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  • Writer's pictureKristie Cotton

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world”

The rehabilitation of this 15 yr. Quarter horse is special to me. I know this horse, I started him as a colt. He was a stud colt and was the easiest horse I had ever trained. He has a great mind, work ethic and due to having solid handling and care, there were no ” monsters ” to undo.

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I became very interested in rehabilitating ” Hunter “, no promises until I could really evaluate his issues. To re educate a horse with motion therapy means I become educated as well. Every horse presents themselves with unique behavior/ lameness that requires a deeper level of thinking. I have to figure out what specific set of Dressage exercises will restore the horse to soundness and address behavior as well.

The story of this horse becomes a little like the chicken or the egg situation in which it is impossible to say which existed first and what initially caused the lameness/ behavior issues. . I cannot “ diagnose “ issues but I can describe what is physically happening, and how I am able to fix the situation. This allows me to put the pieces together and evaluate the probable. It becomes like peeling the layers of an onion to get to the root cause. Then it becomes like putting a puzzle together to figure out what therapeutic approach will work. The problems had been growing and the owner was at a loss of what to do. Head tossing had begun quite some time ago, then the stifle lameness appeared, then bucking, stumbling, left shoulder stiffness and finally, not wanting to be caught. This was very out of character as this horse and his owner have a very special bond. The Veterinarian could not find an actual medical reason for the lameness but they did try injections and stifle strengthening exercises. “Back problems are a major cause of altered gait or performance ” Jean–Marie Denoix. Professor, DVM, Phd, Assoc. LA-ECVDI, DACVSMR, Certified in Equine Locomotor Pathology 

Hunter spent a short time training to be a barrel racer. It was possibly around this time he began throwing his head in the air and pushing on the bit.  This becomes not only a frustrating behavior that turns into a tug of war but can also be dangerous. His owner did not know what to do about this behavior so he began riding him in a running martingale (training forks  is the Western term) to gain some control of this head tossing. 

     I am showing the following pictures to educate, this does not mean this was the approach taken with this particular horse. Running martingales are not a bad thing if adjusted properly. They are consistently used on racehorses, not to place the head in a position but to do what they are meant for, a backup device if the horse gets out of control, the leverage on the reins can help slow them down or keep them from grabbing the bit and taking off.

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Awesome pic of exercise rider/ Jockey Danielle Rosier. Notice the running martingale is adjusted loosely so horse has freedom of head and neck.


Misconceptions of using this to train the horse not to toss his head, actually create the opposite effect by keeping the back muscles contracted.

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Here we see not only a running martingale but the reins are also attached to the saddle to keep head down. The misconception that this is a beautiful frame is heartbreaking. You can already see the abnormal kinematic developing.


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One more example so you can understand the absence of empathy.


Evaluating a horse for behavior and lameness is an important part of the therapy. Once again, this only comes after a Veterinarian has cleared the horse of any serious medical condition. This therapy is not a miracle for any bone or ligament repair. I begin with an overall look at the physique of the horse. Muscles are like a map to what is happening.  Hunter showed Atrophy of muscling at lumbar, and had a lot of muscling on the front end ( shoulders ) but none on the hind.

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In this picture, you can notice the overdeveloped bicep muscles ( shoulder ) with lack of hind end and stifle muscles. There is no sign of abnormal muscle development due to force or improper training and riding methods. This makes it very educational to find the root cause.


One of the first things I noticed is he was not shut down mentally. Most horses that endure pain will shut down emotionally. A horse that is shut down will have a very distant, non emotional look in their eye. Some trainers refer to this as a shark eye. They will also react dramatically for no apparent reason.  I began the in hand Decarpentry method. This allows the horse to learn to follow my body nuance without the weight of a rider. It was simple to immediately see the inverted rotation as he was plowing his left shoulder into me in order to avoid bending left. Work in hand shows the incoordination of back muscles when simply asking for walk to jog transition. On the longe,  he absolutely refuses to canter or canter from a slow jog, taking the wrong lead or crossfires. ( front leg on correct lead, hind leg incorrect )

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The General Decarpentry method of longeing. The longe line is placed through a ring attached to saddle or surcingle. This acts as a rein but allows freedom of head and neck movement. The horse has to figure out on his own, proper flexion and coordination.


Again, the resistance is due to isometric hold on back muscles. Speed does contract the back as well as weight on the bit.

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You don’t have to be a professional to see how the muscles need to contract for speed, with or without a rider.


Pushing or placing weight on the bit allows the horse to evade the correct use of back muscles. Proper use of back muscles are needed to properly prepare and coordinate for movements as simple as a transition. Improper function of the thoracolumbar spine causes resistances and discomfort. 

Training began almost immediately, if anyone had been watching, they would have thought I was torturing him. Any slight tap of the whip to get him to bend correctly , He would not only buck but would roar like a wild pig!

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Hunter speaking his mind about change


This is not about the horse being prey and I am the predator. Those training approaches work for wild mustangs. This is him not wanting to change. We can relate as having to change anything about ourselves can be frustrating. It is my job to slowly introduce perseverance. Remember, horses seek comfort. Many problems cannot just be resolved at level of muscles, they also have to be resolved in the mind to guide proper coordination.

Hunter had quite a few muscle abnormalities.

I will go over them and how they are addressed:

1.) Contracted back muscles means there is no longitudinal flexion and no correct lift of back for balance. This is why he pushes on bit and fights all flexion.

2.) The lowering of the head only added to the isometric hold of back muscle and also created weight on forehand. This kept the hind legs from being th eengine and front legs from being able to propel body upwards for balance. He began to use front legs for braking and ” dragging ” himself along. This is where the stumbling started.

3.) The contracted back muscles also kept the trot from being a diagonal movement and he began to compensate by moving laterally. This caused a weakness in the lumbar.

4.) At some point, he became inverted and developed more muscle on the left side of his back which kept him curved to the right. This hindered his right hind leg movement, eventually causing stifle pain. The rotation also kept weight on the front left which eventually showed up as a stiffening of the shoulder.

” Horses can figure out complex compensatory mechanisms ” – Betsy Uhl Veterinarian Pathologist

Once proper mechanism of the thoracolumbar spine is recreated, the problem is practically resolved.

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Focusing on coordination


 If the horse has learned to function with the back contracted, he will continue to do so.  It is necessary to re create the back muscles through specific work of the thoracolumbar spine. Collected walk, shoulder fore, shoulder in, half pass, circle bend out, help the coordination of the main back muscles, which is a necessary precondition to resolving the issues.

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The crossing of the hind leg in shoulder in develops correct rotation of thoracolumbar spine, releasing back muscle contraction.


I share these blogs in hopes of educating horse owners to awareness of proper bio mechanics. When our horses become anatomically incorrect, it is up to us as owners to provide comfort to our horses.  Just as we would become aware of our own muscle weakness and alignment. There are many therapies in the way of massage and chiropractic but these only offer temporary relief. The root cause of the abnormality needs to be addressed. “Knowledge is power ” – Sir Frances Bacon 

Hunter continues to do well. I would ride this horse anywhere as he is well disciplined. We are so afraid of using words like disciplined or obedient when it comes to horses.

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Hunter taking care of his precious rider


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A horse with a good mind comes from proper riding, training, and care.


A well disciplined horse is not a horse trained with submission. It is a horse that desires to control his behavior in any situation in consideration of their rider. This is not achieved by training with swim noodles and other human toys. This is achieved by the physical and mental focus of the horse as a partner and athlete.

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” Only limitless thinking and dreaming can manifest limitless abilities and success ” –  Quote by Tavi Castro

Title Quote – Ghandi

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