Thursday, June 14, 2012

Making (Muscle) Memories


We've learned that the traumatic injury to Ellie's right shoulder didn't cause nerve damage, but that she is having issues with muscle memory. I've been walking her, and could feel and hear her right front foot dragging just a bit.

V, who in addition to being a rider and trainer is also a physical therapist, showed me where you could see that she had some muscle atrophy, and explained that she needs to re-learn how to move that leg without dragging it. It's like she's forgotten how to lift it properly.

Muscle memory doesn't reside in the muscle. It has to do with repeating a specific motor skill until it's performed without conscious effort. Riding a bike illustrates muscle memory well--you learn how to balance and use the muscles you need to ride that bike. At first, you have to focus and concentrate, but with repetition it becomes second nature.

Ellie's injury caused her to move in a certain way to compensate for her injury, and in the process she lost the easy, unconscious movement that she had before the injury.

On Saturday, it was hot and clear when I arrived at the barn at 9 a.m. I pulled her out of her stall to find that she'd applied and rubbed in manure on both sides of her hindquarters. What is it with white/gray horses that they seem to find manure to roll or lay in?

I groomed her, getting as much of the manure off as I could, but planning to bathe her after riding. This time when I put her bridle on, she lowered her head and took the bit--it was a smoother process than it had been a few days earlier.

Tacked up, I took her down to the arena, climbed on, and walked her quietly. V was giving L a lesson, and as I passed by, she encouraged me to just let my legs hang, and to "think Zen" in the saddle, feeling the movement of Ellie's back, letting her move my hips and low back. For me, that's easier said than done.

I tried to relax my shoulders and concentrate on letting everything go, but I found that I needed to push her into corners, or leg her up a bit to keep her walking. As soon as I did that, I'd be tight and rigid again. L lapped us on Butters. 

My legs lengthened as I dropped my stirrups and relaxed. I am a different body in the saddle than I was 15 years ago. Things have, well, rearranged a bit, so I found myself trying to remember how it felt to sit deeply, to hold my back straight but not stiff, to keep my hands relaxed, working the bit correctly, in a straight line, and not all cockeyed. It used to be second nature to use my legs and seat and hands in concert with each other, but I find I have to concentrate hard to pull it altogether.

Clearly, I have muscle memory to rebuild as well.

The concept fascinates me. I remember what it felt like to really be moving with my horse, and maybe that's part of what causes my fear and anxiety. Where I felt rock solid in my movement and reactions, I now feel awkward, and I have to think hard about what I'm doing.

I can remember jumping a horse named Clockwork. He was a big, chestnut off-the-track Thoroughbred. His cannon bones had been pinfired--visible tracks of old injuries. He had a rep for stopping at fences--uncertain about his own ability. But we clicked together for some reason. When we cantered or jumped or did lateral work, we seemed of the same mind. I trusted him, he trusted me. My legs, my hands, my seat, transferred my thoughts to him and he moved effortlessly.

It is the memory of that movement that draws me forward with Ellie. I want to help her move effortlessly as she helps me remember and regain that ease in the saddle again. I would like to have that sense of oneness become a memory with her, as it was with my 20-year-old self and Clockwork.

We both have a lot of work to do to get there, but I can already feel some of my confidence returning, thanks to Ellie's kindness and willingness. I'm hoping I can help her, and maybe she's sensing that I need a little help from her, too. We're both walking from different places, but on a similar journey.


  1. I think it's cool that you and Ellie can work together to get back in shape and reawaken your muscle memory.

  2. I know what you mean about muscle memory. Since I injured my foot, I'm very lopsided, and it causes me more difficulty now than my foot does! I find thought-ful exercise helps rather a lot. :)