Wobbling to Better Movement
(periods of instability can lead to better proprioception, even in Terriers!)
Wobbling to Better Movement
Out of necessity my horses have become lighter and balanced in their movement over the past two years since moving to a new facility. I say out of necessity because this facility, while ideal in almost every way, lacks an ideal arena. What this means is that we do our schooling in a variety of places: the field, a track, the small sand arena, trails. This variety, plus less than perfect surfaces translates to the horses needing to recruit their stabilizing and postural muscles more than if they worked solely in groomed arenas.
This appreciation of mine for varied surfaces is not new; you’ve read it before in my posts. For those without access to so much variety, or with horses aboard which they prefer not to wander around outside, I’ve become increasingly compelled lately by a useful tool in the form of a squishy mat. Basically, the mat provides a slightly unstable surface that when stood upon the horse needs to fire up his postural muscles.
Now, I am not one for gimmicky toys and definitely would not suggest anyone is going to get ‘fit’ by wobbling around a foam mat for five minutes a day. But plenty of athletic outcomes do seem to come as a result of this tool, again especially for those that do not have regular access to naturally unstable surfaces (trails/hills, mud, cavalletti patterns, and so on).
I have repeatedly observed horses becoming incredibly relaxed as soon as they stop swaying from side to side on the mat, which is usually within 90 seconds. Some yawn and get sleepy, others lick and chew a lot; unanimously they appear very content. What this owes to, as I see it, is the large gymnastic muscles relaxing as their small postural muscles engage to find balance on the mat.
As the tension and tightness held in these big surface muscles releases, it turns down the level of involvement of a horse’s sympathetic nervous system. This system controls flight-or-fight response, heart rate, and tone in large locomotion muscles. When this quiets down, an animal’s parasympathetic system can play a larger role. This is often called the rest-and-digest system. Placing horses on mats or similarly unstable surfaces appears to trigger this system.
A horse in this state can gain quick access to his postural muscles, which, like his human companions, are often the weak links in his performance. When his gymnastic muscles are for the most part turned off and he is asked to make small movements, or to simply stand and find his balance amidst the wobbling, he engages those smaller muscles. The more frequently they are engaged, the more they become habitual.
Some trainers attest to seeing completely different movement as soon as the horse leaves the mat. I have not observed that myself, but I can report that most horses do FEEL differently to ride when they have stood immediately beforehand on the mat. I also ask them to do some small calisthenics on the mat, which for reasons of brevity, I won’t go in to with this post. Basically, I ask them to make small achievable movements that cause them to engage the trunk and hip stabilizers.
Again, these movements are not necessarily ones that could not be replicated by calisthenics with cavalletti poles, or varied riding surfaces. For riders without access to those tools, though, something like a big foam mat might be a useful alternative, so I wanted to share my experience and feedback with it. You can buy fancy horse-specific mats and pads on-line, or you can make your own semblance of one with a big piece of foam, a futon, etc. I am currently using a children’s gymnastic tumbling mat that works well.
The Sandwich Lope
The Sandwich Lope
When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.
It should have springiness and energy, we told students, but not excessive speed. The horse should be adequately on the bit and lifting his back but maintaining the obedience and calmness seen in reining horses.
So, what exactly might that feel like? In the past year, hopefully without disparaging my classical dressage roots by foregoing high falutin’ descriptions, I have landed on a darn useful description.
When trail riding her often spirited Andalusian, a former student of mine used to praise the moments when cantering along a ridgeline she felt like everything was so smooth and calm and rhythmic that she could eat her lunch in stride.
I began to think of this as the sandwich test. If you and your horse were balanced and rhythmic enough to proceed with the reins in one hand while the other brought a sandwich to your mouth, you had a working lope. You should feel that you are decidedly traveling over the ground rather than grinding along and the horse should carry you on a softly engaged back that gives you a smooth enough ride to savor your sandwich.
Some horses are gifted with a balanced lope from the start. In my experience, though, most are not this naturally blessed, and the rider must invest a certain amount of effort to make the gait what we desire. Below are some of my tips for doing so, because as you have read in previous postings, I am a huge advocate of ample time spent cantering. It does wonderful things for the horse’s body. And while those wonders are happening, I suggest you think about your favorite kind of sandwich to put it all to the test.
Tips for improving the canter:
- Don’t overlook the effectiveness of a two-seat position. If your horse has a hurried or bone-rattling canter, don’t try to force yourself in to an elegant dressage position; help him out by riding in a lighter two-point position until he learns to canter with a lifted back and only then adopt a deeper seat.
- Don’t get stuck on the circle. As soon as you’re able, intersperse circles (or half-circles) and straight lines. This progresses a horse’s balance much quicker and helps him achieve self-carriage.
- The horse needs to breathe. For horses that hold their breath in the canter, the gait will always be rigid and hard to ride. If you can feel the horse holding his breath, or you hear him grunting instead of exhaling on the downbeat, ask him to work harder for 30 seconds and then stop completely and give him a loose rein to offer him a chance to let out his air. Many horses will at this point sigh or blow through their noses. If not, gather the reins and go back immediately to cantering for another 30 second bout and repeat.
- If your horse has a sluggish lope/canter, use cavalletti in your daily routines to create more “jump” in the stride. Place single poles on the ground spaced randomly around your arena.
- Don’t assume that if YOU have anxiety about the canter your horse also does. Likewise, do not assume without reliable data that the canter is more difficult for your horse than other gaits. Using a heart rate monitor can tell you just how ‘hard’ he finds the canter or not.