Polework

How to use easy polework exercises to build a strong foundation of soundness for your horse.

When it comes to simple options to help your horse develop a better, more functional posture and increased strength as well as improving their awareness of where it is they are putting their feet and how they are controlling their body (proprioception), Polework is something every horse owner would benefit from understanding.

Proprioception (/ˌproʊprioʊˈsɛpʃən, -priə-/ PROH-pree-o-SEP-shən), from Latin proprius, meaning “one’s own”, “individual”, and capio, capere, to take or grasp, is the sense of the relative position of one’s own parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement.

One of the biggest problems I see in horses of all ages and experiences is a lack of this proprioceptive awareness, both in the core and the peripheries, which sets them up to use their body incorrectly and to ultimately be far more likely to succumb to soreness, under-performance and injury.

As well as appropriate osteopathic techniques and treatment which will free up restrictions and help allow the horse to use his body in a more biomechanically correct fashion, the work the owner does in the period between treatments plays a huge role in determining the outcome.  All the manual therapy in the world won’t change a horses soundness and fitness for its work if the work it is doing continues to be done in the way it has always been done – the way that built it up to develop soreness and unsoundness in the first place. This is where polework, both on the lunge (or free) and under saddle, can really help change things.

The pictures below, from my friend Sal, which prompted me to jot down these thoughts, are an excellent example of the value of poles.

lunging_1

 

The horse, Finn, is a 4 year old. He is in the process of being backed so has not had the years of vertical forces through his back that is the hallmark of the older ridden horse. He naturally carries himself ‘proudly’, that is to say he has a tendency to lift the head, disengage the core and hollow the back. Without specific work to help him learn to carry himself with his core engaged, lengthening and lifting his lower neck/thoracic sling muscles, and intentionally placing his feet, he shows a fairly typical young horse tendency to develop his musculature incorrectly. Fortunately he has a very diligent owner who has spent time regularly working him over trot poles at varied distances.

In the first picture it is easy to see how he is engaging the core and lifting the shoulder while using his body to slow the movement as he figures out where his feet are supposed to be landing. This is all part of the proprioceptive system at work – know where your legs and body are at all times or risk falling on your face.

osteopathy_trot_poles_1

osteopathy_trot_poles_4

osteopathy_trot_poles_2

osteopathy_trot_poles3

This series of pictures illustrates beautifully the increased core activation, the lift through the thoracic sling, the lifting and lengthening of the epaxial muscles and ribcage, the engagement and intentional placing of the feet. All in all the horse is experiencing a huge increase in the amount of physical and neurological work he is doing, simply by being challenged to reach and place his feet between poles on the ground. By the 4th picture he had really figured things out, was lifting beautifully in front, measuring his stride, engaging the core and hindquarters and traveling really lightly over the poles.

Some pole work options:

Easy option 1: Stick 3-4 poles down in a straight line at a fairly normal 4-4.5 feet apart. For me this is simply 4 or so of my riding boots toe to heel or one decent step measuring from the heel of the hind foot to the toe of the forward foot. Give or take according to your horses size/length of stride so your horse can come through at its normal stride length without falling on his or her face.

Bring the poles together by a foot, and repeat. This will help your horse slow down, pick his way through more carefully and engage the core and the hocks some more.

Bring the poles apart by a foot or so. Try to keep your horse coming through with a nice steady rhythm rather than rushing full tilt and cat leaping over a pole or two in the process. This will help your horse reach, lift through the thoracic sling while also switching on the core and engaging the hocks.

Once your horse really knows to watch where he’s putting his feet, you can arrange the poles with slight variations in the distances or even in a pick-up-sticks kind of arrangement. For this I always recommend letting him walk through while he picks his way through. We’re aiming to reduce the chance of injury, not increase it 😉

Even easier option 2 (very good if you’re on board, less up and down for you):

Take your poles to a corner and set them up in an arc. Bring him through in the centre (normal stride length), then vary between closer to the centre for a shorter stride, or to the outside for a longer stride. You can even come through in a fairly straight line so you start with short strides and finish with longer stride. My most excellent illustrative capabilities show this below:

Polework

 

With the arc of poles, you can then progress to raising the outside of the poles to create a little more lift and activity in the outside limbs. This is especially useful if your horse has a tendency to lean or hang into one shoulder, or if you’re aiming to increase hock and glute activity.

Don’t forget to do both directions!

From these basics, you can progress to many and varied exercises which encourage both horse and rider to develop ever increasing levels of bodily strength and control, but always remember – if you can’t get these basics 100% then the chances of getting the harder ones done in such a way that both you and the horse are benefiting are slim.

And finally, when you’re doing these under saddle, do your horse a huge favour and try to stay in a light seat over the poles. But also, don’t throw your weight over his neck,  forcing him onto the forehand either.  Get a friend to video you, so you can really watch the way both you and your horse are doing these exercises. Ultimately you want him working with balance and engagement both front, back and core. If you’re achieving this both on the ground and under saddle then you’re good to start upping the ante and increasing the trickiness of the work, and even leaving the ground!

Finally, have a really honest and stern talk with yourself if you do find you’re struggling with your own balance, core and proprioception –  Get yourself an Osteopathic treatment to unwind your own dodgy tissues, then get in touch with someone talented in helping riders develop these skills such as Rebecca Ashton at Equest Elite. You owe it to your horse!

 

Horse vs Rider – How heavy is too heavy?

Yep, I’ve had requests to do so, and i’m taking a deep breath and opening up this can of worms…

dorado-jumping-2016-1280x640.jpgPhoto Credit: Courtesy Kristen Janicki

This perspective is my own, based on clinical practice observations which tend to be backed up by the findings of a very rudimentary review of recent available literature. For a really thorough literature review, have a look here. This one conducted by Ruth Taylor; BSc (Hons) Equestrian Sports Science of Hartpury College, in 2016 looks into the research available around the topic. It is very well worth a look if you’re interested in the evidence behind the current suggested limits.

I see many horses with back soreness, and unfortunately, rider weight is one factor which does come into it. More so than rider weight though, I have noticed there appears to be a strong correlation between the riders overall fitness (if I’m asking if you do other sports, or any specific fitness work besides riding, that’s why).

 

It’s generally accepted that riders should be somewhere between 10 and 20% of the horses bodyweight. This to me completely fails to take into account that there are heavier riders who are very forgiving of their horse – using their core correctly, keeping in balance with the horses movement and generally not hindering their horse in the goal of staying balanced throughout their work. It also fails to specify that a quite light rider who is very unbalanced, and who is on a horse with a poorly fitted saddle may be far more deleterious to the horses biomechanical wellbeing than the aforementioned heavier rider. It also fails to take into consideration the horses morphology – a stocky well boned, broad loined horse would obviously be more likely to withstand heavier weights and/or less balanced riders before soreness occurs than a fine boned, narrower horse would. Fitness also likely plays a part and a horse who has been properly and gradually conditioned with biomechanically correct work, is likely to hold up to heavier rider weights better than a poorly conditioned horse, working with the topline hollowed, who was pulled out of the paddock and asked to go out for a weekends activity.

My ultimate take therefore is that while it’s important to be mindful of your weight vs your horses weight, it is also important to consider the type of horse you ride in regards to morphology and the work you want to do. Further, if you’re suspicious that you might be slightly underhorsed or your horse is showing signs that this might be a factor I would advise that you consider improving both of your ability to control your bodies through biomechanically sound movement training.

For you that might include an Osteopathic treatment plan, to ensure you can move symmetrically without injuring your self. Then, general fitness work (I personally love a mix of HIIT and light strength work to avoid cutting into my very small windows of available time), but also investing in some really good Pilates classes to learn how to control your core and use your limbs independently without losing that core control the moment you try to move. Remember, core control is about movement and function. If you can’t control it while moving then it’s pretty pointless. Keeping yourself balanced and light over your horses centre of gravity will hugely reduce the impact of any weight ratio imbalance that exists between you and your horse.

For your horse, I would highly recommend ensuring he is able to move symmetrically and remove any existing soreness by having him assessed by a good Animal Biomechanical Medicine practitioner (membership list here of fully qualified and insured Osteopaths, Chiropractors and Vets who’ve studied this stuff at University level). Also be sure that your tack fits. Your saddle needs to fit both of you or it will be an uphill battle to perform in a balanced manner which will reduce this ability to cope if there is an imbalance in regards your weight ratio.  Very importantly –  treat him like an athlete.  Regardless of your chosen discipline, he not only has to go out and perform a bunch of extra movements than he would in the paddock, he has to carry you whilst doing so. Find someone who can teach you what a correct frame looks like, not just one where he is holding his neck all pretty, but one where he is using his core consistently, where he is swinging evenly through the back, where he is stepping evenly from behind and keeping his centre of gravity balanced throughout the work he is doing. Ensuring he is able to do this might involve spending time each day warming him up with correct lunge work (that is, not galloping around full pelt to get the bucks out) preferably including ground work and pole exercises. Again, your ABM professional can help to formulate a plan which incorporates specific exercises which are relevant for your horse specifically. I personally love when people incorporate groundwork into their normal routine as it also means they are getting to routinely look at their horse moving and so pick up on changes in movement which might indicate soreness well before the horse actually throws a lame step.

So there you have it… it’s not a straight forward answer at all, but it is one which we should all be contemplating when choosing our horses and/or managing the ones we already have.

I hope this has helped and if you’re keen to increase the balance and performance you and your horse have when out enjoying your chosen discipline please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

© Samantha Sherrington, Centaurus Osteopathy, 2018.

 

 

 

Hip Flexor for the rider – Part 2

So what exactly are these hip flexors we’ve been speaking of, and why are they so darn important to the horse rider??

The iliopsoas is one of the very important factors in achieving a symmetrical seat. I find if the hip flexors as a group are not working well through a full normal range of motion there will be huge struggles with trying to maintain even and effective seat and leg aids. There will also be knock on effects on the upper body and aids from there also.

As you can see below, they attach to the front of the spine and the inside of the pelvis before running down through the pelvis to attach onto the inner thigh. They act to draw the knee up towards the body, and as such are a muscle group which is in a shortened position whenever we spend time sitting, either at a desk or in a car during out work days. They also play a huge role in stabilising the hip in a slightly flexed position, during many activities throughout the day.  The very act of sitting on a horse puts the hip flexors into a slightly shortened position and, especially when the true core muscles aren’t doing their fair share, as soon as the horse begins to move we begin to use the hip flexors to help keep us upright and stable over the horses centre of gravity. To add to this complex system of controlling the hip and the core, we must consider the role the gluteal muscles (your butt!) play.

When tight, the hip flexors hold the hip joint in a position of slight flexion, and this is where the problems begin. In a neutral standing position this causes the pelvis to tip forwards and the lumbar spine to be pulled into extension (an increased arch in the lower back). This looks like the first mounted position we saw in the picture in Part 1.

HIp flexor 2Lower cross

Tightness in the hip flexors is usually also associated with other predictable muscular imbalances around the hips, pelvis and lower back, the most crucial of which is a weak abdominal core and gluteal muscles and a tight lower back and hamstrings . This pattern is often referred to as Lower Crossed Syndrome and creates for the rider a position of ‘duck butt’, lack of suppleness through the lower back, knees which grip and ride up in front of the centre of gravity and a lower leg and heel which just won’t stay where it belongs.

A strong core is crucial for a riders stability in the saddle, and may be the difference between sticking that awkward jump or unexpected stop or not. It also is crucial for allowing the rider to apply effective seat aids. The sum of these imbalances cause the body to move less freely and with less control than the ideal. Often one side is more restricted than the other and this is where many cases of short-stirrup-itis and dropping your hip or tilting one way originate from.

Hip flexor 1

How does this affect your horse? From the seat alone, if one hip flexor is pulling tighter than the other, a tilt to one side is likely to occur. Looking at the shape of the pelvis in the picture above, you can see that tilting the pelvis to the side (dropping a hip/creasing at the waist) will cause one of your sit bones (ischial tuberosity) to contact the horses back more than the other. Thinking about how sensitive we hope for our horses to be to seat aids, one can instantly see the problems this might cause. The horse who always bends one way or is travelling on three tracks and just can’t seem to straighten no matter how much leg the rider applies, which incidentally feels much stronger one way than the other. The changing  or disuniting canter leads. The inability to easily find or maintain the correct diagonal in trot and the horse who looks that little bit lame on one rein in trot but not the other and no clear diagnosis of true lameness can be found.  These are just a handful of the problems created by unevenly tight hip flexors and the postural ramifications of such. When both are tight we typically see the proverbial “”duck butt” rider posture. The horse typically reacts by hollowing to escape the increased weight through the tree points and falls onto the forehand as the riders centre of gravity is thrown forward of the ideal. The horses back end then merrily trails out behind him, pretty much precluding any chance of hip engaging from behind and lifting the shoulder. His own core blows in the wind, while yours does the same up top.

duck-butt-2(Above picture from this very humorous look at one riders battle with “duck butt”- https://barnbrat7732.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/a-swiftly-tilting-pelvis/).

In part 3 we will start to look at how you can test these muscle groups in yourself and where to start to unwind this pattern so you can begin to address the associated problems in yourself and your horses performance.

 

 

Hip Flexors for the rider – Part 1

How tight hip flexors (ilio psoas) affect the horse and rider.

Call Sam Sherrington on 0452 472 959 if you’d like any more information on horse and rider Osteopathy.

It’s been nearly 18 months since we covered this topic (on my facebook page. Since these posts never made it to this website I’m going to review the hip flexors again, since they’re such an integral part to getting your riding position working for you and your horse, rather than against you.

Do you find you often feel crooked on your horse? Is your instructor always shouting at you to stop tipping forwards or poking your backside out? Does your horse often land on the incorrect lead or not land straight over a fence? Is one stirrup being stretched or always feel shorter? Do you often feel like you’re always tipping forwards and can’t get your leg down and around the horse to give effective aids?

Hip flexor on horse

(Diagram source uncertain – if anyone knows where it came from do please let me know so credit can be given where it’s due!)

One big question I’m sure you’re all wondering – Why is it that so many people have tight hip flexors and an anterior pelvic tilt?

 

hip flexors seated

Surely if it’s not a biomechanically sound way to operate, it wouldn’t be the ‘go to’ posture so many people find themselves in, would it?
Lets think about what things we all might do on a day to day basis that promote short, tight hip flexors.

  • Get up from your bed and sit down to eat breakfast.
  • Get straight in the car and sit for whatever period of time it takes to get to work.
  • Spend a decent part of your day, you guessed it, sitting. Often with your legs crossed. If you’re lucky you have a job where you get to move around a lot, but even then, because our eyes are on the front of our head and our arms reach forwards there is a strong chance you do most things in your day reaching or slightly leaning forwards.
  • At the end of the day, you get back in your car, head to the yard.
  • Jump on board your favourite four legged beast having spent not a moment thinking about warming up or stretching out your own body.
  • Fight with your body and if you’re lucky, have someone on the ground shout at you to Sit up! Sit up! Stop tipping forwards! Drop your right knee! Stop leaning to the right, for goodness sake!
  • Head home and perhaps spend a bit of time on the sofa in something approaching the foetal position, mulling over why on earth you just can’t get it together on the horse, before heading off to bed to properly assume the foetal position.
    All in all, it’s a solid day of flexed hips.

Now, when you stand yourself up in between these periods of sitting and bending, your hip flexors start to complain as they’ve become quite accustomed to being shortened. So rather than happily lengthen out, they stay relatively short and instead pull your pelvis forward into a nice anterior tilt with an exaggerated lumbar lordosis. This in turn promotes short, tight lower back muscles and weak abdominal core muscles which makes your body even more likely to switch on those hip flexors to help stabilise the pelvis and lower back during unstable activities – like riding your horse 😉

So, what did you do today that would have shortened up the ol’ hip flexors?? I clipped the dog, then could barely stand upright again!

Stay tuned for Part 2, where we will look at the anatomy involved in a bit more detail and begin to consider what it is doing to you and your horse in daily work.

 

 

Dangling front legs!

How to fix dangling front legs showjumping.

Call Sam Sherrington on 0452 472 959 for further information on Human and Animal Osteopathy.

Nothing is more frustrating than a horse who suddenly begins to knock poles when jumping. A dangly front leg (or legs) can be the source of huge frustration particularly when all the schooling in the world just doesn’t seem to be working to get your horse to pick up in front. Lots of tight grids, well placed poles on an upright, leaving off the boots, using heavier poles etc. can all give a horse a little reminder that front legs are worth lifting, but what about when none of these have any long term effect and your beloved gee gee just keeps reverting to dangly, pole knocking form?

This is a problem I’d often see in both young and older horses, and often it will trace back to an actual fatigue issue.  Due to restriction in the neck/shoulder, thoracics and ribcage the horse is having to work at least twice as hard to lift the shoulder and forelimb when jumping. Those muscles can become hugely fatigued and sore and try as he might, your horse begins to leave a leg or two dangling. Other signs this could be the source of your pole knocking woes include a sudden crankiness about being groomed around the shoulder or under the girth or when being girthed up. Poor drainage from the limb might also be evident with an increase in windgalls particularly after standing in for the night, or increased heat in the lower limb after work. You may find the horse begins to dip away from the saddle even though the saddler just confirmed that it does in fact fit the horse just fine. Your farrier may complain that your horse has become suddenly a little more recalcitrant about standing on one leg for shoeing. If you attempt to stretch your horses leg out in front after girthing (which incidentally isn’t the best way to ensure no pinching and can be risky for the horse – more on that later) you may find your horse leaning back and trying to pull the leg away from you.

Horse-Muscle-Chart

So, a few boxes ticked there? What can we do about this?

Firstly it would be good to consider if your horse is showing any signs of lameness which warrant a visit from the vet.  Then ask if he is due his biannual Osteopathic (or similar) MOT. Working horses do best with a regular once over, even if all feels to be moving ok in work, often niggles from slips in the field, jolts landing from a fence or simply working hard for us can be found and trouble averted before it becomes real trouble.

Secondly, have a good, but gentle, poke and prod around the muscles around the shoulder girdle and upper forelimb (7, 11-19 in the image above) . Can you find any soreness or ropey patches through these muscles? Pick up your horses leg and bring the heel towards the elbow, then try to gently move the whole shoulder girdle and foreleg in all directions in a big circle. That is, in front, out to the side, behind, and under the body, then up towards the wither and down towards the ground. If your horse reacts to these movements or you find there are restrictions in any direction again it would be worth giving your friendly Osteo a call.

If you find tightness but no strong reaction from your horse (beware, so many of our beloved beastie are hugely stoic and pretend all is well even when they’re struggling), you can try for a week or so to use that circular range of motion as a warm up exercise to help mobilise the shoulder and see if there is an improvement in the lift over fences. If no change, again it would be worth getting an osteopathic MOT to determine if there are deeper restrictions preventing the muscles from releasing.

Finally, don’t forget to consider your own position. Are you leaning significantly to one side over fences and creating extra work for your horse? That’s something for both your instructor and also possibly your Osteopath to help with.

panam-showjump-1-7

As always, it’s worth considering if there are any signs of needing a vet. Problems in the lower limb or feet may also be worth ruling out. And, as for the best way to make sure there’s no girth pinch – a simple hand run down between the elbow and the girth will do the trick, without any risk of overstretching cold muscles.

Happy jumping, and please don’t hesitate to contact me if you’d like that MOT for your horse (or yourself)