Five Daily Essentials for Conditioning your Horse
Whether you’ve decided to embark on a resolution to learn dressage or are making your way back to the discipline after a hiatus, this article gives a fail-safe plan for making the entry smooth and productive.
Arguably one of the most important tenets of dressage is that your horse carries himself in a particular posture, one that demands and increases the strength/flexibility of his back, topline, and abdominals. Unfortunately, achieving this posture while under saddle is where most riders get stuck and very frustrated. Learning the seat and cues to accomplish this task can take riders and horses much longer than anyone ever hopes! For this reason, I have developed what I call my Five Daily Essentials which will speed your journey along.
Put simply, if your horse’s body is fit and prepared for what you’re cuing him to do, the task becomes less frustrating. Follow my mini conditioning plan below as you begin your dressage training. It will make your horse far more able and willing to carry his body in the shape that you are asking for under saddle. Consider the exercises to be a daily multi-vitamin; they will move your training along more swiftly. Commit to execute them every day you ride your horse. They are just as, if not more, important than time spent riding. Plus, they will take you no more than five minutes a day.
1. Backing Up
Backing up improves horses’ overall strength and suppleness. When done properly with the horse in a low neck position, walking backwards puts the same demand on the horse as sit-ups or crunches do for us humans. It requires the horse to firm up and engage his tummy and back muscles while simultaneously stretching his hamstrings. It also causes the horse’s lumbar sacral area to swing back and forth in the same way as walking down a hill.
Many equine chiropractors and body workers agree that backing up is arguably the most important exercise riders can do for their horses. Aim to back up 30 steps every day, either mounted or unmounted. It can be as easy as having your horse walk backwards to the cross-tie area before you ride him.
Once you and your horse get proficient at backing up, find a gradual slope and back him up the hill. At first, aim for a few decent steps before you will likely need to stop and remind the horse to lower his neck. Gradually build the number of uphill backing steps to 30 over a few weeks. Total time spent: 20 seconds.
2. Walking Ground Poles
Slowly walking over un-raised poles on a long rein allows the horse’s sacral region to rock back and forth, thereby loosening his whole spine. Few other exercises, except backing up and riding down hills, have the same effect.
Add this simple routine to your daily sessions. It’s simple, quick, and requires no special equipment except for a few fence poles that you probably already have lying around. Setting them up someplace outside your arena allows your horse to relax mentally before entering the arena.
Lay five poles on the ground parallel to each other, spaced approximately 3 feet apart from one another. Spacing is such that your horse will take just ONE step between each pole. For smaller horses, use a shorter distance than 3 feet.
Walk back and forth over the poles for a few minutes on a loose rein or un-mounted, passing over them a total of at least 10 times. There’s no need to go any faster than a walk. Just allow your horse a casual pace for a few moments. It’s like medicine to his body! Total time spent: 3 minutes.
3. Tail Pull
Remember that the horse’s tail is an extension of his spine. Gentle traction on it stretches his back by elongating his spine and encouraging mobility in his vertebrae. This prevents them from getting “clumped” together. I like to do one tail pull both before and after I ride, done while saddling and then unsaddling. Grab the tail at the end of the tailbone, hold tightly, and lean back with your body weight pulling the tail straight out from horse’s body. Hold traction for 20 seconds and gradually release. Total time spent: 20 seconds.
4. Mobilize Front Legs
Horses carry tension and stress in their neck/shoulder/withers junction. Tension in this region can lead to restriction in the horse’s freedom of movement, particularly in his shoulder suppleness and ability to swing his front legs fluidly and stretch his neck well. However, spending an easy 40 seconds or so each day on stretches that help the horse release tension here will keep him in excellent working order. You may execute this stretch either before or after you ride. Again, what matters most of that you make it a consistent part of your regular routine.
Ask the horse to raise his leg as if you are going to clean his hoof. Holding the leg with both of your hands (one hand is under his knee, one hand under his fetlock), gently draw the leg straight out in front of his body, keeping a slight bend in his knee. Hold 20 seconds and return foot to the ground, then stretch the other front leg. Total time spent: 40 seconds.
As mentioned above, keeping the horse’s neck and shoulder girdle loose is crucial for ensuring the functionality in the whole rest of his body. Daily side stretches are a helpful way to keep vertebrae blockages and restriction at bay. This will improve his ability to bend laterally, round his spine, and engage his tummy.
Use a cookie or carrot piece to encourage your horse—while keeping his feet immobile in one place—to bring his nose around to his flank. Then, give him the treat slowly, trying to keep him in stretched position for 10 seconds. If he tries to shuffle his feet, you may need to put his opposite side along a wall or fence to prevent him from swinging around. Execute both sides. Total time spent: 20 seconds.