work with us.

I also want to comment briefly on nosebands. Nosebands and throat latches were created to hold the bridle on the head if the bit breaks or comes loose. Nosebands were also created to give the rider more leverage off of the bit and more control of speed and turning and supposedly to help keep the mouth shut. What has happened over the years is that people will rely on tightening the nosebands rather than training the horse to be more responsive and to think. Especially with the hotter horses I see people with very tight "crank" nosebands to where you cannot even get a pinky finger underneath it; figure 8 nosebands improperly fitted on the face and way too tight (remember there is a piece of steel where it crosses the nose); flash nosebands pulled so tight that the nostrils are squeezed outward and struggling to suck air in and out and also improperly placed too low on the nose.

What happens in all of these situations is that the frontal lobe of the horse's brain slows down or stops working because of lack of oxygen, impingement on and of the nasal cavity, TMJ and headache muscle pain, poll pain and numbness in the face. So 1/2 the horse's brain is not functioning and you wonder why he's out of control?

I have found, even with difficult horses that run off or are hard to steer, that if I train him to think and work with me and use equipment that he likes, I don't have to resort to tighter anything. With my mare Theo who was a big strong high strung Thoroughbred off the track, I evented her in a simple snaffle and regular cavesson. And with my new horse, Redge, less is more with him and he's a strong, young, big-moving warmblood. I ride him in a pinchless D ring snaffle and regular cavesson that is just snug around his face but that I can easily get a couple of fingers under. He is thinking clearly and fully using his brain now which is giving me much more control and steering than ever before. When I first got him he also opened his mouth a great deal and cocked his head from poll pain. All of that is gone and without the use of tighter or "more" equipment.

There may be cases in upper level competition where you do need some help with brakes and steering. Using the nosebands mentioned above can be helpful but only if they are properly fitted, snug but not tight, the rider is in top condition to not have to rely on the equipment and the rider has sensitive hands and knows how to use the equipment properly.

It all boils down to full healthy brain and nervous system function and its up to you to develop this within your horse.

The use of aromatherapy can also be very helpful in activating the brain and NS system in a positive way. I use it everyday with my horses and it brings them into awareness and focus and calm that I want when we meet and work together. I simply put a few drops in the palm of my hand, rub my hands together and hold them up to the horse’s nose. If he is accepting (I’ve never had one turn me down yet.) then I go ahead and massage my hands around his nostrils and muzzle and do a bit of mouth massage. The W&H essential oils are formulated to work for the human and the horse and can help both of you perform your work together with mental and emotional clarity. Because the oil blends are so highly concentrated they will last from 3-6 months with regular use which is different than most of the oil aromatherapy products on the market. This is another excellent tool for training your horse in a positive manner without resorting to tight nosebands, draw reins, martingales, tie downs and pulley systems.

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Questionnaire and New Product Survey

Women & Horses™ Essential Oils Products:
Four Seasonal Oils: Spring, Summer, Winter and Fall (1 oz.bottles)
The InBalance Horse (2 oz. bottle)
Sleigh Ride! (1 oz. bottle)
Relax and Release Body and Bath Oil (4 oz. bottle)

In the past couple of months W&H has sent out information on new essential oil products for women and horses in the form of a newsletter and press releases.

1) Have you read about the essential oil products? _____Yes ____No

2) Are the essential oil products of interest to you? ____Yes ____No

a. If not, why not?

_____Do not know how to use
_____Other (Please explain)

3) Are you aware of the benefits and uses of the oils for you and your horse?

____Yes ____No

4) Are you comfortable using the oils on you and your horse?

and if not, what makes you uncomfortable about them, please explain:

5) Are you currently using other aromatherapy products for you and your horse?

____Yes ____No

6) Would you be interested in receiving additional information, photos and scented card samples of the W&H Essential Oils through the mail?

____Yes ____No

If you would like to receive more information and samples in the mail please supply us with your home or business address.

Any additional comments would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for taking time to help us serve you and your horse.

More information about Essential Oils and Aromatherapy for Horses

Stay tuned for my new project release with Pilates expert, Maggie Parker. Formerly referred to as a "workbook" I have named the new book project "The Dynamic Rider System®". The first installment is "Finding Your Foundation in the Saddle." Every installment will be a detailed exercise fold out piece and attached information which you may store in a three-ring binder or take out and use at home or in the barn and simply wipe clean. We are going to press next week and I hope to have it available by November 1. It is specifically created for the benefit of the female rider and integrates the Pilates Method with riding horses.

My next public appearance and seminar are November 9 and 10 in Salt Lake City, Utah with the Steve Regan Expo.

Happy Riding! Mary D. Midkiff

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