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

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osteopathy_trot_poles_2

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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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Your Horses Body Type – Training to Avoid Injuries

When bringing a horse into training for any discipline, it is important to consider an individual plan aiming to get the best improvement in muscle strength, tone and flexibility while minimising the risk of injury. Anyone who has dealt with a range of horses within various disciplines, or even within one discipline alone will know that some horses seem so much more prone to injuries during training than others. Many times this can be due to the horses past work, for example ex-racers often come into their second career with variable degrees of ligament or joint damage due to the nature of their previous training. Starting with a fresh horse with a known history can be a major headstart, however every horse has his own physique and as such care in formulating a program accordingly can minimise the chance of injury.

Human professional athletes and their coaches have long considered their physique in optimising their training programs to get the best outcome from their training regimes and similar principles may be of great value in ensuring our horses perform their best. Three types of body type are widely recognised, the Ectomorph, the Mesomorph and the Endomorph. These three represent three distinct physiques, however in reality most individuals show elements of 2 or more.

The Ectomorph – The typical lanky thoroughbred type, light of bone, lightly or poorly muscled with weak connective tissue, they are long necked and small shouldered. They have small joints and relatively long legs in relation to their body size. They often carry low body fat, and are difficult to get good condition on, even with higher than average feed consumption. They are often also quite sensitive to temperature extremes and changes. Having poor natural muscle tone and weak connective tissue, this type is most prone to overtraining, and require the most care to build their strength gradually to allow them to perform without joint or ligament damage.



The Mesomorph – The athletic, well proportioned type with mature muscle, strong connective tissue and large bones. They tend to carry themselves well naturally, gain fitness and body condition readily. They are typically quite stoic and due to their inherent strength are more physically forgiving of errors in training than the ectomorphic type.


The Endomorph – Low natural muscle tone however, unlike the ectomorph, with work will gain muscle bulk readily. They have soft bodies and gain weight readily. They typically have smaller bone structure than the mesomorph, and due to their propensity to be ‘pudgy’ often resemble the typical “Thelwell” pony, with a big round body and little legs. This type are more resilient in training than the ectomorph, however require an awareness during training of the imbalance between body weight and the relatively small bone structure carrying this large body along.

Regardless of body type, basic principles of training are common to all. Following these guidelines you can help keep your horse fit and healthy while aiming for your ultimate performance goals.

  • Avoid excessive fatigue. Soft tissue injuries are far more common when muscles are fatigued.
  • Increased training should be matched with increased rest. It is during rest that significant increases in muscle strength and power are developed.
  • Resistance training increases the ability of muscle to endure hard training. Combinations of poles or cavalettis and working in varied and deeper surfaces build a horses core muscles required for support during faster and more jarring activities.
  • Introduce new work gradually. The more time the horse is given to build strength, the less likely he is to injure himself when being pushed during training or competition.
  • Train on as many different surfaces as possible. Varied ground stimulates the proprioceptors in the joints and improves the horses ability to maintain good stability when moving quickly over uneven ground.
  • Always incorporate a good warm up and cool down period to ensure maximum elasticity and power in the ligaments and muscles respectively during work, and preventing stiffness after work.
  • Professional athletes make use of manual therapists to ensure their bodies are working at their best and small injuries are dealt with before they become large problems. Your horse benefits in the same way from an Osteopathic consultation allowing his joints, muscles and tendons to work most efficiently and thus minimising the strain and risk of injury during your training and competition.
  • Do yourself the favour of considering your own balance and its effect on your horse. The daily impact of your imbalances can greatly affect your horses balance and work.

Following these guidelines will help both you and your horse work your best and pretty soon, you’ll start seeing the results in training and competition.