Sustainability and self-correction for horse and rider — Equine Positional Release (EPR) in action.

I have had the good fortune to live in a culture where horses were needed for people’s livelihood, and where humans and equines worked together. Partnerships were forged, trust was built and understanding developed from long hours together, in and out of the saddle. You depended on your horse and your horse depended on you – it was that simple.

Working horses were retired in their mid to late 20s to live out their years teaching the young ones how to be a horse, and the young kids how to ride and care for horses. Every effort was made to keep your horse sound and in good health. Observing horse behavior and developing a feel for your horse were essential elements to keeping both equine and rider safe and healthy.

These skills are the cornerstone of Equine Positional Release (EPR), a holistic, non-force joint mobilization technique based on the principles of sustainability and self-correction. EPR has its foundations in Osteopathy and Ortho-Bionomy and makes use of the everyday horse skills of observation, touch (palpation) and movement to assess the health of the horse.

Developing Feel and Getting to Know Your Horse

Watching horses move and interact with each other and their surroundings gives us an enormous amount of information about their personalities and state of health.

Observation, touch and feel under saddle are simple and effective ways to monitor the health and soundness of your horse.

The essential nature of each horse becomes clearer when you take time to observe. Changes from the norm give you a clue that something may be wrong and needs investigating. Noticing changes in your horse’s behavior builds trust and provides an important external reference that can be used as a basis for specific EPR exercises.

Grooming involves touching a horse from head to toe. This is the next step in building rapport and getting a sense of who your horse is, and it’s a very effective method for detecting changes. Sensitivity to touch and pain, lumps and bumps, cuts, grazes and any irregularities in the coat and body, including the feet, can be detected by grooming.

Moving Towards Ease

The body’s natural tendency is to move away from pain and towards ease.
Horses communicate through gestures, body language, behavior and vocalization. They communicate when they are safe and happy, or fearful, uncomfortable and in pain. Signs of pain may be as subtle as a twitch or flinch, or as blatant as a bite or kick. We use these signs to determine comfortable movements to best suit each horse’s conformation, posture and nature. The focus is to determine comfortable body positions to enable free, dynamic and sustainable movement in the horse. Horses who are able to move free of pain and restriction are better equipped to protect themselves and their riders from injury.

For example, if your horse flinches when you tighten the girth, take the time to run your hand along their back and belly and notice if there is any sensitivity to your touch. This way you can determine if the horse is communicating pain, or an issue with saddle fit or lack of acceptance of the saddle. He will notice your investigations and help you find the solution. Regularly checking in with your horse is a good way to develop observation skills and feel.

Posture and body position are used to determine specific EPR exercises. The horse will generally move his body away from the source of pain and into the most comfortable position to alleviate discomfort. These movements provide valuable information about postural adaptations and compensations and how to address these problems (and move towards ease).

Non-Force Joint Mobilization

Gentle, non-force joint mobilization exercises are used to improve:

• The range of motion in joints
• The quality, strength and endurance of muscular movements
• Tendon and ligament strength and elasticity
• Circulation and nerve transmission in a local area and throughout the body

Slow, non-forced movements are used to take the joint through its natural range of motion. Slowing the pace of movement improves nerve transmissions, particularly proprioception, in the local area. Adding slight compression to a specific joint increases proprioceptive feedback, stimulating the body’s natural self-corrective mechanisms.

Utilizing comfortable positioning rather than moving into pain and resistance has a direct effect on the nervous system, reducing stress and gaining the horse’s trust and cooperation. Non-force joint mobilization has a cascade effect, reducing pain and inflammation, improving movement, and freeing up subsequent postural adaptations and compensations. Injury recovery time improves and balanced movement and natural joint alignment aids injury prevention (refer to exercises in sidebar above).

Developing and Promoting Sustainability

Behavior, performance and the horse-rider partnership improve with comfortable movement. Comfortable positioning with the horse builds trust. The awareness of comfortable movements teaches the rider to feel the quality of the horse’s body movement. As the horse learns to move freely, carrying the weight of the rider, natural collection and sustainable movement becomes possible. Developing a strong reciprocal relationship allows the horse and rider to move fluidly together, forging the potential for a successful, sustainable and safe partnership.

Use These Before and After Riding

1. Front leg lift 
Lift the front leg, holding the lower leg parallel to the ground and allowing the leg to hang freely from the shoulder. Hold the position until tension goes out of the leg, or for up to 60 seconds. The weight of the leg and shoulder will drop into your hands as the neck and shoulder muscles relax, readjusting their position.

The front leg exercise opens the ribcage and helps the horse lift and open his back to seat the saddle more comfortably over the back and ribs. The horse will usually respond by moving his head and neck into lateral flexion, followed by vertical flexion.The exercise opens up the neck and back, engaging the dorsal muscle chains. This lifts the back and expands the ribcage, improving breathing and engaging hind end muscles in preparation for riding.

2. Hind leg lift
Lift the hind leg and hold in a neutral position, enabling the leg to hang freely from the hip. Hold the position until tension goes out of the leg or for up to 60 seconds.

This exercise prepares the hind end for connected movement by accessing the ileo-psoas muscle group, hamstrings and gluteal muscles, and the lumbo-sacral and sacroiliac joints.

3. Shoulder lift
Lift the front leg as in Exercise 1. Gently move the hoof and fetlock under the body towards the middle of the belly; the knee will move out to the side. Apply slight pressure underneath the knee to compress the leg up towards the shoulder joint. Push only enough to allow the horse’s leg to relax into your hands. Hold the position until you feel the horse push back, or for up to 60 seconds. Let the leg down.

This exercise targets the pectoralis muscles, which stabilize the shoulder joint and coordinate movement of the body over the front leg, relaxing the torso and front end.

Zarna Carter devised EPR from her training in Ortho-Bionomy, Homoeopathy and her years working with horses in her Naturopathic practice and in the Australian pastoral industry. Zarna is the Director of the EPR Institute, which was established to foster and promote a non-force approach to horse management, and improve the lives of domestic and wild herds by utilizing non-force methods for horse handling, management and healthcare. The EPR Institute provides training to equine professionals and people interested in horses. Classes are held throughout Australia, in the US and New Zealand. Eprortho.com