Happy Horse by the Numbers
200 steps chasing neighbor’s black cat around pasture; 50 prances along perimeter fence next to a mule deer; 150 relaxed ambles moving from one nap spot to the next; 2,000 strides hunting/nibbling the ideal blade of grass all afternoon.
If Corazon wore a Fitbit, or other daily activity tracker that have become popular devices for people aiming to more active lifestyles, I imagine this is how it might read. Sometimes when I am schooling another horse in the arena visible from his pasture, I catch him making all kinds of goofy moves and self-entertainments. It brings me so much joy that I want to record them all, because I am plain grateful to keep my horses in a facility with so much room to roam. With so much space available to them 24/7, this past year became one of verifying statistics. Whether taken lightly, dogmatically, or amusingly, these stats shift the concept of helping horses’ bodies.
Statistic one: horses in their natural state roam… a lot. Some figures I’ve read in magazines put the estimate as high as 20 miles a day, though most agree more conservatively on at least six. But most domesticated horses I’ve observed who receive daily turnout in paddocks tend to stand around the gate waiting to come back to their stalls. They might spend the first five to ten minutes rolling and steaming around the pen, but then they do a lot of stationary waiting and watching.
These observations made me dubious about the roaming statistics I read. But then when I observed horses who lived outside 24/7, rather than ones who were turned out for a few hours a day, the data suddenly got valid. This does not necessarily mean they are fit, because most of their movement happens in short bursts rather than continuous sustained efforts. But it does mean their joints and connective tissues and blood receive the regular spurts of motion so critical to a healthy body.
Statistic two: progress can be made by schooling dressage for no longer than thirty minutes a day. Sessions that run longer than that on a regular basis end up taxing the horse mentally and adding lots of repetitive strain to his musculoskeletal system. When a horse begins his daily work session stiff or amped up (or both), though, riders end up needing to school them a fairly long time just to reach the point at which anything productive starts to happen. And this unfortunately means lots of repetitive movement and subpar muscular recruitment. Whereas, when a horse can begin his workout relaxed and loose—as is often the case with horses living in roomy areas—schooling routines can be immediately focused, productive, and briefer. This translates to a mentally and physically fresher horse throughout his career.
Statistic three: natural postural habits DO change. But a horse needs to be allowed the space and terrain for that to happen. When he lives out in nature, not boxed in and on padded floors, he adapts to the physical changes introduced in his training. I’ve been able to observe proprioceptive improvements in my horses moving around on their own in the fields. The way they carry themselves on their own has improved and so has their knowledge and control of what their feet are doing, their agility and balance. This result is always the hope among us dressage trainers. But I will argue that these changes don’t often happen unless horses are allowed lots of time to move around and feel their bodies, integrating new neural pathways and sensory feedback well beyond the time their schooling session ends. Otherwise, when a schooling session ends and they return to a small enclosure for day’s remainder, their nervous system returns to a full resting—almost dormant—state. In this case, it can take much longer to create or change movement patterns.
Sometimes when I see Corazon menacing the cows across the fence, I shake my head at his goofiness. Or I’ll yell at him to quit charging the neighbor’s cat. But of all this activity I am always thankful. It makes my job as a trainer so much easier when a horse’s living arrangements complement my goals for his body: range of motion, joint freedom, nerve stimulation. Often, progress in training is not limited by the right formula of schooling exercises but more so by the challenges arising from a horse’s care and custody.