Driving With Purpose

Driving With Purpose (article featuring my father, W. Charles Ballou)

By Sarah Jackson, Horseman’s Yankee Pedlar May 2012

“Imagine living in a world in which normal, everyday activities such as climbing stairs, going shopping, and visiting a friend present a challenge. Then imagine a sport that eliminates those barriers, gives you a true sense of independence, and even allows you to compete with everyone else….”

..for more, click here

Driving with a Purpose

What Makes a Warm-up Good?

Most riders have heard about the need for a good warm-up before schooling each day. But what makes a warm-up good? Is an active one better than a slow, relaxing one? How long—or short—should it be? Many riders with good intentions hope that a period of moving their horses around either on the longe line or under saddle prior to their workout counts as suitable preparation. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. In fact, a proper warm up governs the success of your training session.

From a physiological standpoint, the warm up determines how much conditioning and positive physical response your horse will—or won’t—receive from your training. This means that since we dressage riders are aiming to make our horses stronger, fitter, and more supple every day, our pre-workout routine could either help or hinder us. This article will give you some simple tips to make your training sessions more successful, and your horse stronger day by day.

Loosening Vs. Warming

First, let’s clarify the distinction between loosening up and warming up. These are two different activities; you need to do both before your workout. The overall goal of warming up is to increase oxygen delivery and blood circulation to the horse’s skeletal muscles to prevent early accumulation of metabolic wastes such as lactic acid in the tissues. In addition to causing early fatigue, lactic acid buildup also prohibits the horse from benefiting from the workout because it changes the muscles’ pH levels, which controls their ability to contract and relax. To counter this, and to receive the benefit of exercising the muscles, you want to stimulate enough oxygen and blood flow to the horse’s muscles to peak them for performance.

Loosening up

Each day, when you first mount up or begin longeing, you should spend 3-5 minutes allowing your horse to walk around in a relaxed posture without any restrictive rein contact. Some choose to do this portion in-hand, others like to hack around their properties. This gentle activity allows the horse’s joint fluids to begin moving and lubricating. Studies have shown that it can take several minutes of slow movement for joint fluids to circulate fully for horses that live in mostly confined accommodations. It is important that a horse’s muscles not be in a contracted state such as a collected frame or with side reins. Joints must be allowed to move through their full range of motion prior to being held in a static position during dressage exercise with a rounded frame. There is not yet oxygen, blood flow, and fuel necessary to support the contraction-relaxation cycle that muscle fibers function with; asking muscles to engage immediately when the horse comes from his stall before these elements circulate would be essentially like choking them. In a resting state, only 15 percent of circulating blood is delivered to the horse’s muscles, traveling instead to his organs and digestive system. During exercise, however, up to 85 percent of his blood circulates to his muscles. One of the goals of loosening up is to allow this shift to happen.

Warming Up

Once you have things moving, it is time to begin the brisk activity of warming up. Here you want to begin asking the horse to stretch into contact but not be in a collected frame (see photo). Avoid the common mistake of performing suppling exercises at the start of this warm-up phase before sufficient oxygen and blood flow in the tissues and their subsequent rise in temperature gives them pliability. Cold and un-fueled muscle fibers, tendons, and ligaments are susceptible to over-stretching injuries. Also, if there is tension in an antagonistic muscle group, suppling movements will cause inefficient use of the horse’s body and contribute to side-dominance. It is best, physiologically, to spend the first five minutes of this phase with active forward movement in either trot or canter. Which gait you choose depends on each individual horse. Some are more balanced in the trot, others prefer to canter. The key here is to maintain an active gait with the goal of stimulating the skeletal muscles enough to force blood flow to them. This does not happen at a leisurely pace.

After 5 to 10 minutes of active movement, the skeletal muscles are warm enough to begin suppling exercises. These can include various sized circles, leg-yielding, turns. As this phase of warming up continues, progressively increase intensity of muscle output and suppling by using smaller circles and more difficult lateral movements. Be sure to make things more strenuous progressively. As you proceed from this stage, your warm up exercises should lead you directly into your planned workout for the day. This is to say that your warm up should flow seamlessly into your schooling session; you should not take a break after your warm up. At this point, the horse’s muscles are able to contract more powerfully, which enhances the quality of his performance and ensures a better training session. All exercises performed will now have a greater strengthening and suppling benefit.

What to Look For

Every horse should feel differently after a proper warm up period. It’s like shaking out the cobwebs every day. Learn to observe and feel your horse’s movement at the 2-minute point in your warm-up, then the 5-minute, and at the end. What changes can you detect? Things you want to feel include looseness, longer strides, more responsiveness to your aids, and physical signs that he is ready for work (i.e. his muscles are warm to touch, salivating mouth, freely swinging tail, mental focus).

Do not assume that if your horse has access to a turnout paddock he is already warmed up for you to ride. Horses in their natural state move around with short bursts of energy followed by being still. This kind of movement does not prepare their muscles and joint fluid/blood/electrolyte circulation for the kind of consistent movement and energy expenditure we require in dressage. Also remember that we need to warm up the horse specific for the kind of movements we’ll be performing, so that means he needs to be warmed up stretching through to the contact in order to exercise his back, topline, and haunches. Even if he has been in turnout, he will not do this on his own!

Below is one of my favorite warm-up patterns below, which I call “Teardrops.” (see diagram) It allows for the horse to move out in an active forward gait while also gradually bending and changing directions. It is best ridden at the trot.

After your loosening phase, develop an active rising working trot tracking to the right. Initially your horse should move energetically forward but do not expect the biggest, boldest trot he or she may be able to perform since he is not yet warmed up. As you ride the pattern a few times, strive to create that bigger trot.


Your Firm, Flexible Frame

Have you noticed that all great riders share the same thing? They sit so still that they look like they aren’t doing anything. They seem to be exempt from the challenging, sometimes bumpy process of correctly cuing the horse under them. For some, they inspire envy. For others, they elicit an unanswered “how do they DO that?”

This way of sitting is what I call the unmovable frame. It is what makes an exceptional rider, no matter the discipline but especially in dressage where the precision and clarity of aids rely on an absolutely stable foundation. Without an unmovable frame, much of riding can be difficult, even frustrating. At the very least, its finer points will seem elusive.

So, what exactly is an unmovable frame? It is a deeply stable framework of your body around the horse that is also light and flexible, allowing you to absorb motion without disturbing that stability. This frame allows the rider to effectively organize her horse underneath her without tightening or toppling her own position in the saddle. Without it—and what is commonly seen—the horse moves its rider around with its gaits, movements, evasions and the rider then gets disorganized in her body.

First, riders need to learn what this deeply rooted stability feels like. Here it is important to note that the term “unmovable” should not be interpreted as rigid, tight, or gripping. For this reason, I commonly make an analogy to martial arts.  Picture the grounded, controlled movements of a martial artist and you will begin to grasp the stability we seek in the saddle. In your body, it feels like your center of gravity has lowered (from your chest/ribcage to below your belt line), and you are more “plugged into” the horse’s back. This is commonly called riding with your core energy and tone, rather than riding from your arms and lower legs, tension, or moving your body forwards and backwards. Eventually, you will feel so much in balance that aids can become minimal.

In lessons, I often ask riders to sit at the halt while I go up beside them and push on them from the front or pull their belt from behind. I ask them to resist my push without leaning forward or backward but instead by firming up their abdominal area. This simple exercise is the first step in finding a rider’s unmovable frame. When they can meet my push with an active resistance in their core and without bracing their shoulders or arching their backs, they begin to find their deep riding stability.

To begin getting your body organized correctly, try the following martial arts posture called kiba-dachi which translates to Horse Stance. Stand with your legs a little further apart than hips’ width. Bend your knees in a partial squat, toes angled slightly inward, align your shoulder-hip-ankle vertically, point your tailbone straight down to the ground. Now, firm up your core, as if you were going to resist someone walking up to you and shoving you backwards. Notice how much weight-bearing now falls on your upper and outer thigh muscles. Imagine being in this stance on your horse.

A stable rider sits with exactly this same stance. You should feel not only firm by also light and easy for your horse to carry. In this position, you will experience the disappearance of many common riding challenges: interfering with horse’s motion, inability to sit the trot, muddled transitions, lack of maneuverability.

While achieving this unmovable frame may seem challenging or time-consuming, I have witnessed in my years of teaching riders that it is actually a short-cut to beautiful and skilled riding. Simply, put without it, riders constantly struggle or get stuck in training ruts that could be swiftly mitigated by the framework of their position. Improve your position and you just might be surprised. Your riding will accelerate in ways you never imagined!

By Erica Posely with Jec Aristotle Ballou for Honest Horses Magazine | March – April 2012 Issue