If you own or ride horses, at some point most of us have mumbled, muttered or screamed one of these phrases:
🐴“I just want to be able to walk, trot and canter in the arena”
🐴“I just want to be able to go on a nice trail ride”
🐴“I just want to be able to take my horse out to my local club”
🐴“I just want to ride out with my friends”
🐴“I just want to be able to groom/rug/lead/pick out feet/tie up…”
If you’re dealing with horses on a daily basis, it’s well worth stepping back and thinking about what all of this entails, particularly from the horse’s perspective.
Firstly for the benefit of the horse, who is often considered a part of the family, who you wrap up in rugs, feed, invest in routine healthcare or pay vet bills for and who you want to enjoy spending time with; secondly, for your own sanity and to aid in resolving the frustration, disappointment and stress that can also be a part of horse ownership, handling and riding.
So…I would like you to start by correcting your posture, make sure you are travelling upright and your pelvic angle is correct to remove pressure from your lower back, joints and hips. Add in a few Pilates exercises and get your core engaged, perhaps a couple of minutes of planking or some abdominal curls. Don’t forget to make sure you are using each side of your body equally and perhaps train yourself to be ambidextrous while completing regular tasks. Ok, if you have that covered why not add in some stairs to work those glutes and improve your range of motion …all good?
Great, let’s move on to some weight lifts to increase muscle mass and physical strength.
I think we’ve done enough stamina work so maybe let’s finish with a couple more challenging tasks, we’ll start with an obstacle course and finish with a short sprint to get the cardio tuned. Once that gets a little mundane, why not really push yourself, perhaps by getting a drill sergeant or similar to let you know where you’re going wrong and yell some directions at you, he's a real perfectionist! You could try completing the above in a haunted house to really keep you on your toes, add some distractions and test your focus.
If you’re catching the drift we can also look at the horse’s given programming alongside some of our expectations to help with resetting your perspectives in those tough moments.
By nature, horses are designed to travel slowly most of the time, unless being chased by a horse eating predator. They also tend to travel in ‘straight’ lines (although asymmetrical through the body as far as weight distribution and neural pathways) and are not terribly flexible through the mid-section, using for the majority, the forehand muscles to lift and pull the body around. Without core engagement the pelvis cannot rotate, the mid-section and back cannot comfortably carry a rider and the hind legs cannot travel underneath the rib-cage to support the increased weight mass at the mid-section.
When the horse is put onto a circle without adequate lateral flexion the whole body tends to lean in like a motorbike to compensate, which makes them feel unbalanced, out of control and vulnerable. Horses don’t like to fall over, it makes them a great target for predators.
When roaming grasslands or plains there aren’t a whole lot of obstacles to get around, over or through, making range of motion and articulation of joints low on the priority list, however, these become high on OUR priority list once we get out on the trail, particularly when there’s a 10ft ditch on one side or we’re about to get taken out by a low hanging tree branch. Once again core engagement is a must to allow and maximise this, and again, sit ups and planking are not high on your horses’ ‘to do’ list.
As both flight and herd animals, horses react to environmental stimuli plus the reactions of their buddies, which isn’t a great help to us when the horse next to us bolts because a blade of grass touched their leg or the neighbours have decided to renovate. So, while to us our horse may be acting like a drama queen, in their mind there is obvious life-threatening danger and getting out of there as quickly as possible is top priority.
“Hey Janet, hold still while I grab that huntsman off your shoulder…I said hold still!! Where are you going?!”.
Routine tasks often involve restriction, for example, tying up, picking up legs and feet or enclosing in a float or stable. Most of these also require balance and body awareness. There aren’t many of us who would be keen on being confined in a small, dark room or having our limbs manipulated without a decent explanation, not to mention how disconcerting it might be to suddenly teleport to an unfamiliar location and have to get our bearings while remaining calm and focused, followed by completing said workout above.
Popping to the supermarket to grab a snack is easy done and means we no longer need to compete for resources, but when your mum/dad/sister/brother find your hiding spot and eat that sweet treat you’ve been saving, it’s on! Just like the competitive wrestle to grab the last piece of crackle at Xmas dinner, as herd animals, horses move other horses out of space to compete for resources such as water and food and so, are conditioned to push into pressure. Not terribly helpful when we’re needing to yield to get over to the side of the road to avoid speeding traffic or get around that gate.
Did I mention horses are prey animals?
Of course, this is the obvious one, and by some divine miracle we manage to sit atop our horses for longer than 5 seconds without getting turfed (most of the time…).
Given all of that, our horses manage to figure out our complex requirements and mix of instructions, in a relatively short timeframe, without the ability to communicate in a complete and common spoken language or the ability to rationalise why performing these tasks might be beneficial.
So how can we help our horses reach our expectations?
🦄By appreciating the physical exertion and fitness required to complete the tasks we are asking.
🦄By teaching our horses to be more symmetrical and therefore balanced, by strengthening the weaker muscles and stretching the tighter ones.
🦄By encouraging correct posture and core engagement - through teaching this on the ground with mental and physical awareness first, we can build strength and coordinate new movement patterns gradually, to prevent the horse from reverting to using incorrect/inefficient muscle groups once the weight of a rider is added.
🦄By improving lateral flexion to help with those circles and arena patterns.
🦄By gradually building and then maintaining fitness to avoid fatigue, injury and soreness.
🦄By teaching lateral work to help getting around those bushes and gates out on the trail.
🦄By including pole or cavaletti work to increase range of motion and proprioception and aid in stepping over those logs, getting over those ditches and up the float ramp.
🦄By encouraging active thinking alongside conditioning responses to pressure, to help us when those birds fly out of the bushes or cyclists pass by.
🦄By including focus work to help us in the warm-up arena while other horses are moving towards us or on the trail while other horses are moving away from us.
🦄By making ourselves valuable to the horse through demonstrating to them that we can guide their legs and body to provide security or safety, enabling us to get through the creek, squeeze through that tight spot or step into the float.
It’s all in the perspective!
CADENCE HORSE TRAINING
Striving to maintain an encouraging and inclusive culture among fellow equestrians. We're passionate about all things equine including behaviour, biomechanics, training and horsemanship!