I usually find myself regretting that I have not taken before pictures a year or so after my rescue horses show up. This time around, I decided to take photos of the Choctaw Princess every 30 days starting from the beginning and make a record of how she changes. The easiest way to get a consistent position with the same background is by taking pictures of her while she is eating. It helps that she is then generally more interested in her breakfast than in my camera.
In this photo, she had been in my barn less than 48 hours. She had a touch of shipping fever with diarrhea and a cough with runny eyes and nose. You can tell that she is wondering why the fool human keeps disturbing her while she is eating by the way she is eye-balling me.
Happily, I do not intend these photos to be glamour shots. I want to record changes in her condition, which includes her fitness as well as her weight. You can see the vertical shadows of her ribs on her barrel, but the photo does not show how little muscle she had on her chest, back and hindquarters. The paneling behind her clearly shows how much lower her withers are than her croup.
There is a distinct dip in front of her withers and her neck appears very thin with a straight top line. The underside of her neck looks short and straight and her chest is a flat line. Although it is not clearly visible in the photo, she has a deep hollow behind her shoulder-blade that shows the horizontal and vertical process of her vertebrae.
She also looks high and light behind with a big belly. The high point on her behind is the sacro-iliac joint, where her sacrum and pelvis join. The sacro-iliac joint is one of the strongest and least mobile joints in the body, designed to transfer the impulsion of the hind legs to the spine smoothly and efficiently. This mare can and does push herself freely forward with minimal effort.
The dip just before the high point of her croup is the lumbo-sacral joint where the lumbar vertebrae and the sacrum join. The lumbo-sacral joint has the greatest degree of rotation of all the vertebrae in the horse’s spine. It can rotate a whopping 20-plus degrees. Horses change direction and are able to work on a circle by rocking their pelvis.
However, horses rarely run around in circles of their own accord so those muscles are not particularly well-developed. The first few times I asked her to trot around in a circle she was indignant at being asked to do something new and tired very quickly when she tried to figure out what I wanted. The fastest way to convince this mare that I am a problem, not a partner is working her until she is tired and sore. If we humans are going to demand that horses work on a circle, we need to make sure that they learn to do so correctly without stressing them. I had to be content with a few correct steps and then stop immediately.
If I ask her for more effort than she is comfortable with, it also quickly results in her eyeing the rickety poles that make up the walls on my round pen for an escape hatch. Like most free roaming horses, she regards fences as inconveniences and puzzles to be solved, not absolute limits on her movements. If she stays in an enclosure it is as a courtesy to me, and I want to make sure she knows I appreciate her cooperation.
We are now up to free-longeing sessions that last perhaps ten minutes. However, I have been extremely careful not to ask her for more than she wants to offer and I only ask her to work two to three times a week. Thirty days later, she looks like this.
It was a rare rainy day in New Mexico so the shadows are not as distinct as in the first photo. She is a little more tolerant of my photo taking but she is still keeping one eye and an ear on me. Otherwise, we are in the same place doing the same thing at pretty much the same time of day.
The single most notable difference between the photos is that her withers are now as high as her croup. Both are up level with the panel on the wall behind her.Since horses have no collarbone, they hold their front end (and our weight) up with a sling of muscle and connective tissue. If the muscles of their shoulder girdle are weak, their withers drop.
Developing the muscles in her neck and shoulders so she can carry herself correctly has not only brought her wither up noticeably, they have begun to fill in the dip in front of her withers as well as the hollows behind her shoulder blades. The various fan-shaped muscles that attach to the shoulder-blade have ‘fingers’ that attach to every single vertebra from the fourth cervical in the neck as well as along the thoracic vertebrae and the ribs. So her neck also becomes fuller and more graceful as her shoulder muscles develop strength.
She now has a distinct throat-latch where her neck meets her jaws. There is a bit of an arch to her top line and a hint of a curve to her underline. Her neck still ties smoothly into her chest, which has broadened and become more rounded as her pectoral muscles also strengthen with work on the circle.
And her hindquarters are definitely looking fuller and rounder. The peak of her sacro-iliac joint and the dip at the lumbo-sacral joint are becoming part of a smoothly curving top line. Stepping up and under herself on the circle gets her rocking her lumbo-sacral joint and working all the muscles in her back and hind legs that stabilize and redirect her movement as well as those that propel her forward.
As you can see in these photos, brief moments of correct work on the circle just a few times a week have resulted in this mare building muscles to carry herself correctly instead of just putting on fat. The vertical striations of her ribs on her barrel are not as visible as in the first photo, partly due to the light and partly due to her fluffing up her winter coat on a cool damp day, but they are still there. I gave explaining how correct movement on the circle could build up a horse’s musculature my best shot in The Gymnastic Circle, but even I am impressed with the effect that barely a dozen sessions of free-longeing, each lasting only a few minutes, have had on this horse’s condition and self-carriage.
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