August 2019 - The Gallop: Anne Howard Interview

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Passion for horses, dressage and biomechanics enable Northern California equestrian to carry on her mother’s legacy, for everybody’s benefit.

by Kim F. Miller

Anne Howard is a big fan of CeeCoach blue-tooth communication devices that enable her to say things like “Move your left PEA forward” to a warm-up ring student at shows without the whole world hearing. “We used to have to yell those kind of things across the arena and we got a lot of funny looks,” says the dressage coach, trainer and Grand Prix rider and physical therapist and owner of the American Sporthorse and the Center for Dressage Education in the Monterey area’s Watsonville. Anne explains that PEA stands for “panty elastic line,” a term her riders know as a specific point of seatbone connection with the saddle.

 

Actually, Anne doesn’t really care about funny looks. The open mind she inherited from her legendary mom, Alexsandra “Sandy” Howard, applies to all things that might help improve horses and riders and their partnership. “My mom was very forward thinking,” says Anne of Sandy, who passed away in 2013. “She was always open to new methodologies and trying new things and asking, if the status quo wasn’t working, what could be done to make it better.”

 

Another of Anne’s distinguishing traits is that she thinks dressage should be studied in a college-like environment, “where students learn from several professors, not just one.” Training clients, boarders and those who haul-in to her facility can work with Anne, Tracey Lert and/or Joanie Bolton, plus a regular slate of visiting clinicians. As a competitor, Anne is familiar to many from her past stars Posh and Euro Pro Pacho and with Rondo, the Grand Prix contender with whom she returned to the circuit this summer.

With this issue’s focus on dressage and therapy, it’s a perfect time for an in-depth interview with Anne. California Riding Magazine editor Kim F Miller enjoyed an in-person visit to her beautiful Central Coast horse haven and a long phone chat about her interesting ideas, experiences and life.

Kim: You are a devotee of Many Wanless, the rider biomechanics pioneer, and a demo rider in her 1996 video Rider’s Guide to Body Awareness. How did that start?
Anne:
Mary was a speaker at a California Dressage Society annual meeting. She wanted to talk to USET riders and interviewed Sandy for her new book. My mom thought her ideas were really interesting and invited her to do a clinic the next few days as she was still in town. That was my mom’s introduction to rider biomechanics and we’ve been having Mary back for clinics every year since 1991. She has changed how we ride in a big way. And, early on, it was a fit with what I was learning in school to become a physical therapist.
Over time, we developed a core group of students, many of whom have come to every one of Mary’s workshops every year. Heidi Chote, Heidi Riddle, Tanya Vik and recent USET team rider Olivia LaGoy-Weltz are among the now top trainers and riders who grew up in this system. “We speak the same language. With just a little background, we can effectively coach each other’s students at shows if needed, and trust each other’s opinions on a prospective new horse, for example. Establishing this core group of local colleagues is one of Sandy’s wonderful legacies.”

Kim: What’s your layman’s summary of Mary’s approach?
Anne:
It’s training the body to be a force for good. Your body is going to have an influence when you sit on a horse, it can be good, neutral or problematic. An example is an eventing rider who came to me recently for help with dressage. She was quite accomplished, but no one had ever showed her how to move her hips sufficiently to match the horse’s movement rather than limit it. Half the problem with her horse, that she came to me for, went away when we fixed that. She didn’t need as much dressage work as she thought she did. Very often a rider’s incorrect influence can be fixed much faster than a horse can be trained. If the rider is the underlying problem, then that is what primarily needs to be addressed.

Kim: Mary’s methods have been around a long time. Are they widely embraced today?
Anne:
They are still radically different. Dressage is so steeped in tradition that novelty is not generally embraced, which is a shame. The strong traditional training is important, of course, and the horse has to be ridden correctly. However, it’s also very important to use the advantage of modern sports science, which is what Mary’s methods bring. I hear a lot of screaming louder at the natives, – coaches yelling “more, more, more….” But, more what?
Drawing on what’s now common in other sports, Mary’s approach is very detailed. Because Mary had success with riders who were very challenged even at lower levels to just sit the trot, for instance, she became viewed as a remedial riding instructor. However, many top riders including Heather Blitz and Olivia LaGoy-Weltz credit her methods as a tremendous help.  It’s certainly enabled me to have a successful riding career.
I have a profound asymmetry in my torso, from having a pony fall on me when I was 3. The thought of feeling two seatbones while riding was a fantasy for much of my life. It’s like the left side of my body speaks Chinese, but the right side of my body doesn’t understand Chinese. Mary showed me a way to avoid the constant fight I would get into because of that. My horses and I are eternally grateful.
I have worked with many great coaches, starting with my mom, David Hunt, Major Anders Lindgren and Joan Bolton, to name a few. You have to learn from everybody, but I put everything through my filter, asking: How is this going to be fun for the horse? Horses “see the game” in jumping and eventing, but you really have to work to make the horse see the game and reward in dressage.

Kim: How did your path to physical therapy start?
Anne:
During my senior year of college at Smith College, I brought my young home-bred, Pioneer, with me.  He had an accident at his first horse trials in which he tweaked his pelvis to the point that he was really compromised. I initially got interested in physical therapy so I could help him. But the state of California does not currently allow physical therapists to treat animals, so I trained to treat people. Today, I do treat animals, large and small, but either my own animals or under the supervision of a veterinarian, per the law’s requirements. I treat several veterinarians in my human practice, and many of the animals I treat are theirs.
I have a wonderful mentor in Martha McClaren, PT, who has helped me immeasurably with straightening out my own trauma history. I have pulled her into evaluating horse and rider.  We occasionally treat horses together as their size requires more than one to reach all the needed places.

Kim: I’m guessing your form of physical therapy does not involve familiar physical exercises?
Anne:
The manual therapy I do is very cutting edge. It’s called Integrative Manual Therapy, but I use skills from several schools of work. Most of what I do is an osteopathic approach, very gentle and addressing all systems. It is a physical medicine approach, like chiropractic, but with a different philosophy. Chiropractic work moves faster than the body’s inherent protective mechanics can kick in: Osteopathic movement is more slow and gentle, and it does not engage the body’s protective mechanisms. I am not anti-chiropractic at all and enjoy working with several DCs.  With my approach, I gain access to vascular, visceral, lymphatic and other structural holding patterns in the body. For example, I rarely treat the spine anymore: I treat the restriction that is causing the distortion (often things that connect to the spine), and the spine releases itself.
I have a reputation for being able to fix chronic things, but people don’t come to me for something like a traditional ankle sprain. I get the people with a bizarre injury from 14 years ago.

Kim: What’s an example?

Anne: A long term problem could set up when you have a fall in which the wind is knocked out of you. That’s caused by a spasm in the respiratory diaphragm, through which the body’s biggest blood vessels pass through. It can lead to residual stiffness in the diaphragm and vasospasm in the great vessels that limit how you breathe and move if you don’t restore proper function. That compromise can limit things like hip movement, neck range of motion, breathing issues, even chronic swelling in the legs.
After the pony fell on me as a 3-year-old, I had injury to my lung, diaphragm, left pelvis and kidney. My whole left side didn’t grow normally. It limited my breathing and my ribs didn’t open as much. What started as a modest restriction developed into a larger asymmetry over time. 

Kim: How do you diagnose a condition like that?
Anne:
I use manual diagnostics, checking the integrity of the neurological systems and joint structures. There are local “listening” techniques that tell you how everything else is in the body. How the L5 lumbar vertebrae, sacrum and the sacroiliac joint are relating tell me a lot. There’s a reason the root word for that sacroiliac is “sacred:” it’s really important.

Kim: What do your treatments entail?
Anne:
Its’ quite dependent on each patient’s unique needs. I specialize in manual therapy (time on the table) but then the movement and motor control has to be brought back into the system. I describe the therapy I do as “movement awareness” versus “exercises” to build strength. It’s like getting a software update in the motor programming part of your brain by clearing the pathway between the brain, the brain stem and a variety of muscles that need to respond. It’s like when you slip out of a pair of heels, into flat shoes, and you feel almost lightheaded. That’s the software update happening because your body is no longer in the same proprioceptive role that it was wearing high heels.
The neurological input is different from physical ability to do something, but they do go hand in hand. Our bodies are masters of compensation and that’s compounded in our equestrian world by the tendency to “press on and endure.” Our usual modus operandi is that, unless you are going to the hospital, you are getting back on that horse after a fall. The changes in the sport around concussions now is a good sign of progress in changing this tradition. My work, in general, is all about helping be a good custodian of the body.
Techniques including Feldenkrais, Franklin and the Alexander Methods are some of the movement approaches that I incorporate.

Kim: Switching to your dressage training business, what makes the multiple trainer approach work at American Sporthorse/Center for Dressage Education?
Anne:
Teaching is really about delivering information and should not focus on fear of losing a student.  Some of our clients work predominantly with one trainer, but we encourage them to see us as a team and to get the information they need from whoever. Sometimes Joanie will send a student who needs specific physical therapy work to me, or I send someone to Tracey because they need to iron out details of a test. Sometimes I ride with Tracey because I need to get feedback on an aspect of freestyle or test presentation
Joanie and I go way back to our teens when we evented together. I love working with her.  She is a wonderful communicator on how to use your body while riding -- she was my mom’s first working student here at the farm and it’s a gift to have her return at this point. She is actually teaching the majority of lessons now, giving me more time to manage barn projects and work on my judge training.
They say it takes two lifetimes to learn dressage, so you have to learn from everybody and use other people’s experience wisely. It’s been a very successful strategy for us and our students, and I love the community it fosters. I encourage other barns to view collaboration as a positive thing.
Our clientele is mostly amateurs. Some show and are quite competitive, and some don’t, but they are all very dedicated. We have some professionals and amateurs who haul in for lessons, too.

Kim: How about your own competing?
Anne:
I have three horses who have been in rehab hell for two or three years. The best-known of those is Rondo, who I inherited from my mom. When you inherit a Grand Prix horse, it’s incumbent on you to learn how to ride it. And, it’s a way that I connect with my mom every time I ride. I earned my scores for the USDF gold medal in two shows, and gradually worked into showing some CDI’s. That is an accomplishment, but it really means you’re just starting to learn what to do at that level. He’s come a long way, getting 7s in CDIs for piaffe and passage, and even 8s this last weekend, and we enjoyed doing some of the selection trials for the 2016 Olympics.
Then came the injury two-plus years ago. We just started back into competition this past June. We’ve earned mid-60s scores and are going in the right direction as he regains his strength, with lovely comments including “harmony” and “you made that look easy.” He is 21 and I am thrilled to have him back after what could have been a career ending injury.
He gets a lot of help: manual care, the Bemer therapy blanket, Liquid Biocell®, Class IV K laser treatments for therapy and prevention, and I think his EQ Saddle Science flapless saddle helps a lot. Getting a eurociser walker in January has helped, too. It’s good for getting a baseline of fitness on all horses.
My oldest, Pacho, does trail rides and schoolmastering these days. My youngest, Apel, has had a Job-like tale of problems and we are now seeing if he can recover from a profound laminitis and keratoma. I have just purchased a foal that I’m very excited about. And I have my eye out for a young riding horse, or maybe partnering with a client in another horse while the foal grows up.

Kim: Vaulting and eventing are additional chapters in your equestrian history. Where do they fit in?
Anne:
I vaulted seriously for a long time as a kid and it was, initially, another thing that my mom and I did together. In college, I wound up coaching the team at Mt Holyoke, a sister school to my Smith College. I was a gold medalist with the American Vaulting Association and had already coached three other teams at that point. CJ Law at Mt Holyoke really let me take it over and was wonderfully supportive. I haven’t vaulted seriously in a long time, but I’m very proud of several of my students who went on to great accomplishments and to be coaches themselves. One is currently coaching her team at the Junior Worlds in Europe!
I evented with good success for many years through high school, college and graduate school. I competed up through Open Training and attributed my successes to the basics I learned through dressage.

Kim: You own a 28-horse training facility, train horses and students, host shows and clinics, compete yourself, run a physical therapy practice, work as a licensed judge and own EuroPro horse boot company. Most of those could be a full-time job for a “normal” person. What is your deal?
Anne:
When my boyfriend accused me of never taking a day off, I said, “What do you mean? I only had two lessons and two horses to ride today. That’s a day off!”
I was busy before I inherited the farm, with the judging program, riding and clinicing and my PT practice and ongoing clinical education for that profession. As an only child and the “press on regardless” nature of our sport, it didn’t occur to me that I shouldn’t try to do it all.
But I’m learning and changing. Since Joanie came on, she’s taken a lot of the pressure off. I am working with training a new barn manager and I have an office assistant doing a lot of the billing, invoicing and most of the Euro Pro horse boot company management. 
In the last few months, I’ve actually gotten out for several trail rides with a friend, on my 22-year-old Pacho, who loves this new phase of his life. And, I’ve even had a few of what I consider “days off.” I don’t handle boredom well, and really have a life that provides lots of action! My barn manager likes to say “Pressure makes diamonds!” Hoping we make a lot of beautiful gems.

Kim: Thanks for finding time to share what is only a small part of your story!
Anne:
My pleasure.

The Gallop welcomes news, tips and photos. Contact Kim F. Miller at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .