By Visconte Simon Cocozza
Examiner for The Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE)
What is the difference between a horse that dances, and one that doesn’t? Breeding, training, the rider’s ability? Finding the answer to this question has been the focus of my career for over 30 years.
My name is Visconte Simon Cocozza, and I am an European Dressage trainer and Examiner for The Fédération Française d’Equitation (FFE). I have been very fortunate to have been part of many European Schools of Equitation and interestingly, German, British, Dutch and the French systems each have a slightly different way of bringing out the dancer in our equine friends. Hidden between their traditions, breeding programs, and training methods, there is a secret to every horse’s dance, and it may surprise you where it is, as it did me.
I have learned that there is no such thing as a bad horse, either in body or mind. Our equine dance partners are blessed by being deeply emotional, incredibly powerful, and very, very complex. This is what makes them so wonderful, yet can also be their biggest weaknesses. If a horse has even a slight problem with her/his psychology or physiology, or both for that matter, it will appear as if s/he is not a good horse to be ridden, or even dangerous, which is not her/his true nature.
Poor paces, difficult to ride, or unwilling to do something can be misunderstood as just being ‘them’, as if they are flawed in some way. This is not true, it simply means that s/he has a problem somewhere and is trying to tell us. Removing the underlying niggle, along with its misunderstandings and defences, will allow a horse’s true abilities and good nature to blossom like a flower. This is my job, and it is the best job in the world.
So what is the secret to helping the horse become the best version of her/himself? The best starting point is to look at the evidence. The signs we see and feel every day that indicate something isn’t quite right. A lack of harmony in our riding experience is the first giveaway, with negative trends such as lack of improvement and learning over time, mystery injuries, poor muscle development, and uncomfortable gaits all point to some restriction and misalignment in base mobility, and point to an underlying problem.
When ridden, a blocked horse will have crooked gaits, a fixed or sometimes unpredictable head carriage, uneven contacts, a bouncy back, flat paces, turning problems, poor balance, lack of coordination, and even seem rather lazy or crazy! All these traits tell us that the horse’s body is not working well, and our friend needs our help.
Without a rider the horse’s body has evolved to be perfect for its job, and the equine design is the most natural athlete in the world, forged over millions of years. If the horse is for some reason not smooth and confident in movement, there is always reason, and if we look closely, they are constantly and precisely telling us where it hurts. It is all on display in how they move.
While researching this hypothesis I have found that there are a few key points in horses’ backs that commonly get blocked, partially because they weren’t designed to have weight, a human for example, in the middle of the back while running around.
As the spine is the foundation of the skeleton, where all parts attach and all movement starts, changes here alter how the whole body moves, what it can do and more crucially, how it feels to its owner, the horse. If even slightly uncomfortable in the back, the horse will respond with muscle tension, limiting movement, making the body less athletic and our friend less willing, which is completely understandable.
The secret to solving this is thankfully very simple. Before asking for work in a session that may gradually increase back tension, a 20-minute warmup of core stretching, mobility and strengthening exercises really helps the muscles in the back and core to release and move smoothly from the beginning of the session, when it does the most good.
With a softer, more mobile body, the faster or more strenuous exercises are then easier for her/him and create less dreaded tension patterns. This is, after all, what we do with our own bodies before sport, for exactly the same reasons.
A stretching warmup also gives us time to feel the horse’s strong and weak areas, where s/he is stiff or loose, giving us a super insight into where we need to be careful and what needs focus in our training.
In discovering the answer to this question, I found that the principles of yoga were almost made to help our horses. Yoga’s slow and deliberate movements allow us to isolate sticky areas, helping them to gently release, mobilise and coordinate without triggering tension at all. This helps start a riding session with a happier, more athletic horse, allowing us progress further, more quickly and in better harmony with our four-legged dance partner.
To find out more about creating a yoga warmup for your horse, pick up a copy of ‘Core Conditioning for Horses’ from ‘HorseandRiderBooks.com’
Simon will be in the US giving a Seminar and Clinics at the ‘Equine Affaire’ Expo in Springfield, Massachusetts the 9th & 10th November 2019
Book purchase link: https://www.horseandriderbooks.com/product/COCOHO.html
My website: www.viscontecocozza.com
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