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Maintaining Mobility in Your Horse

Movement is key to the horse’s comfort and a healthy musculoskeletal and fascial system. It also has benefits for circulation and lymphatic drainage. As well as other physiological benefits there are the psychological benefits to consider too.

In an ideal world our horses should have plenty of turnout so they can move about freely. However, as horse owners, we appreciate that there are times when freedom of movement may be limited, whether that’s due to enforced box rest because of a health issue, or because of the weather which may mean limited turnout time. In these situations, which are often out of our control, it’s important for the health and welfare of the horse that we do as much as we possibly can to help maintain mobility.

This article is inspired by Gillian’s recent visit to the King’s Troop at the Royal Artillery Barracks in Woolwich, London.

“The standard of care these horses receive is second to none and it was an honour that I was invited to do an equine anatomy painted workshop with the soldiers, officers and people that look after the horses.” says Gillian. “Also, due to the lack of regular turnout the King’s Troop horses have, I was also asked to suggest exercises that will help to maintain mobility and to ensure the horses in their care are happy and comfortable.”

In this article Gillian shares some of the exercises and ideas that she suggested to the King’s Troop. These are exercises you can do with your own horse too, and the aim of them is to maintain mobility, boost comfort and ensure the welfare of the horse.

How Lack of Movement Effects the Horse

Muscles require regular movement to maintain suppleness. Fascia requires regular and varied movement to maintain its health. Bone requires regular movement and external forces to stimulate the replacement of cells and the rejuvenation of bone.  The lymphatic system also needs movement to function properly.

Fluid Accumulation

The lymphatic system cleanses the blood. The movement of lymph through the lymphatic system is not as a result of pressure from a pump as in the circulatory system which has pressure from the heart pumping blood around the system. Instead, movement of lymph is reliant on muscular contraction and this is why movement is absolutely vital to help maintain healthy and effective lymphatic flow. When the horse’s natural movement is restricted, it has a negative effect on the lymphatic system and one of the common issues you see in horses is filled legs.

For a more detailed description on how the lymphatic system works, there's a whole chapter dedicated to it in the book Horse Anatomy for Performance.

Joint Movement

Movement is vitally important for the health and hydration of fascia. If you, or your horse don’t move regularly the lubrication in the fascia may dry up in certain areas, this leads to ‘sticky’ sections. This isn’t good for the health of the fascia because it relies on good hydration. Water is important but what we are really talking about here is the substance called hyaluronic acid. Hyaluronic acid requires regular movement to keep the fascia lubricated.

The subject of fascia is a fascinating one - if you are keen to delve a little deeper and discover more about this structure, join our online seminar - All About Fascia on Monday 2 September 2024.


Boosting Mobility

The big question is, what can you do to help maintain mobility when freedom of movement is restricted for whatever reason?

Here are some of the exercises Gillian suggested to the King’s Troop. They are all aimed at being easy to incorporate into you daily routine.

Exercise 1: Backing up

Gillian Higgins and Horses Inside Out asking a grey horse to back up in-hand
Backing up is a great exercise to do with your horse

Gillian often suggests backing up as it has so many positive benefits, including increasing flexion through the horse's back. When a horse goes backwards, the lumbar sacral junction flexes more compared to when it is going forwards. Also, the footfalls (diagonal pairs) of backing up, means you see an increase in the amount of rotation within the horse's back.

“At the King's Troop using the backing up exercise will effectively introduce a different movement for the horses,” explains Gillian. “As well as getting increased flexion and rotation through the back, this exercise encourages the horse to lift through thorax and flex the base of the neck in a very different way. In fact, I'd say entirely opposite to the way they move when they're pulling a gun carriage.”

One of the challenges for Gillian was how to incorporate the exercises into the daily routine. Her normal suggestion would be to back up for 10 steps before you get on, but this wasn’t necessarily a practical option for the horses at the King’s Troop.  

To make it even easier for these horses to do more backing up, I suggested rather than coming out of the stable forwards, ask them to back up. This could be repeated after exercise too, when they ask the horse to back up into the stable.

Think of other times where you could fit backing up into your daily routine with your horse.

“I get on in the arena, so I lead my horse into the arena and do a number of repetitions of backing up steps before getting on,” explains Gillian. “I also ask the horse to walk small circles – making sure he is stepping forward on each circle. The other thing that I loved to do is raised poles. I have a series of raised telegraph poles, so basically wherever I’m going, whether to the arena, or turning out in one of the fields there is a set of raised poles to walk over on the way. This makes it so easy to fit this exercise into my daily routine.”

Gillian Higgins and Horses Inside Out on-demand recorded webinar, Poles for Posture

Gillian talks a lot about the benefits of polework and if you are keen to learn more, check out the Poles for Posture on-demand recorded webinar. It will give you lots of inspiration for different polework exercises and goes into detail about why this type of work is so beneficial for all horses.


Stable Exercises

For some horses, free movement and in-hand exercises aren't possible, but there are beneficial exercises you can do in the stable to help the comfort and mobility of the horse.

“If I were to recommend one or two exercises that are really going to make a difference to mobility, to circulation and lymphatic flow, it would be the wither rock and the hindlimb lateral sway,” explains Gillian. “These weight transfer exercises are very simple, gentle, yet effective. Another benefit of this type of exercise is that they put less force through the joints, tendons and ligaments than a horse would in walk. If your horse is on box rest or limited turnout due to injury, please check with your vet or professional therapist before trying any of these exercises.”

Gillian Higgins and Horses Inside Out performing the wither rock exercise on a chestnut horse
The wither rock stimulates the horse's core muscles and the lateral stabiliser muscles

Exercise 2: The Wither Rock

This exercise stimulates the lateral stabiliser muscles of the limbs as well as the core muscles which are important for maintaining posture. The lateral stabiliser muscles support the limbs when turning and moving sideways.

These muscles are naturally quite weak in horses, as they have evolved to run away from predators in a straight line rather than turning. This is what makes using an exercise to strengthen the lateral stabiliser muscles so useful.


How to Perform the Wither Rock

1.      Ask the horse to stand square.

2.      Stand facing the left shoulder, with your shoulders parallel to the horse’s spine.

3.      Do a personal postural check, ensure you have no tension in your shoulders or arms and take a couple of deep breaths.

4.      Place both hands cupping the top of the withers and take a moment to allow the horse to get used to your touch.

5.      Imagine the movement first and build up slowly from there.

6.      Gently push the withers away from you by about 1cm initially then allow the withers to return to the neutral position before pulling them back towards you by about 1 cm then release again.

7.      Repeat this swaying movement in a natural rhythm. The side-to-side movement of the withers should be continuous and flowing. Don’t try to hold his weight in one position.

8.      Gradually increase the amount of sideways movement but only as the horse relaxes into the movement.

9.      It is like pushing a child on a swing, gradually increasing the amplitude and therefore lateral weight shift.


Want to see a video of the Wither Rock? Sign up to the Horses Inside Out Academy – it’s FREE to join and you can access the FREE Tutorial videos. In this library your will find the Wither Rock Exercise, where Gillian explains how to do this exercise correctly for maximum benefit for your horse.

Exercise 3: The Hindlimb Lateral Sway

This is similar to the wither rock but this time you are moving the hindquarters. If your lower back aches and you are standing, one of the things you may find yourself doing is just gently swaying from side to side to help ease the discomfort. In a similar way, this movement can ease tension in the horse's back

How to Perform the Hindlimb Lateral Sway

  1. Place one hand at the top of the tail and your other on the top of the hindquarters

  2. Imagine the movement first and build up slowly from there.

  3. Gently push the hindquarters away from you and then allow them to return to the neutral position before repeating the movement.

  4. Keep the movement continuous and in a natural rhythm.

There are a whole host of other exercises that you can do with your horse. For inspiration, check out Gillian's book, Pilates and Stretching. This book guides you through various different exercises in an easy to understand way.

In an ideal world, horses wouldn't have to go on box rest or have restricted movement because of the negative impact it has not just on their mobility, but their bone density, muscular, digestive, respiratory and nervous system, state of mind and mental health. But it is a reality facing many horse owners and we hope that this article has given you some ideas of things that you can do to ensure you maintain mobility.



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