Image by Mabel Amber, still incognito… pixabay
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 –
- It’s as simple as making sure your horse can step over it! I can feel the eye rolls from here, but it always amazes me how many people accept that their horse is “clumsy”, hence abandoning the idea of pole work, and yet haven’t taken the steps necessary to help that same horse develop the very basics of proprioception. This especially confounds me when they then expect them to jump real jumps. To me, this is a recipe for disaster, as a horse who isn’t able to muster enough control over his own feet at a walk, trot or canter to avoid stepping on or tripping over a single pole is highly unlikely to have the awareness or strength to safely and repetitively control his limbs over jumps. This also applies to trail riding – Do you really want to be on top of a horse, walking through the bush, stepping over fallen branches and through varied terrain on a horse who can’t see his way to stepping over a pole on a manicured surface without tripping??
- With one pole, you can also place it parallel to a fence line and have your horse walk through, both forwards and backwards. The trick is straightness. Particularly when backing, this exercise will show up unevenness in range of motion and muscular development very quickly and so is something I find hugely beneficial both as an assessment tool and as a strength and coordination building exercise.
2 Poles –
- Continue traversing the poles at all three paces. Make sure not to neglect walk. Because there is no moment of suspension and lower levels of momentum in walk, stepping over poles in walk relies entirely on muscular effort. For horses with poor coordination or proprioception, it can be surprisingly difficult to either lengthen or shorten the stride to navigate just two poles. For these horses, try to begin with the poles placed at an appropriate distance for their individual stride (see distances below), allowing them to step through easily, and then adjust as they know the task to increase the challenge.
- To further increase muscular effort, control and coordination, raise the outer edge of the poles. This is where the potties come in. They make amazingly stable yet light pole holders! The outside limbs will have to lift slightly more, engaging both the core and the muscles throughout the shoulder and hip girdles, as well as taking the joints through a larger range of motion.
- Place poles parallel away from a fence line and repeat walking through both forwards and backwards. Removing the physical barrier of a fence line can be quite a step up for horses with very ingrained unevenness.
3 Poles –
- Continue as for two poles. Again, keep in mind that when adjusting their stride to slightly longer or shorter than their natural stride length, it will be another step in the challenge so start small. Use your judgement as to your horse’s individual needs and ability, some horses do seem to need to experience tripping over a pole now and then to give them a little reminder of what the job is, but do ensure the footing is good to avoid serious sliding or falls. We’re aiming to reduce a horse’s risk of injury, not add to it!
- Beginners pick up sticks. Arrange the poles close to each other at random angles, beginning with them all flat on the ground, so they are very stable and unable to roll on each other. Lead or lunge your horse through at a walk giving him a chance to really watch where he is putting his feet. Assuming this goes well, and using your best judgement to avoid your horse tripping/putting a foot on a pole etc, progress to trot.
- Beginning maze – Arrange two poles parallel to create a channel as previously and use the extra pole to sit perpendicularly at the end creating a ‘turn’. This can either be stepped over in walk or trot after navigating the channel, or used as a guide to turn in walk or trot, aiming to avoid touching the pole.
4+ poles –
- Line of poles in all three paces. Each time you add a pole, make sure the distances are initially returned to a natural stride length, and once the additional pole is no issue then you can shorten or lengthen the stride. The ends can be raised, either all on one side or alternately. With 4+ poles it is easy to arrange the poles around a bend in a fan like arrangement, making adding shorter and longer strides very easily achieved by moving closer to or further away from the centre of the fan. Progress as before to raising the outer edge.
- Continue pickup sticks with more poles. When the horse is really paying attention to his feet and where he is putting them, you can add planks to test his proprioception a little more. If you have flat edged poles you can cross them over each other, but be very careful doing this with round poles as they will roll.
- Maze – arrange the poles into a series of channels with turns and walk and trot through, rein-back, introduce transitions at various points to add challenge. Make it a little harder by making the channels narrower.
- With at least 6 poles and when you are completing these exercises under saddle you can create an S bend, allowing you to add some lateral bend control and suppleness into the exercise. This is brilliant for testing a horse’s evenness, and responsiveness to the basic bending aids.
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.