Peppy helping a participant work on her balance at a clinic here a few years ago.
You might wonder why I keep going on about getting ourselves moving on a page dedicated to the idea of dancing Tango with horses? You’ve all heard the old saying, ‘it takes two to Tango’, right? We spend so much time attending to our horse’s every need. We make sure they get the best we can possibly provide. We make sure they get exercised regularly because we know how important movement is to our horse’s well being.
Movement is just as important for our well being. Humans are designed to be moving just as much as horses are, and we don’t get nearly enough in our domesticated lives. What movement we do get is most often couched in a daily ‘exercise’ routine. We tend to take ourselves through a particular range of motions in whatever our chosen form of exercise – motion that becomes repetitive.
I had no idea how limited my range of movements was until I started doing Parkour. At that point it became quite clear how my entire body has adapted to the activities I’ve done throughout my life. I have done a lot of skiing (down hill and cross country), riding horses, lifting hay bales and muck tubs to about waist height. Most of my ‘exercise’ routine has consisted of mat work designed to free up all the tight spots. Because I spend time squatting to work on lower legs of horses I have a decent full squat. But ask me to hang from a bar and swing or crawl on my hands and feet, or pull myself up on top of something (other than a horse), and I’m in trouble. It was truly shocking to discover the number of muscles and movement possibilities I have never explored!
When I talk to students about doing therapeutic work with their horses I quite often get a list of the things they either cannot do, or do not enjoy doing because of their own body issues. I get it, over the years my feet have started to hurt more. I have issues with my neck and shoulders. I’ve injured both rotator cuffs more than once and my knees were killing me. My right foot developed plantar fasciitis last year. It’s easy to think it’s just a normal side effect of aging. We say the same thing about our horses. Fusing hocks and arthritic joints are just a normal part of aging. What if it’s not normal to get crippled up as we age? What if it’s a side effect of a life that is ultimately too sedentary?
Think about it, how much time do you estimate you spend in motion every day, actively moving? How about your horse? How many hours a day do you estimate you spend sitting in some kind of chair? How often do you or your horse move on varied terrain? Since I moved to Grand Junction I can tell you that I live on pretty flat ground most of the time. So do my horses. We control the footing our horses walk in and make sure that arena is flat. We put their feet and ours in protective gear. All this stuff we do to manage the environment limits the feedback to our bodies. Limits our movement.
Since we started Parkour my knees stopped hurting. Going up and down hills and climbing the ladder to tie down my hay tarp were becoming out of reach. Now they are easy. My right foot that I’ve been protecting to ease the pain of the plantar fascia I now walk around barefoot on my hardwood floors, and even walked barefoot on the river rocks outside my house the other day. My chronically tight and painful neck and shoulders still hurt but now they hurt because I am actually using my entire body effectively and they are unraveling the adaptations of more than 50 years of life. Who knew that the pattern in my feet from wearing heeled shoes (yes, even low heels count) all my life was a major contributor to the tension in my neck and shoulders? My hands used to ache all the time, the joints in my fingers seizing up from trimming feet. No more.
What if it isn’t aging that slowly cripples us? What if it’s repetitive, limited movement that cripples us? And what if it’s reversible? Based on my personal experience I think it is. For horse and human. The trick is to incorporate more movement into our daily lives. Increase the variety of movements we subject our bodies to. Think hunter-gatherer cultures and how they had to move through the environment to survive? Digging roots, grinding, squatting, crawling, climbing, swinging – we are designed to use our whole body to move through our environment. If the hunger-gatherer analogy doesn’t work, think monkey!
Horses are also designed to be in motion. They move and graze. They reach up to browse from trees, reach across to browse on brush, walk up and down hills, climb over rocks, move on widely varied terrain. Their ability to stand and stabilize themselves while they browse on a steep hillside picking between rocks is astonishing. I love to go watch the mustangs in our desert canyon range here. It’s amazing the kind of terrain they can move through. On my flat ground at home I have to get creative about the kinds of movement the horses and I explore to even come close to stimulating a similar range of movement.
Varied movement places different loads on the joints and muscles recruited for the activity. The wider the array of loads we place on our bodies the healthier those parts remain. As one of my Parkour friends once quipped – ‘motion is lotion’. My feet are a great example. I had no idea how many tiny joints and muscles live in my feet and how under-stimulated they have been my entire life. Being encased in shoes does that to feet… As I work to stimulate all those joints and muscles my feet get stronger and healthier. As I move all those little joints my ankles are stimulated and moved in a wider range of motion. They are strengthening. And my left hip is getting stronger and doesn’t hurt anymore. And my neck and shoulders are unwinding. It’s a whole body affair!
There is no gym membership required. Everything you need to move more and improve your health is all around you. A friend of mine recently told me that she tries to eat the rainbow every day as a gauge for keeping her diet healthy and varied. I love that analogy. I think we can apply the same concept to moving. If you need inspiration, check out Katy Bowman’s work on nutritiousmovement.com. I’ve been sharing her daily movement advent to my business page on FB if you’d like to join us.
Working with horses is an athletic pursuit. The healthier and stronger we are the more capable we can be of providing this kind of varied movement for our horses. I don’t have to avoid groundwork because my feet hurt too much. In-hand work because it bothers my shoulder. Trimming feet because I can’t bend over. Riding because I can’t swing my leg over the saddle. Riding because my knees can’t take it. I can be a strong, balanced, solid mover my horse can easily follow. It’s my horse’s who push me to keep moving. They follow movement instinctively and when I don’t move well it’s confusing. I don’t want them to have to guess and compensate for my weaknesses. Who knew getting stronger could be so easy!
It takes two to Tango, two vibrant, healthy, mobile partners. Let’s bust the myth of aging and dance!