Good Horsemanship

Endo-Stick by J. P. Giacomini

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Tapotement is a type of rhythmic percussion massage to relax the muscles and release endorphins:

By JP Giacomini:

As soon as horsemen understood that more was achieved by gaining the horse's trust rather than vanquishing him, a means to create consistent relaxation (consciously or not) became the goal of all intelligent methods.

This is why any trainer worth their salt knows that chewing, salivating, swallowing, licking and neck lowering are all desirable signs of relaxation which are very helpful indications of progress to come during horse training.

These phenomena also occur during grazing, an activity that requires the peace of mind due to not having a prowling predator in immediate range. Grazing is a 16 hours a day activity in the wild because this time is necessary for a horse to survive on a vegetal, low energy diet.

[On the other hand, carnivorous animals need a high energy protein diet that can be satisfied by eating every day or 2 and is achieved through a high level of excitability and alertness needed for the hunt.]

Q: What is the connection between "The 3 R's", grazing and chewing? A: Scientists tell us that horses are endorphin addicts and get it mostly from chewing. In a stable, a horse left without hay will try to satisfy his 'addiction' by chewing wood, repetitive movements (known as stable vices) or even biting himself (in the case of some stallions).

This theory was proven by the fact that when morphin (artificial cousin of natural endorphin) inhibitors were administered to a horse that bites himself, the behavior stopped very quickly. Scientists also tell us that all relaxation begets endorphin release (and other physiological phenomena) in the same way that excitement releases adrenaline and sexual excitement releases testosterone. The reverse is also true, endorphin release begets relaxation, etc.

Q: Then the idea is to get horses to have an endorphin release, but then what?

A: Horses learn the most while relaxed, because it is the time when they feel safe enough to eat and indulge in their social behavior. The lengthy relaxation they enjoy from the chewing of their low calorie diet, also corresponds to increased blood flow to their digestive tract (for effective digestion) and their brain (for observing, reacting and learning in their social environment).

On the contrary, when horses are fleeing (their most specific survival mechanism when attacked by predators), we know that the blood flow increases in the heart, lungs and major muscle groups involved in fast locomotion. As riders, we know that a fleeing horse doesn't think or learn, while a walking horse does. Baucher taught his horses mostly at the walk.

This is why horses absolutely need to be calm in order to learn, which is demonstrated by neck lowering and the mouth activity described earlier (rather than the food itself). Dogs learn from the excitement corresponding to the hunt, which is key to their survival as predators. The food is the reward that actually corresponds to the kill. Dog trainers celebrate every progress with tidbit and a big game, while horse trainers return to the walk on a long rein after progress.

Q: How did you come up with "The 3 R's of Riding" and how does it work?

A: "The 3 R's of Riding" method I developed is the product of the experience of training many horses and studying the validity of past methods. The new behavioral knowledge explains very well what we have known intuitively and helps keep the process logical. Equitation is constantly evolving and is still a long way from a truly simplified method, but every new step is worth trying until a better one can be found.

"The 3 R's of Riding" is a logical development of all previous attempts at obtaining the general relaxation of the horse on command. This has been the goal of all the historic equestrian methods we have heard of or are still practicing today, because relaxation is the unifying factor of the universal equestrian principal: "CALM, FORWARD AND STRAIGHT".

Clearly, a horse needs to be relaxed in order to be calm, but he also needs to relax the muscles antagonistic to propulsion in order to go forward. He needs to relax the right side muscles to bend left and vice versa. Anyone watching high level sport understands that those athletes work constantly at becoming relaxed in some specific way that suits their efforts.

Yet this basic truth has not been spelled out in the horse world before in so many words of one syllable. Horse's relaxation has been mostly the product of the better riders' skill and own relaxation and limited to that. The 3R's offer a system valid for any body with a minimum skill to make the horse willing and capable to listen to them. If the horse is happy and secure enough through his own relaxation, the riders will have the time to learn the next skill indispensable for their own progress.

Q: And you achieve the endorphin release through tapping the horse with an "Endo-stick"?

A: Yes, the "Endo-Stick" is a soft rubber ball attached to the end of a whip and is the best tool for this purpose. I have tried tennis rackets, plastic wiffle bats and even my hands, all with much lesser results. The gentle "tapping" (technically called by the French name "tapotement" in physical therapy language) on the horse with the "Endo-stick" modifies the horse's response to physical stimulus progressing through 4 different stages (the first 3 standing still, the last one in movement):

1. The Resist phase: The horse is weary and annoyed, as by any natural stimulus. It is the primal reflex of defense against insects, etc. He will either fidget or lean against the stimulus. The trainer needs to lower the intensity of the tapping to an acceptable level, yet insist until the horse enters the next phase.

2. The Ignore phase: Also called 'desensitization' by western riders. In fact, it is an overload sensation to the muscle that no longer reacts or notices the stimulus. The trainer must progressively increase the power of the tapping until the horse's muscle "takes notice" again and enters the new phase of response.

3. The Relax phase: The muscle lets go of all tension and the horse lowers his head (due to the relaxation of the topline) as an automatic result of the vibration traveling through his body, or the endorphin release, which ever comes first, or both. Only accurate hormonal testing will demonstrate which one is the determining factor.

This phase varies in the length of time needed to attain and the quality of the results with each horse. Some horses go all the way down immediately, others relax progressively, others pull "faces", stamp their feet, shake their neck and only relax completely after a longer session. However, we have NEVER seen a horse not respond, this method has never failed so far.

4. The Energy phase: When in movement, the same stimulus (gentle tapping with the "Endo-stick") is applied to the now relaxed muscle and creates an increased range of motion and increased alertness in the part of the body that is being stimulated.

At first, the trainer taps indiscriminately in one area, until relaxation is re-established in movement. Then the trainer controls the timing of the tapping and adjusts it to the rhythm of the gait. This is done first in-hand and later mounted, using first the "Endo-Stick", then transferring the tapping to the legs that will work in the same way.

This progression should be applied to the entire body, one area at a time. Once learned, the Relax reflex is never forgotten by the muscle memory. Similar to riding a bicycle, once learned, no matter how many years pass, the muscles never 'forget' how to ride a bike. The horse's muscles have learned a conditioned response to the tapping, which brings forth the endorphin release and relaxation (the Relax Reflex replaces the Primal Reflex of contraction).

In my experience, it is useful in all the gaits, exercises, etc., until they are "re-educated" in this new emotional state, more favorable to knowledge retention. Once the horse is conditioned in the Relax Reflex, any vibration will produce a relax reflex (some times without even touching the horse) as long as the rider is moderately relaxed in their own actions. The legs serve that purpose beautifully, but the gentle "Endo-Stick" can be used just like a whip, only much more often and for an infinitely better result.

The Reward part stems from the fact that relaxation is in itself, it's own reward. It is deeply satisfying to the horse because it is linked to two very important facets of his life: feeding and social life. Clearly, voice rewards should be added to encourage the mental comfort and activity, but they are not critical to this conditioning method.

I use voice commands and rewards myself all the time, because I think it is important to encourage the mental activity of the horse and his ability to differentiate right from wrong. I also feel that the use of verbal rewards increases the apprentice trainer's judgment of the horse's progress. However, Muscle memory is the fundamental location of the learning process and relaxation is the most valid reward.

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