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In Defence Of The Basics – 5 things every rider should be doing with their horse.
I suspect I often sound like a broken record or that I’m actually not trying hard enough to give really interesting rehab exercises… and I promise you, I’m getting a bit tired of hearing my own voice on the topic too, but simultaneously I’m becoming more and more convinced that there’s an epidemic of foundations-phobia, a.k.a. groundwork-phobia. Either of which correlates closely with quick-fix-itis and I-can’t-understand-why-he’s-lame-again-itis.
So, in defence of the basic foundations of strong, healthy, well coordinated horses – I have decided to compile a list of some of the most important exercises I believe every, yes – EVERY, horse owner should be doing with their horse, on a regular basis. In my very humble opinion, if every horse was able to do these things correctly, with strength and good form, there would be a whole lot less soreness and brewing unsoundness in our beloved equines, and they would be immeasurably safer for us to be sitting on and entrusting to carry us around.
So, the 5 things I think every horse owner should be doing with their horse.
1 – Lunging for warm up
Yep, I said it. Lunging as part of your every day routine. When I say lunging, the last thing I mean is the old image of standing in the middle of a fixed circle, with your horse traveling at speed around you with any range of contraptions holding him into a set shape.
When I think of a good warm up lunge I’m thinking of the rider also getting a good warm up.
Use all the space you have. Get your own legs moving. Only use as much equipment as you absolutely must to ensure the horse is traveling in a relaxed and posturally beneficial manner. If a horse has been allowed to develop a habit of galloping around, full tilt, with his head in the air, I personally don’t mind simple gadgets like a bungee or chambon used sympathetically so as to show the horse a biomechanically appropriate way to travel. It’s also worthwhile to find someone who knows how they should be fitted correctly and safely to show you how to fit them, safely and correctly. Whilst doing so, it’s crucial to also build in appropriate cues and aids to reduce the reliance on the gadgets. The goal being – to be able to pop on a simple cavasson on and be able to communicate to your horse that you want him to warm up through walk, trot and canter and carry out a few transitions both between and within each pace, while maintaining an energetic, stretchy frame.
2 – Poles
I know I’ve already talked about poles, but they’re just so darn useful that I feel some more discussion is never a bad thing. It’s truly marvelous what can be achieved with a handful, or even less, poles and if you’re feeling adventurous a few baby potties! (insert potty.jpg)
1 pole –
2 Poles –
3 Poles –
4+ poles –
A word on repetitions for poles – When you’re starting with a horse who is in the relearning or rehabilitating stage, it is absolutely crucial to know when to STOP. I generally advise max of around 6 repetitions over the string of poles in each direction. So that’s whether they’re at the 1 pole stage or the multiple poles stage. If your horse is springing through with ease and clearly no where near fatigue, you can begin adding a couple of extra repetitions. It is amazing how quickly a horse can go from ease to struggle though, so watch carefully and even if you’ve planned for 6 reps and you see your horse suddenly start to have more difficulty on the 4th repetition, stop. It is always better to stop a repetition or two too soon, than to push to the point of true fatigue and have your horse make a serious mistake, step or trip on a pole and land on his head or backside. If the horse is kept at this level of working without hitting significant fatigue, you can use poles on a daily basis to improve proprioception and coordination and strength. If using poles to build muscular bulk you will need to play with some fatigue, and then give the horse rest days without poles to allow the tissues that have hit fatigue to recover and build strength.
Distances – (Distances are approximate and will vary depending on the size, breed and condition of your horse)
Walk and trot – 4-5 tightrope (heel to toe) steps or one large human strides (approx. 0.8 – 0.9m/ 3 foot) Canter – Three large human strides (approx. 3.66m or 12 foot)
3 – Backing up straight and around a bend
Largely covered within the poles section, this is a skill I think is often seriously neglected. When backing, either with the poles as a guide or without, the main aim is to help the horse develop straightness, an ability to take the hind leg through a larger range in the stance phase and develop strength to lift and step back in the swing phase. Rein back is particularly useful for hindquarter and core development especially in cases involving stifle dysfunction. It also promotes excellent mobility through the back and development of the back muscles.
Begin with one stride if it’s a brand new exercise and particularly if your horse is showing signs of particularly poor proprioception in general. Build slowly towards a half dozen strides. Using the fence line or poles can make developing straightness easier, while reversing up a slight incline can make it more challenging.
4 – Stepping under self on a small circle
This is a movement often seen done at speed when developing a “one rein stop” or to disengage the hindquarters for behavioral management. From the perspective of using it to build strength, coordination and a full range in the horse’s hind limb movement, it is far better done at a slower speed and on a larger diameter.
I like to begin in hand with the horse walking around the handler in a small circle of around 10 metres. By shifting your position slightly towards the horse’s hindquarters, bringing the nose in and asking him to make the circle smaller you will see him take a stride or two where his inside hind crosses over underneath his body. Progressively work on this same movement until you hit a small circle of around a metre diameter, where he is continually stepping the hind-leg under around the circle. What you want to avoid is the horse disengaging and swinging the hindquarters rapidly. You want deliberate, controlled steps with the hind legs through a full range of both adduction (moving under the body) and abduction (moving away from the body).
In a similar vein, this can be done as a small figure of 8, switching from one hind leg stepping under to the other.
Under saddle this obviously translates well to turns on the forehand, (again beginning on a larger diameter circle and bringing the front end more and more still as you progress).
5 – Moving laterally
Finally, in order to really get your horse thinking about controlling the movement of his front and back end in all directions, I really like a horse to be able to side pass in hand. To achieve this, it is easiest to make use of the fence line and face towards it. Stand facing your horse’s shoulder and ask him to move away from you. If you’ve added an “over” or “away” cue when doing the small circles, this should be a fairly natural progression with the cue aimed towards the torso rather than the back end. Start with a step or two, and aim for half a dozen steps in each direction at the most. Over time you can play with moving the shoulders a little more than the hindquarters and vice versa, as well as doing this without the fence line to restrict the forward motion.
Begin the ground work exercises daily to begin with, completing around half a dozen or so repetitions of each exercise (lunging – aim for 10 mins max for warm up). Remain watchful for signs your horse is fatiguing before the allotted 6 repetitions in each direction. That’s ok. We all start somewhere and some horses will genuinely begin to fatigue before they get through the half dozen. By challenging your horse carefully each day you will be amazed by how quickly he will change. I like to consider this a 4-6 week process at minimum of building through the complexity of each exercise. Some horses with really old patterns of faulty movement may take a lot longer. When all the exercises are easy, it is nice to make them a part of your weekly routine around 2-3 times per week. Many of these can also be adapted to be done under saddle as well, but I still like people to be doing these in hand 2-3 times a week so the horse gets an opportunity to move in all these ranges without the added weight of a rider on their back.
Ideally, before embarking on this programme, I like to make sure a horse is as balanced and restriction free as possible by giving him a full Osteopathic assessment and treatment. Failing that, if during the process your horse is finding one side particularly challenging, or not developing strength evenly, continues to trip or stumble or really just isn’t getting any particular part of the programme, then it is a wise idea to get them checked over by an Osteopath or other ABM professional.
In conclusion, if you can work your horse through this collection of basics, I truly believe you’ll have a far stronger, more coordinated, supple and less injury prone athlete to take into whichever discipline you fancy.
So there you have it, let me know how you get on if you embark on this, I love hearing the many and varied ways horses make their way to better physical health.
I discussed the benefits of polework in helping a horse improve their proprioception and condition previously, and have been meaning to post about another favourite when I accidentally found these notes I’d made quite some time ago, hiding in my phone Enjoy!
Step 1 – Grab 4 or 5 of poles and pop them down at random angles close to each other.
Walk your horse through, allowing him full freedom of head and neck so he can view the poles and adjust his steps as required. This step will be very basic for many horses, however I consider it an important one as it will show up if the horse is severely lacking in proprioceptive skill or the strength to carry himself through, which would make the full exercise quite dangerous.
When your horse is navigating the exercise with ease shift the poles around so he has to readjust, bring some closer together and cross some over. We ideally want to avoid him stepping onto a pole and having it roll under his foot, so allow him plenty of time to pick through and if he’s the particularly clumsy sort, spend extra time working on varying distances with poles flat on the ground before crossing any over. As an aside, hexagonal/octagonal poles are a very good thing if you’re investing in new poles!
Step 2 – Once your horse is solid with step 1, increase the complexity of the pattern, adding extra poles or even adding in some narrow planks if available. The goal is to keep the horse concentrating on where he needs to place his feet with every step. Pick your way through in many different directions so the distances change.
I tend to err on the side of caution and recommend this exercise always be done in walk, though I do know some who manage well in a steady trot. Let safety always be your friend when considering if trot is an option, and set the poles back to an easier configuration before pointing your horse at them in trot for the first time.
Further, I also recommend it be done only in hand, at least until the horse is very accustomed to the point of the game, AND he has done some solid basic pole work under saddle so he has the strength to keep his posture under control whilst carrying you.
This is an excellent exercise both for condition and for rehabilitation and one which, if included regularly, can really improve your horses sure-footedness and core condition while also offering a really good lengthen and strengthen while you’re at it!
How to use easy polework exercises to build a strong foundation of soundness for your horse.
When it comes to 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.
It often seems believed that unless you’re doing something really complicated you may as well not bother, but in reality the majority of horses would hugely benefit from the regular inclusion of the most basic polework exercises. Consider this: Would you expect to launch straight into a high level gymnastics programme without mastering the very basics of how to use your body correctly? This is exactly how we need to be thinking about most of our horses who have, at one stage or another, whether due to training deficiencies or conformational tendencies, formed a habit of using their body less than optimally.
The pictures below, from my friend Sal, which prompted me to jot down these thoughts, are an excellent example of the value of poles.
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.
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:
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!
Yep, I’ve had requests to do so, and i’m taking a deep breath and opening up this can of worms…
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.
Thoracic trauma (rib fractures or costochondral dislocation) in foals is a relatively common side effect of being born quickly, with a relatively deep chest, through a relatively small, hard pelvic ring. A study done in in 1999 in Coolmore Stud in Ireland by D Jean et al discovered a rate of around 1 in 5 foals having rib fractures, and further studies have suggested this might be a conservative estimate due to the lack of sensitivity of radiographic technique in detecting these fractures/costochondral damage. Interestingly, by around 3 days of age, the majority of foals are showing no overt signs of these fractures. Dr Ian Bidstrup has spent many years digging into this problem and correlating some of the typical ongoing issues that appear to be associated with a history of birth trauma, whether actually noted at birth or not. These include:
In practice this pattern is seen quite commonly, presenting as a typical dipped thoracic and roached lumbar posture which predisposes horses to working in a hollow frame, dropping their sternum in the thoracic sling (by contrast think of a horse in self carriage lifting through the sternum and withers between the shoulder girdle). The following picture from Dr Bidstrup’s Spinalvet website is a perfect example of this posture.
Horses will typically also begin resisting requests for a supple bend in one direction more than another by using their head and neck like a rudder for balance and by cocking or bracing the jaw. This resistance through the front end will also obviously have ramifications for the way the horse uses its back end, and if pelvic/sacral function isn’t as it should be that will compound the problems. I have also noted an anecdotal link to a propensity to gastric ulcers though of course this is often a case of chicken and egg where digestive dysfunction has a deleterious effect on thoracic and lumbar function.
So what can we do about this? Ideally all foals should be assessed and if needed treated within the first week or so of birth. By doing so, much of the asymmetry could be addressed to allow them to grow as evenly as possible with the aim of having a youngster who is as balanced as possible by the time they reach the stage of being backed and starting work. Observing foals to see how inclined they are to always graze with one particular leg forward can give a good idea of how much asymmetry they are carrying.
When we get to the stage of an established horse we’ll be dealing with more posturally and neurologically ingrained patterns as well as muscle memory and hoof asymmetry. These can take a little longer to unwind and often a few steps back in work schedule are necessary to help give the horse a chance to relearn how to use his body while the dysfunction is being worked on. It is phenomenal to see how quickly a horses patterns can change when given the chance with good Osteopathic treatment combined with some rehabilitative changes to their environment, for example introducing variable feeding positions, good farriery/hoofcare and some exercises on the ground to help translate those postural changes to work under saddle.
By addressing these asymmetries early on, it is possible to hugely minimise the strains on the horses body and legs and give your horse the best chance of long term soundness and performing to the peak of their ability. If you have youngsters you’d like to ensure have the best chance of a sound and successful performance career please do get in touch to see how much difference Osteopathic management can make to their future.