As we start a new year, it's often a time to set goals. If you would like to improve your horse's all-round way of going and ensure he is comfortable, happy and healthy I have some advice and tips for you to try over the next 12 months.
Give them a go, they are all easy to incorporate into your riding and training routine. Each of my suggestions will help ensure your horse is happy and healthy throughout the year. They are also all things that I do with my own horses, so I know that they are effective and you will see the benefits in your horse too. Each one will help to improve your horse’s posture, comfort, way of going and performance.
Get out Hacking
Hacking a couple of times a week is good you and your horse both mentally and physically. It is important though to make sure your hacking is valuable addition to your horse’s training and not a time for slopping along on a loose rein. There’s lots you can do while you’re out hacking that will help keep your training on track. If you need some inspiration to inject some fun, focus and targeted training into your hack take a look at our Make Your Hacking Count blog.
Mounting from the Wrong Side
When you get on your horse, you shift his weight to one side causing him to contact his back muscles asymmetrical as well as shift their weight over to one side. We have always been taught to get on the left hand side but by doing this you are always putting the strain onto the same muscles all the time which will cause asymmetry. Always getting on from the left also creates asymmetry in our own bodies, which won’t help our riding position either. The focus of lots of our training is to make the horse as symmetrical as possible but how can you do that if you’re not symmetrical? Make this the year where you start getting on from the right hand side. Yes, it will be difficult and feel strange but keep doing it. Always use a mounting block – this will reduce the sideways stress on your horse.
This is one of my favourite exercises that I do with all my horses. It is easily incorporated into your daily routine, I do it in-hand before I get on and ride. Backing up is a great exercise to lift and flex the back mobilising the lumbosacral joint and muscles and stimulating the sacroiliac region. It is collection in reverse, helping to strengthen the muscles and structures involved in engagement and carrying the weight of the rider.
How to do it:
Walk the horse forwards into a positive halt.
By applying gentle pressure on the chest and head collar encourage the horse to step back. As he becomes more practised at this exercise less pressure will be required.
Keep the head as low as possible to encourage the back to raise. If he has a tendency to hollow, use a carrot to encourage him to keep his head low.
Try to avoid the horse reversing with rushed, short, hollow steps.
Back up a minimum of 10 steps to allow the horse to get into a rhythm.
Once your horse is confident backing up, you can make the exercise harder - try backing up a slight gradient.
𝗪𝗮𝗹𝗸𝗶𝗻𝗴 𝗼𝘃𝗲𝗿 𝗮 𝗿𝗮𝗶𝘀𝗲𝗱 𝗽𝗼𝗹𝗲 𝐢𝐧-𝐡𝐚𝐧𝐝
This is another one of my favourite exercises that I recommend to all horse owners. Asking your h horse to walk over a raised pole or small log requires greater flexion in your horse's joints than trotting. It lifts and flexes the back, hip, shoulder, elbow, stifle and hock. Helps to strengthens the muscles and structures involved in engagement, hip flexion and pelvic stability. As well as improving suppleness and flexibility through the shoulder, elbow, hip, stifle and hock.
For your horse to get maximum benefit from this exercise I recommend that you do this on a daily basis. To make it easy to incorporate it into your daily routine, place a raised pole, or small log somewhere you regularly walk such as on the route to and from the field.
𝗛𝗼𝘄 𝘁𝗼 𝗱𝗼 𝗶𝘁:
Walk your horse over a pole on the floor.
Gradually raise it until it's around knee height.
Encourage your horse to lower his head to look at the pole.
Walk as Your Warm Up
Often underestimated, walk has many benefits and the pace that we should focus on more. Spending plenty of time in walk, particularly at the beginning of a session, is so beneficial for loosening up the joints, back and muscles. This is particularly useful over the winter months when your horse may be spending more time in the stable. Compared to trot and canter, walk uses the most thoracolumbar rotation and lateral flexion - this is why it's great for mobilising the back. The larger the steps the bigger the movement. The key things to look for that indicate good back movement are the swing of the tail and symmetrical head and neck movement. Walk is also great for encouraging relaxation.
Your warm up should be tailored for each individual horse but as a guide it should be around 15 – 20 minutes long. I like to start by walking my horse around in-hand before I get on board – two circuits of the arena on each rein. Going for a short walk hack is also a good thing to kick start your warm up, once in the school you can start to ride some simple movements such as serpentines, figure of eight and circles, which are all great for preparing the muscles for work.
For more advice, read our blog How to Structure Your Warm Up and Cool Down.
Many of you will already know that pole work is a big part of my training philosophy, so it had to be included in this blog. As well as adding variety and fun to your horse’s training, it is also a way of influencing the horse's body without the use of force or artificial training aids.
If you want to learn more about the biomechanical effects of pole work there’s lots of information in my book Posture and Performance.
Used correctly, pole work can help to improve:-
Strength and power
Core stability and lateral stability
Proprioception (spatial and body awareness)
Joint range of movement, flexibility and suppleness
Coordination, hoof-brain coordination, awareness and reactions
Grooming with your hands
This is a lovely thing to do to build your bond and it is easily incorporated into your daily routine. Getting hands on all over your horse’s body is a great way to get to know what normal feels like even if you don't necessarily understand what you're touching. Developing this inbuilt knowledge through feel will help you detect changes and take the necessary action quickly.
As you sweep your hands over the neck, back and legs, take a mental note of what you feel under hands – are there any lumps, bumps or heat? Do the muscles under your hand feel hard or soft? Watch your horse’s body language as you do this – does it alter when you are touching certain areas? This forms part of the posture and conformation assessment most therapists would do at the beginning of a session. Repeat this everyday, has anything changed, or is what you felt your horse’s normal? If you have any questions or concerns have a chat with your equine therapist.
If you want to lear more about this check out this online massage course for horse owners: https://www.horsesinsideout.com/omc
Canter for toning the abdominal muscles
Canter is the only gait where the abdominal muscles on both the left and the right sides contract at the same time within the stride cycle.
This makes it great for toning the abdominal muscles. It can be likened to performing sit-ups!
If your horse has long weak abdominal muscles one of the simplest way to tone them is to do more canter work. Canter is the only gait where the horse rocks from the hindquarters to forehand. This rocking movement is great for strengthening the thoracic sling muscles and are important for supporting the forehand between the front legs.
To encourage more movement and greater symmetry at the lumbosacral junction and to give your horse a more complete abdominal workout vary the speed and stride length in both true canter and counter canter. Do this at least once a week, have a good canter out hacking, on the lunge of lose schooling.
Learn more about canter in our on-demand recorded webinar The Biomechanics of Canter
As we start a new year, you may have some competition goals for you and your horse, or you may wish to just spend more time exploring the countryside. Whatever you are planning for your horse’s health and welfare he must be fit for the level of work he will be doing to help minimise the risk of injury.
Horses need to be fit to be ridden and help with back strength, so they can carry the rider. Even if you only hack out a few times a week cardiovascular fitness is still important.
This is because the breathing muscles are connected into the back.
However, fitness isn’t just about the cardiovascular system, it also applies to the muscular system - they both work together and are so important for the horse’s health and welfare. It takes time to build up fitness and there are no short cuts. The horse’s body needs time to adjust to the changes in the work level. You run the risk of injury and time off work if you try and rush building fitness.
Take a look at our Building Fitness blog for more help and advice putting a fitness programme together.