With all horse events on hold, now is the perfect time to take a step back and evaluate your horse’s fitness and body condition. I feel like as competitors, sometimes we put so much focus entering the next race that weak areas of fitness get overlooked until a problem or lameness surfaces.
Proper training is always very important, but you can’t ask a body to perform something that it is not physically fit enough to do. The body—horse or human—is designed with self-preservation in mind, meaning it will automatically take the path of least resistance. This means overcompensating for sore areas but still being able to perform to a normal expectation. Usually the side that is taking on the extra workload begins to get sore, and you have a problem on your hands. This is usually when the rider realizes there is an issue going on. The horse’s demeanor changes, bad habits start to form, and he’s no longer willing to work through the pain. Many times, these issues are building over time and the rider just hasn’t noticed.
Evaluating the Body and Gaits
Now that we are all stuck at home, this is the perfect time to learn what is normal for your horse and to look for any soreness or areas of weakness.
Start by going over your horse. You can use the end of a pen, cap of a needle or your fingernail and apply gentle pressure. Start at the beginning of the neck and trace your way across the different muscles. Go over your horse head to tail. Do any muscles seem tight? Do some areas seem more sensitive than others? You don’t have to use a lot of pressure, just get to know what is normal for your horse.
How often do you look at your horse move from the ground level? Do you know what it looks like in a circle when it’s completely sound? If your answer is no or not very often, then how can you determine if your next problem is a training issue or soundness issue?
So many horses are not trained to lunge correctly, because many people use it to replace exercise or wear a snorty horse down before riding. I recommend training horses to go through each gait in a relaxed manner so I can see their stride, look for imbalances in movement and see how they carry themselves. It’s noticing the little things that will save you big trouble later on. I also take one extra step and use a slight incline to look for any lameness. If there’s any soreness, it will always show on the downhill coming off the turn.
I also encourage a horse to use themselves and hold their frame while lungeing, just as I would expect them to if I was in the saddle. If your horse isn’t trained, it’s hard to know if he’s running 100 mph on the lunge line to avoid pain or because he’s never been taught correctly. Same goes for leads. Horses will crossfire from weakness, pain, EPM, or lack of training and collection. I have to determine which is causing the issue. Being out of control on the lunge line puts the horse at a greater risk of slipping, falling, or causing soft tissue injuries.
A lunge line is the perfect tool to recognize and memorize correct and incorrect movements of your horse. The more you know about your horse, the easier and more thorough your vet and therapist can be with figuring out the best treatment plan possible. It all starts with control and communication between you and your horse.
Backing from the Ground
Another great ground exercise is backing your horse. Backing helps strengthen the hind end and maintain pelvic alignment. This will tell you a lot about the hind end of your horse. Does he back straight or always curved to one side? If there is a consistent curve, that usually means the horse is taking shorter steps on the side that he is fading to. Start on a flat surface, then work your way up to more inclined areas. Start off with just a few minutes and then add more time as your horse gets acclimated. Backing is hard work! If you overdo it, your horse will get cranky and resistant, so work your way up to a long session.
You can also break it up by backing and then letting the horse go forward on a lunge line, and then stop and back some more. Breaking up the sessions can make it less boring. If you want to know the degree of difficulty, try backing with your horse. That reverse direction builds glutes on both horses and humans. If you can work together with your horse, it will benefit your riding and your horse’s fitness.
Now that we have discussed a couple exercises, let’s go over a few stretches that are very beneficial for mobilizing the hips, topline, and range of motion.
The Hip Tuck Stretch
You can see me ask this mare to flatten her pelvis, then I slowly drag down to make her lift and tuck. It’s also a good self-diagnosis, because if there’s any stifle or hock pain, the horse will usually buck up or kick out because they can’t hold the stretch, so be cognizant of your horse for your own safety while doing this stretch.
Start slowly and don’t ask too much until your horse understands what you what from them. This stretch is one of my favorites for horses that develop a dip between lumbar and sacral regions. When the pelvis starts to tip forward, you can have back pain and poor performance. This simple stretch will help correct that over time. If you want your horse to drag its hindquarters and engage that cool hip action under saddle, you must have the pelvis freed up and in good working order.
The Belly Lift
You can go straight from a hip tuck into a belly lift stretch. You can use a needle cap, ink pen, rock or fingernails to locate the pressure point that makes the horse lift its core. It doesn’t take a lot of pressure. Ask the horse to hold for a few seconds at first, then ask for a longer hold as it becomes more acclimated. This stretch helps mobilize the spine and ribs. You can also move your point up to the sternum area where your cinch would go and ask the horse to lift, which is great for wither pain and the front of the spine.
These are just a few of the things we do daily in a rehab setting. Remember that each horse is different, and you have to start slow and basic. Don’t expect the horse to be perfect the first day. These are great exercises to use all the time, but if you start the routine now, your horse will be a pro by the time we can get out and haul again. It’s great to bond with your horse and learn what their normal range of motion is, that way you are quicker to realize when there might be a problem surfacing down the road.