Horse-rockers make you happy, and your horse, too.
I have often had the opportunity to look Nina Steigerwald, a pioneer of horse agility and gymnastics with horses, over the shoulder. So, I was all the more pleased that she devoted a whole weekend to a special workshop for holistic gymnastic training and therapy for horses with her special horse rockers.
The participants could familiarize themselves with the topic in advance, learning from two highly informative, free-of-charge webinars about whole-body and two-legged horse rockers and the necessary background knowledge.
Ernst Ferstl puts it in a nutshell when he states that
“The difference between theory and practice is in practice is much higher than in theory.”
That’s why most of the course took place on the well-equipped Steigerwald.T-Agility-Parcours with its numerable possibilities to train horses according to their current performance level. Five guest horses with none to medium rocker experience, from a 3-year-old mini Shetty to a 26-year-old Icelandic horse benefitted from two instructive and animal-friendly training days.
Ready, steady, go – rock! Of course, it was not quite that easy. For safety and physiological reasons, you first need to lay a solid foundation and develop movement and balance competence in the horse. Courteous waiting, safely mounting a limited space (mat) with all 4 (or 2) hooves on signal, correct axle alignment, shifting the center of gravity with firm hoof-ground contact, and again, safely dismounting from the mat are minimum requirements. We used several different types of gymnastic mats. As soon as a horse has mastered these basics it is ready to take on a rocker.
Starting with a fully stabilized rocker, the tilt angle was gradually increased. Even through the thick winter pelts of the Nordic races, it was easy to see how much the muscles and balance of the horses were challenged even by the slightest increase in instability.
Nina’s novel workshop concept of “speed dating training” was well received: all participants, regardless of their prior experience, became an active part of every training step. In each training session each of the participants trained for 5 minutes under the expert guidance of Nina. During this time, the bystanders were able to observe and receive valuable information on how individual coaching decisions directly affected the target behavior and, in addition, they assisted the coach by concentrating on the entire horse and help with valuable observations. Between change of coaches, the status quo was analyzed and the next training steps were planned to promote each horse individually, without overtaxing the animal.
One of the central elements in training health-promoting horse rocking is the so-called feeding point, which encourages the horse to make appropriate movements without physical or psychological pressure. This also requires some physical fitness of the trainers to be able to lure the horse into appropriately helpful positions. At the same time, a high level of alertness and lightning-fast decisions are crucial. The motto is “Click the horse and not the rocker”. The goal is either a dynamic rocking motion with a slight forward-downward stretch or initiating the rocking movement by a flexing of the haunches with plenty of abdominal muscle activity and appropriate top-line in order for a physiologically helpful joint, muscles and the nervous system stimulation.
Nina demonstrated with her own horses how these movements should look in perfection.
Particularly impressive was the development of Shetland Pony Wolfgang. I had been able to observe the very beginnings of his rocking career in the summer of 2018. Now the little guy proved a professional rocking specialist. He proudly presented a nearly perfect school halt to the amazed spectators, perfect with arched back, clearly set haunches and good load bearing. It was fantastic to see such a high performance level without the use of pressure or auxiliary reins, and have fun instead of stress.
One of the many highlights of this weekend was the opportunity to get on a rocker with a professionally trained horse and feel the rocking movements first-hand.
And even without horses, the numerous gymnastic equipment repeatedly invited people to climb onto them and find out how much balance, coordination and muscle activity is required on such a device, and how the joints are gently mobilized at the same time. There’s no experience like first-hand experience, is there?
This instructive and very motivating workshop was rounded off by wonderfully sunny spring weather and culinary delights from the farm’s kitchen. Of course, the traditional pancakes and the liqueur made from eggs from the farm’s own clicker-trained chickens were part of the show as well.