What are Horse Calisthenics?..and Why Do They Matter?
What Counts as Calisthenics? And Why Might You Care?
Luckily, someone interrupted my rhapsody during a clinic last week praising the value of calisthenics for developing equine athletes. What exactly did I mean by calisthenics?, the student asked. She was probably not alone wondering, lost as I was describing the power of these exercises.
The Webster dictionary defines calisthenics rather broadly as: “Exercises to develop a strong, trim body.” These exercises, the definition continues, require minimal gear or complicated moves. They build body strength while simultaneously developing GRACEFULNESS through their precise execution.
So, what counts as calisthenics for horses, and what makes them good? In a nutshell, they are finely controlled maneuvers that support the more active, speedier exercises a horse regularly performs. They are often slow-moving and very specific in terms of body alignment and hoof placements.
Calisthenics are best done at the beginning of a session or during periods when a horse has become confused or stressed or fatigued, because they support the role the gymnastic muscles need to play. Without that support, the body’s larger muscles tend to create faulty circuitry, poor postural habits, and opposing muscular efforts from incorrect movement patterns. You can think of calisthenics as a compliment to your normal schooling. In fact, they allow you to go about that schooling with more efficient, successful effort.
Calisthenics exercises, examples of which follow below, are used in my programs to strengthen and release tension from areas that are neglected during even a fit horse’s everyday training. In this way, you can think of them playing a similar role to Pilates and yoga for well-conditioned human athletes. Their benefits include:
- activation of under-utilized muscle chains
- stimulation of sensory nerves and improved PROPRIOCEPTION
- recruitment of deep postural muscles to resolve imbalances and asymmetries
- increasing joint range of motion
Because of these benefits, I generally recommend students perform calisthenics at the start of a session prior to any deeply embedded habits from the neuro-sensory system firing up and carrying out their status quo. This is the best time to positively alter this system to gain the benefits listed above.
Indeed, sometimes the same exercise might serve as a schooling technique or as a calisthenics routine, and in this case the speed and intention with which the exercise is performed will differentiate its effect and outcome. Many exercises, though, like the ones in my forthcoming book, stand alone fulfilling the purpose of calisthenics as I’ve stated it above.
Some of my most frequently prescribed calisthenics include:
*Backing the horse up un-mounted with perfect form for 60 strides
*walking obliquely across raised ground poles
* riding serpentines and transitions between gaits in a long/low stretched frame
* walking over raised poles arranged in a tight arc, or fan shape
* turns on forehand with correct inside bend, hind legs crossing, and steady rhythm
As you read my articles, you’ll come across several other calisthenics that I encourage riders to use because they are simple and highly effective, and most likely you have come up with some of your own along the way. My goal when prescribing them is always to recruit the horse’s slow-twitch postural muscles where patterns and memories are stored. By accessing this system, we gain the ability to influence it more and more, thereby developing better equine athletes.
What is Proprioception?…and why Should Equestrians Care?
What Is Proprioception?
It probably pegs me as a total geek for horse fitness, but I’m delighted by how frequently I hear folks using the term proprioception nowadays. Hopefully it doesn’t mean that equestrians just like fancy words, but signals instead that they are clued to how crucial this concept is. Still, though, some of us might be a little foggy on the exact meaning or definition of this term, so I wanted to clear it up.
Proprioception, a term used frequently in physical therapy and in my books, refers to how individuals “read” the position, motion, and equilibrium of their body parts, and the strength of effort being employed during movement. You can think of it as the way a body interprets and makes adjustments to the demands of any given moment. Proprioception is responsible for shifting your balance when you sense the terrain change underfoot, or for modulating muscular effort when you need a harder effort to get up or down a hill, for example.
An athlete with well-developed proprioception has good coordination and quick reflexes and balance control. Proprioception can suffer for many reasons including over-specialization in a discipline, injury, or too many sedentary
daytime hours. Many horses suffer poor proprioception arising from hoof problems or past injuries, emotional stress, fatigue, or poor weather.
The muscular tone needed for—and employed to tackle— any task is provided by specialized cells known as proprioceptors throughout the body. These spindle cells are located in skeletal muscles and tendons and play mostly a sensory role, shuttling information about position, motion, and equilibrium between the nervous system and the muscles. The information generated by these spindle cells gets relayed to motor neurons that are responsible for forming the actual movements and effort that takes place. You can see, therefore, how critical it is for a body to “read” where it is in time and space. Otherwise, it cannot generate the right signals for correct movement.
Horses with well developed proprioception are more fun to ride: lighter on their feet and what we usually call “sure-footed” on varied terrain. And while it might sound like it’s a natural born trait with some horses just possessing more than others, proprioception improvement can be– and should be– part of every training program. Fortunately, a few simple exercises is all you need. This work needs to be neither complicated nor time-consuming; it just needs not to be ignored.
Weakness in the Stifle… or the Back?
Over the past decade I have observed with delight many owners paying a lot more attention to their horses’ stifle joints. In fact, many readers find their way to my books when they are trying to fix what seems like weakness or discomfort there. While I appreciate such keen focus on this important area of the horse, the downside is that weak stifles are not always easy to diagnose.
Most often, stifle weakness shows up in the form of toe-dragging, lack of impulsion, or resistance to canter. Unfortunately, though, these symptoms are not always flawless evidence of stifle dysfunction. Tension or soreness in the horse’s lower back often masquerades as stifle dysfunction. This dynamic can work the other way, too, with hind limb discomfort or joint instability showing up as pain in the back.
Sore or weak stifles that do not flex well and engage under the body will tilt the pelvis out behind the horse, putting a sag and strain on his back. Likewise, a sore or tense back will prevent the pelvis from flexing and allowing the hind legs to swing freely, and the result of this is what looks like bad stifles. Parsing out the real culprit get tricky.
Developing an educated eye and learning diagnostics to determine whether a horse’s problem is his back versus his stifle is obviously helpful here. The good news, however, is that it is not imperative. Regardless whether the main issue resides in the back or the stifle, the course of action to resolve it will be the same: restore good posture, which in this instance typically means developing better function in the flexion pattern of movement.
This is a fancy way of saying you need to teach the horse to travel as often as possible with his back lifted and his torso engaged. Numerous biomechanics studies have shown that when a horse lifts his back, his stifles shift forward under his body. This allows them to be loaded and unloaded with weight like a spring coiling and rebounding positively. Conversely, when the back is tight, strained, or hollow the pelvis tilts out behind the horse and pushes the stifle joints rearward from his center of gravity.
Any attempt to load or bear weight on this misaligned joint will occur with strain. The horse will not gain strength or improve his movement mechanics until he travels with a lifted back. In other words, the back needs to be used properly in order to address the stifles. So no matter which one you think might be the problem—back or stifles—your solution will be to work on both anyway.
By now you might be asking, “Okay, but how do I go about that?” Your specific plan will include collaboration between your trainer, bodyworker, and in some cases your vet. But as a general starting point, I offer you the following sequence of exercises to both mobilize and strengthen the lower back and stifles. Detailed instructions and illustrations for the exercises listed are found in my book Equine Fitness.
Mobilize lower back by gently wiggling side to side with your hand on the dock of tail.
- Gentle tail traction (Exercise #20)
- Walking slowly over 6-8 poles raised 18” off ground at least 20 x per day
- Five minute sessions of walking/jogging in deep sand
- Riding a Drop (Exercise #14)
- Stepping over a log slowly (Exercise #41)
- Gradual Downward Transitions (Exercise #5)
The Magic Behind the Poles
Walking Ground Poles
For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena—five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding. But it was not until the winter when my mom and I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke videos over and over that I realized why our ground poles remained set up all the time.
Their purpose was not to alleviate the monotony of training sessions as I assumed but to physically improve the horse. As I sat in Mom’s office and watched the videos of Klimke’s students beginning each ride walking and trotting over poles, I realized there is really something to this. On the screen, sleek Warmbloods became looser and freer in their bodies right before my eyes. Of course it would be a couple of decades before I learned why they did; at that moment the mystery intrigued me enough to commit to keep using our own poles, no matter if I could describe why or not.
If world-class equestrians found it useful to ride over ground poles, then I thought we should, too. Various pole patterns have since formed a central part of my clinics and lessons. Most riders can feel the positive changes right away in their horses: their gaits become springier, jaws soften, cadence improves. Finally, about ten years ago, equine fitness studies caught up to some of the practices of old classical dressage masters. Now we had our why for riding poles.
Thanks to researchers and vets like Jean-Marie Denoix, Gillian Higgins, Hilary Clayton, and Andris Kaneps we have learned how successfully ground poles serve the horse’s neuromuscular coordination. They activate and release tension from his bottom line muscle chain, which in turn softens his jaw and poll, resulting in reflexive signals for relaxation throughout the body. Also, because of their fixed position on the ground, poles interrupt the horse’s habituated stride patterns. In this way, they stimulate activation between his brain and nervous system. This leads to gaits that are not only more rhythmic but also stay free from restricted ranges of motion.
Ground Poles at the Start of Your Ride
The following are my tips for benefitting from ground poles on a regular basis.
- The simplest way to use ground poles consistently is to walk back and forth over them 20 times at the beginning of your ride. You can do this every day. Do not assume there is more value in trotting them.
- Make a place on your farm where you can LEAVE them set up. If you have to set them up each time to use them, you will not stick to a consistent plan.
- There is no exact formula for how many poles you should set up. Just use what you have. Typically, four to six poles in a row works for most riders/horses. You do not need a fancy type of poles.
- Take note of what changes in your horse as he works over poles. Does he stretch his neck lower? Have more energy? Does his back feel any different under you?
- For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
- Do not micro-manage your horse if he stumbles or trips. Try to stay out of his way and let the poles do their work. They WILL do the work.
Winter Training in the Round Pen
Ever since first building my own round pen in the late 90’s, rough posts splintering my fingers and refusing to sink in to the rocky Vermont soil, my use of these training areas has ebbed and flowed over the years. As an equine fitness specialist, I avoid movements and exercises with a lot of repetition, which often steers me away from the circling necessitated by round pens.
There have, however, been times when I am drawn to what can be accomplished in these small training environments, like the first season I spent in California where I introduced fundamentals to young Arabians in a spacious 60-foot pen in the Sierra foothills. Or the season I spent both riding and longeing a stiff, bracey dressage Warmblood inside a round pen in the Santa Cruz mountains until his body changed enough to make our rides in the large arena more pleasant. This was followed by a few years of absence from round pens due to training some blessedly uncomplicated horses that didn’t seem to need them, and then my move to a facility that had lovely amenities like human showers and vending machines but no round pen.
Along the years, even while I do not utilize it weekly or even monthly, I have recognized that round pen schooling can be a succinct, concentrated session that serves multiple purposes. But it must be seen– and treated– as far more than just circling the horse around and around.
This winter with our relentless torrential rains here in California, I have used the round pen more than normal for schooling. Due to its slightly higher ground and sandy surface, is the only area in our muddy and flooded property that drains decently. Fortunately, I have managed some pretty productive schooling sessions in there, rubber boots and all. In fact, I think many dressage riders would be surprised how effectively they can use round pens besides just letting their horses blow off steam, which I’ll confess is a pet peeve of mine– horses coming out of a stall to run like a maniac for ten minutes, bodies twisted and tense and primed for injury.
Using your time well in such a small requires a game plan. I have included below my recipe for schooling creatively for those of you who might also find themselves in a round pen often this winter. While it is pretty simple, the general plan I follow prevents repetitive circling around in a steady gait. This is important primarily because it encourages the horse to use his body more fully rather than tightening up a single movement pattern or preferred muscle chain, not to mention the torque on lower legs that builds when a horse moves crookedly or in a dominant direction.
You can easily expand the following plan to fill a 20 to 30 minute session with your horse, which in inclement weather is probably the most realistic time span you could fulfill. Keep in mind that the purpose is not to take your horse with his cold, stiff body and work him in to a sweaty steam in as short of a time as possible. It is far more productive to to work on joint flexion and fluid circulation, recruiting muscles with positive– but not tense– tonicity, providing stimulus for digestive functioning and lymphatic fluids.
Bad Weather Round Pen Session
Before heading in to the round pen, lead your horse (briskly!) on some straight lines for 5 to 8 minutes. Use the driveway, paddock, or anywhere else you can find to make some straight energetic lines; get the horse’s limbs and back really swinging. Now head in the round pen.
1. Follow the Change of Direction rule. Aim to do no more than 3-5 laps in each direction without changing direction. To begin, start out with the horse walking on a longe line around the perimeter of the pen. Ask him to change direction every time he gets half-way around the pen. Do this for 2-3 minutes, addressing any issues that arise (i.e. lack of bending, high headedness, sluggishness, etc.).
2.) Now proceed to trot. To start, perform 3-5 laps of trot in each direction with a good steady rhythm. Now, it’s time for transitions. Practice five trot-stop-trot transitions in each direction.
3.) Now perform an energetic canter for 2 laps in each direction, followed by 3-5 trot-canter-trot transitions.
4.) Ask the horse to walk for a bit after this cantering. This is a good time to walk along with him and practice some lateral work like shoulder-in, haunches-in. And while you’re at it, do three of these repetitions: back up 8 steps, walk forward 6 steps.
Finish up with some carrot stretches, tail traction, or bodywork techniques of your choice. Well done!,congrats for making the most of bad weather and cramped schooling areas.