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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Canine Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injuries – Surgery or what??

How Cranial Cruciate Ligament Injuries can be managed when surgery isn’t the first choice.

Ruptures and partial tears to one or both Cranial Cruciate Ligaments (CCL) is a remarkably common injury in our doggy friends.  While certain breeds seem to have significantly more frequency of injury, I see it pop up in a wide variety of breeds, ages and sizes of dogs.

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(image: petmd.com)

Traditionally, it has been believed that typically only small dogs, under about 15kg, fare just as well with conservative management as they do with surgical repair options. At significantly less cost also. This belief is based on a study which showed very positive outcomes for the small dogs and not so much resolution of lameness in the bigger dogs. Some practitioners, however, have been questioning the assumptions since.

Dr Narda Robinson DVM is one practitioner who has been quite vocal about the lack of options many pet owners are given when faced with a CCL injury. She has compiled some good evidence here to endeavour to debunk many commonly held beliefs around why surgery should be the primary go-to option for sorting out our dogs dodgy knees.

So, when an owner makes the decision to give the surgical option a miss, at least on a trial basis, what is the conservative option?

  • The first step is to ensure the dog is a healthy weight or slightly underweight to help reduce the loading on the stifle joint. Being overweight is one of the biggest and most manageable risk factors noted to contribute to CCL damage.
  • Next, keeping your dog’s activity controlled. Complete crate rest was once advised however studies have shown it to be not necessary. Rest and avoiding jumping up and down from vehicles, beds etc; minimising risk of slipping on smooth floors, and going for frequent short controlled leash walks is the ideal for 6-8 weeks.
  • Finally, the use of anti-inflammatory or analgesic medication as required.

From an osteopathic perspective it is possible to boost the effects of this conservative management firstly by recognising that it is, in most cases where the lameness has developed gradually and insideously, strongly likely that biomechanical restrictions in the dogs body have contributed to asymmetrical weight bearing through the hind legs and the stifle joint. This asymmetry and dysfunction can be addressed using Osteopathic techniques which are gentle and often pain free. By allowing the dog’s body, especially the lumbar and pelvic regions to function to the best of their ability, it is possible to minimise overloading of individual joints and enhance circulatory and nervous flow to the joints and tissues and hence allow the body to do it’s best healing work.

One of the big risks of CCL damage is that around 50% of dogs will present with damage to the other CCL within 6 months of surgery to repair injury to the first. This suggests two possibilities. Firstly, the obvious one that during recovery, the ‘good’ knee will be taking more than its fair share of workload, and secondly, that there is some underlying biomechanical factors that haven’t been addressed in the first instance which are continuing to throw excess loading into the joints. Whether post-surgery, or opting for the conservative option, it is therefore crucial to ensure the dog’s body is actually able to work symmetrically, as well as to then formulate a thorough rehabilitation plan to help ensure the dog begins to use themselves evenly. This rehab can begin within the first few weeks post-surgery or during the rest period if managing conservatively.

Allied therapies including dietary changes (examples here and here) and nutritional supplementation and herbs, hydrotherapy, acupuncture, laser, orthoses, stem cell therapy and cryotherapy are some of the many that may be useful within the management plan for CCL rehabilitation.

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(Image: Web-dvm.net)

From a preventative point of view, again it is crucial to ensure dogs are able to use themselves as symmetrically as possible. This can be achieved by osteopathic preventative/maintenance visits from a young age, to thoroughly examine and uncover any dysfunctional regions of the body and remove these restrictions before they begin to significantly alter the way the dog is moving. Ensuring that dogs are given consistent, relatively controlled activity allows them to develop strong and healthy musculoskeletal systems – so avoid the weekend warrior approach of relatively little or no exercise during the week followed by manic ball chasing or frisbee catching at the weekend. Make exercise a big part of your daily routine so your dog has a good baseline level of fitness and strength to help cope with the inevitable extra fun at the weekends or on holidays. Also, make sure nails are kept trimmed regularly, both to avoid slipping risk and also to help avoid changes in limb posture which may occur if the dog is feeling discomfort during activity from overly long nails.

For further advice or consultation, please don’t hesitate to contact me to discuss how Osteopathy can be of use in helping prevent, manage or rehabilitate a CCL injury.