It’s a glorious feeling, that moment when after uncoordinated attempts the exercise you’re struggling with happens without ungodly effort. Your muscles cooperate, your body figures out what you have been trying to make it do the past several minutes or maybe even days. Sometimes these little breakthroughs are fleeting and we end up flailing again after a few successes. Doubtless, you have probably observed your horse experience the same sequence, especially when trying to make him stronger for certain exercises. It’s these moments that demonstrate how dependent performance is on the nervous system.
Helping horses use their bodies better and gain strength does not often follow a straight path forward. Like us, horses need to recruit specific neural pathways consistently enough until a movement pattern gets habituated. Only then will he experience measurable gains in strength and balance. The good news is that this can happen pretty quickly. New movement patterns can be established within six weeks. Unfortunately, though, it ends up taking most riders a lot longer. These efforts could be accelerated by what I call priming the pump.
This involves showing his nervous system the pathways we want accessed prior to introducing the gymnastic exercises we plan to use. The nervous system, after all, is where patterns of movement get stored, where the force and reliability of muscle contractions originate. So, rather than go out and charge through a bunch of exercises every day in the hope of building a stronger athlete, begin by taking the time to generate the right signals in the nervous system first. Let me explain further.
For horses with weak stifles, well-intentioned riders head for the hills, having read or heard that riding on gradients strengthens the muscles that support the stifle. But any exercise is only as effective as the neural pathways behind it. In other words, riding good exercises doesn’t guarantee results. Like us, horses can perform all kinds of exercises without recruiting the targeted weak area and making it stronger. However, if you have first signaled that area by waking up the nervous system to input it, then you will get results.
In our example of weak stifles, this means using slow and controlled flexions of the stifle prior to engaging in the hill riding exercises. These could include hand-walking over poles, manually flexing the hind limb and holding it flexed for 20 seconds, backing up either in-hand or mounted, hind leg circles/stretches, butt tucks, and so on. The idea is that you coordinate some small movements of the horse’s posture around the area you’re targeting and by doing so, you wake up the nervous system to communicate with it. You prime the pump. Then, as you ride out to the hills, you will indeed receive the strengthening benefit you hoped for.
Simple bodywork techniques like butt tucks, tail pulls, whither wiggles, and Masterson Method in addition to calisthenics like ground work, pole patterns, and corrective exercises are beneficial for priming the pump. Remember to influence every day’s performance with the correct participation of the nervous system and you’ll find yourself steeped in that resulting glorious feeling more abundantly.