By Silke Tenbruck
Fritz is a 12 year old warmblood (Rheinländer) and was a very good competition horse with very good papers. He lived on a farm where one of my students keeps her horse along with a lot of other huge dressage horses.
One day, as my student prepared her horse for a groundwork lesson, I had a look in the stables to see what horses were there. I don’t know the reason but I stopped at Fritz’s stall. I was very impressed …a huge big brown horse with black hair and very lovely eyes! He came to the door and looked at me. I asked my student about him and she told me that he was about to go for slaughter because he was not good enough for competition anymore. He was a very healthy horse and I was shocked! I went into his stable and he came and cuddled with me. And what can I say … he was in my heart!!
So I spoke with the trainer about the “problems” and he told me that Fritz was very nervous in competitions …he sweated very quickly and he made his canter changes poorly. Fritz was very sweet and calm when you rode him outside but he couldn’t be ridden in dressage competitions anymore. I was convinced that with Connected Groundwork I could help Fritz have a normal horse life with no stress.
My student sent me some videos so I could see how the trainer was riding Fritz and for me it was clear what the problems were, the rider was stiff with hands working backwards and the horse had his nose on his sternum and looked uncomfortable. The next issue was that he was standing 22 hours in the box.
I was in love with this horse and I believed in my ability to help him.
At home I was thinking about what to do! A second horse, my work, the time and of course my husband! I told my husband of the fate of Fritz and showed him the videos (he has nothing to do with horses) and it was obvious even to him that there were problems, he asked me “what is the man doing to the poor horse?” He agreed it would be a good plan to rescue Fritz.
After a few confused telephone calls with the owner I drove to the yard and put Fritz on the trailer and took him back to my own stables. He was absolutely calm and not nervous. I put him in the field with my other horse and they were both big friends from the first second and I was very happy. They are like brothers.
Stage 1: Body work to release tension
So what to do? The first few days I did nothing, so Fritz can look at his new home. I observed how he was moving in the paddock and what his habits are. The first thing I saw was that he had tension in every part of his body and he was standing very compressed. I couldn’t touch him on any part of his body, especially his shoulders … he was biting when I touched him but not at my hand or to me but because of the pain he had.
So I start with Connected Groundwork and I ask my German trainer and friend Petra Sackschewski to help me. (A big thank you to her !!)
I started with the basics (see picture 3) – bodywork while standing using: Caterpillar; Shoulder Delineation; The Fan and Cheek Delineation, which are all Connected Groundwork exercises. I chose those particular exercises because his head was very high and Fritz had no idea how to telescope and release his neck. The Caterpillar was very helpful to get softness in his neck. He released very fast and after three times each side his head was down.
After that I try to do the Shoulder Delineation and must be very careful because there was so much tension in the area it easily caused him a lot of discomfort and the muscles were so stuck you could not feel the underlying structures. The left side was easier, however, the right side was very tight. I used this exercise to give him an idea how to release through his shoulder and get a feeling of how shift his weight more on the hind legs. His habit was to stand with his whole weight on the forehand and this exercise helped him lift through his shoulders and take his weight more towards his hind legs.
The Cheek Delineation helps to release the poll area or to open the atlas.
This Connected exercise helps the horse be able to “open” the neck and telescope. For Fritz this was very important because he tends to “close” (compress the muscles in his neck, bring his head up and his back goes down). In picture 3 I stand on the left side, face to the horse and start with my left hand at the halter. I stand in neutral position. With my right hand I start in the middle of his forehead and slowly delineate the groove in front of his ears and continue down the cheek bone until I finish with my fingers under his jaw. At the same time I breathe in and start sliding with my left hand down the line and breathe out slowly and slide to the midline of my body.
For Fritz the Fan exercise was very important because he had no movement in his rib cage. The fan helps to get a little movement in his skin and the underlying fascia and create more softness in the muscles. Dressage horses often have this type of problem because they are lunged in a way that doesn’t allow them to find their own release of their topline and balance and often the saddle is not a good fit either.
In picture 6 you see how to do the Fan with the horse. First I make sure that I am in neutral and my lower back is soft. I face his back. Normally you would start with one hand on the line and the other hand on the horse so that you have a connection with the horse. In this case, however, Fritz was so relaxed that I could do the exercise with two hands while he stood still. I spread my fingers like an open fan and place my hands behind the shoulder blades and at the lumbar area. Then, with a little tiny pressure, I start to move my hands and move the skin up and downwards.
It is not a “doing” movement it is more like a “sending” that the skin moves. I count 1-2-3 and release the pressure slowly. I start behind the shoulder blades and I go towards the ribcage and to the hips moving along the spine and back. After this I take Fritz for a walk and do the other side. In picture 6 you see that Fritz is very relaxed. I observed that he started licking and took a deep breath and that shows me that the tension in his body is changing into softness. When I take him for a walk I feel that he was able to bend more in his ribcage and that the bending goes through his whole body.
Again, it shows me that the “tools” from Connected Groundwork always help me and the horse to find a better body awareness without a lot of “doing” and “gadgets” things. The exercises are based on biomechanics and physics.
Stage 2: Body work to straighten
This is the spine of Fritz when I got him. He is standing straight and his head is straight! You can see this often in huge dressage horses because they begin riding them too early. Horses like Fritz are huge when they are foals and it is easy for a human to think that they are ready to ride from an early age. But their bones and muscles are not yet fully developed and ready to take weight or strenuous exercise. They will often start going to competitions at the age of two or three years old and their “education” goes very fast. Fritz was brought on for competition in this way. A horse with such a “snake“ spine is not able to perform without pain and stress.
So I start with another connected exercise – Spine Rake. Spine Rake helps the horse release tension in the long back muscles running along the spine. Spine Rake helps the horse find connection between his front legs and hind legs. Most horses with such a spine have a cold place in the lumbar area because the muscles are so hard the sacroiliac joint becomes compromised.
Further bodywork exercises that were helpful for the spine are: Shoulder Delineation to help telescope the neck and move laterally, Tail Rock to get more movement in the spine and shift weight on the hind legs. I also used walking an ‘S’ to improve the ability to shift weight from side to side and find balance.
Four corners was used to shift weight on the hind legs and start him walking without falling on his shoulders, and Caterpillar in walk helped to telescope the neck while he was moving. Shoulder Press in walk helped to shift weight from side to side.
Using all of these exercises helped Fritz to use his legs independently and find a connection between his hind end and front end. This helped to bring more flexibility to his shoulders and allowed his rib cage to move so he could bring his hind legs under him more easily. This made riding him much easier as I could address each of his legs individually to help him find more stability and balance.
After three months (picture 8) you can see the difference in his spine .The spine is straight. I observe in the Connected Groundwork sessions that Fritz was able to shift his weight on to his hind legs and he had more awareness of his body and learns to go in a nice balanced walk instead of “rushing” in walk. He stands in balance on his four feet -when I got him he could only stand on his front feet. He is able to bend through his body on a circle. He was softer in his neck and could telescope and bring his back up without tension. So this was the moment I decided to start riding him.
Stage 3: Riding
When we started riding I only worked in walk. It was very difficult for Fritz to walk slowly. He was always “rushing” on his forehand. He had so much movement that it was not fun to sit on. He hung on the bit so that I had a lot of kilos in my hand and pulled. So I decided to start with a bitless bridle. At the beginning he was very confused and didn’t know what to do with his head because he had nothing to hang on to. After a time he realized that he had to shift weight and hold his head on his own.
My part as the rider was to be in balance with a neutral pelvis and an upper body like a buoy and do a lot of rotation to bring Fritz in balance. My legs are always in motion with a little wiggle to give him a rhythm. I combed the reins so he had no possibility to pull against me. I always had to rebalance myself because in his walk he continually “pushed” me out of balance. So I had my own mantra in every round. The Mantra was: feet level, legs soften, knees open, sit-bones readjust, crease release, back to the back, stretchy elbows, breathe, activate the core muscles, float, and head up.
When Fritz pushed me out of balance (picture 9) he threw his head forwards and leaned on the reins and lands heavy on his feet. He did not lift through the base of the neck and there was nowhere for me to sit on his back. I could feel my upper body moving backwards and forwards and if I pressed on the saddle with my fist I could feel movement in my body which meant that I was collapsing and no longer activating my core muscles or sitting in neutral.
To re-find neutral I adjusted my seat bones forwards and started to float upwards and forward to reconnect my core muscles and lengthen my spine. I used checking lightly on the mane to help me feel when I got back to a neutral position. I also consciously created a rhythm in my legs to help Fritz find a rhythm in his legs again.
I needed something extra that could help support me to activate and strengthen my core muscles and I found a training called “Cat Power” or Cantienica Bodywork. Cantienica teaches you to be in a neutral posture by repeating lots of different exercises using small muscle movements to help you have more awareness of your body and find balance and stability without the use of force.
For me this training helped me get more control in my body and be able to deal with the big movements Fritz made when moving out of balance and meant I could always come back to neutral again. Cantienica has given me a good awareness of what my body is doing and the ability to recognize when I am out of balance. It also gives me tools to re-find my balance again. Other forms of human bodywork such as Feldenkrais, Alexander technique, massage etc. are also very useful for the rider.
At this point I changed again the bridle from bitless to bitted because he was able to carry himself better and the bit helped Fritz to engage his core muscles more easily through the direct connection from the tongue through to the horse’s core muscles. I also changed the saddle to a treeless saddle made of lamb’s wool. With this new saddle Fritz has no pressure anywhere and he moved happily in it, and as his body was changing every month this saddle was able to grow with him.
I used a number of Connected Riding exercises to help Fritz find more connection in his body and become more stable and flexible. To begin with I concentrated on combing the reins to help him release and telescope his neck and help him off his forehand, so he did not need to lean on the reins. I also started doing small rotations from the outside to inside to help him bend more easily, find a release in his rib cage and shoulders so that he could again find a way to come off the forehand.
As he found more release, I used circles of different sizes along with changes of direction to help engage his inside hind leg more and encourage more connection through his body. I also then started to introduce some lateral steps including shoulder-in, haunches-in, and turns on the forehand and haunches to help his hind legs step further underneath him, lift through his shoulders, and take more weight to his hind legs. This all helped him release through his whole body and be able to carry himself better.
In all of this work I needed to ensure that my feet were level , my core muscles were activated and that I was breathing so that I had a good stability in my upper body and Fritz started to carry himself and we are were in balance (picture 10).
This picture (picture 11) is me and Fritz at a groundwork session with Peggy in 2016 – a year later. You can see a distinct change in both Fritz and myself. Fritz had learned to walk in balance and had flexibility in his shoulders and could carry himself while performing various groundwork exercises.
He had more power and “push” from his hind legs and could maintain this when walking through a turn or change of direction. I had a more upright posture and much more awareness when my body is starting to collapse so I could rebalance myself more easily and that made it much easier for Fritz to stay in balance as well. You can see from the picture that we are moving in synchrony, we are working together and have a nice connection.
For me Connected Groundwork and riding is the only way to work with horses. Connected Groundwork helps me understand my horse, what happens in the horse’s body and in my body. To use my body in a way to make a change in my horse and get the whole potential of my horse without resistance, fear and pressure. Connected Riding brings freedom and softness to my riding. Thank you Peggy for that gift.