Weakness in the Stifle… or the Back?

dressage

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.

horse fitness

 

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.

Fit for Dressage: the case for grace and lightness

dressage horse

The case for Lightness

It took me longer than it should to respect the necessity of lightness when giving my horse a cue from the saddle.

“If I can see your aids, you’re doing too much,” my mother barked at me, to which I usually replied by rolling my eyes. Granted, devotion to invisible, gentle aids ran deep in the company of classical dressage students and teachers we kept. My mother was not the only one pushing for more refinement. Still, though, I assumed it had to do with keeping a certain aesthetic ideal.

The further I got in studying equine movement and fitness, the more I discovered on a daily basis that lightness of both our aids AND the horse’s response was not just about artistry. Lightness is not an aesthetic pursuit of classical crusaders but the evidence of everything working correctly beneath the surface.

As researchers have learned more about various muscle contractions, we have discovered that the neuro-motor systems in charge of the highly coordinated, fine-tuned maneuvers in dressage are the deep slower twitch fibers near the spine and joints. I refer to these as the postural muscles. They store a great deal of data related to coordination and proprioception. Leading the horse to access them requires tact and specificity.

Because horses are hard-wired to escalate psychological and physical tension to survive in the wild, big or strong aids cause them to react by engaging their large surface muscles for flight or to brace and protect themselves. When these engage with force, the switchboard sending signals to the postural muscles shuts off. In other words the neuro-motor and neuro-sensory responses that help horses move better go dormant. Instead of fine-tuned maneuvers, we get big surface muscles clamping and bracing.

You can see here this often creates a negative cycle: braced horse leads to stronger aids, which further braces the horse and alters the neuro-sensory feedback. The good news is that lightness creates a cycle, too, if we pay attention. When we aim to turn down the volume on our aids, when we seek to gain clear responses to them, the nerves and muscles controlling graceful and coordinated movements remain turned on.

Riding then transcends sport and becomes artistry. It gives us evidence that the aesthetic is right but so is the physiology. Naturally, when you are learning new exercises, your cues to the horse might be clunky or overly strong. As you practice, though, keep asking yourself can I be gentler? When the answer becomes ‘yes’ more and more frequently, you will have a more consistent conditioning effect on the right muscles. Likewise, they will stay engaged more readily, allowing you in turn to automatically choose lighter aids. This is the perfect cycle of science and aesthetics all working together!

 

Avoid Burnout with Your Horse: Have a Plan

For those of us who can measure our involvement with horses by decades rather than days or months, showing up at the barn can feel like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. With a few minor variations, our days follow a similar routine. And while these routines are generally satisfying, they open the door for burnout. Even when you love your horse– or horse training career– wildly, this sameness gets dull.

When you sustain any routine for an extended time– a hobby, an exercise program, a health habit– burnout lurks around the corner.

The obvious solution, and the right thing for our horses, is to avoid the sameness. In so doing we avoid burnout. For our purposes, I’m defining sameness as exercises of similar type or intensity every time we work with our horses. Once upon a time as young trainer, I put my training horses through 45-minute dressage schooling sessions 4 to 5 days per week operating from the belief that in order to get better at dressage, we needed to do dressage as much as possible. Sometimes I substituted a day of longing or ground driving for riding, but generally our daily routines were very similar.

With small variations in the exercises we rode or the amount of time in each gait, the bulk of our arena schooling was repetitive in terms of work effort, seriousness, duration, and objectives. As a note-young-anymore trainer I admitted to myself that I felt a little burned out. Maybe not entirely toasted yet, but definitely burning around the edges.

western dressage

Luckily it was at this time that I began studying equine exercise physiology in earnest and learned the horses needed me to change my Groundhog Day approach anyway. To become better at dressage, my horses needed to become better athletes, not necessarily to do dressage every day. Funny enough, adapting my routine for this (with the convenient side effect of preventing burnout for me) involved drafting in many ways a more rigid weekly schedule. This new plan had built-in variety and cross-training, variations in duration and intensity of training days, and prevents me from obsessing over the tedium of dressage any given day. I probably don’t need to tell you it made made both me and the horses happier.

Adhering to this plan has helped me make better equine athletes, for sure. But more notably, it keeps me from burning out. It allows me to arrive at the barn each morning with a bright mood, a clear and focused mindset, and still after all these years a little eagerness. In a general outline, my weekly schedule is below. Obviously, there are times on any given day when I scrap the plan in favor of addressing a horse’s particular need that arises. More or less, though, our weeks follow a rhythm like this:

Monday: basic gymnastic work, 30-45 minutes of riding in all three gaits, several transitions between gaits, lots of stretching. No fiddling with dressage movements.

Tuesday: Cavalletti day. A warm-up followed by 20 minutes schooling an exercise from my books.

Wednesday: Dressage schooling session

Thursday: Trail ride

Friday: Dressage schooling session

Saturday: longeing/bodywork/hack

Sunday: Off

horse health

The Intersection of Body Work and Horse Training

At the Intersection of Horse Bodywork and Training

I am admittedly lucky. My student Sandy Vreeburg is a Masterson Method instructor and practitioner. This means I not only have access to my preferred type of body work but I also get to trade notes with her about the horses we mutually work with. When this kind of melding occurs between trainer and practitioner, I would argue it is almost magic for the horse. In fact, I shudder a little when I look back decades ago when we trainers had to form our own best opinions about what might be going on for a particular horse’s body without the benefit of available skilled bodyworkers.

Sure, there are plenty of times when we trainers DO have the answers about what/where a horse might be physically restricted or discomforted. But there are also times when we are making our best educated guess. And, true, a bodyworker might just confirm or validate our guess. Other times, though, he or she might have insights that shift our focus in a positive new direction. These check-ins offer an excellent opportunity to assess our current stage and future aim for the horse.

Last week, Sandy worked on one of my lesson horses, Sem. A large grade mare, Sem is a sweetheart, but she can be pretty tricky to ride for new dressage riders due to getting heavy on the forehand and leaning against the reins. A rider must re-balance her frequently, more frequently in fact than I prefer. Lately, I stopped giving lessons with Sem so I could set about resolving her balance issues more permanently. I started working her through my Corrective Exercises daily to challenge her to find new motor patterns.

cavalletti

Despite quite a good amount of progress, I was still a little mystified about the right side of Sem’s body. It was just plain different than the left. It felt unusually difficult for Sem to rotate her trunk and bend correctly on that side while staying soft in the contact. As we know in dressage, without trunk rotation (which allows the inside hip to lower and the hind leg to thereby step under the body weight), there can be no bend and collection. When trying to respond to my cues, Sem often held her breath and braced her jaw against the reins rather than relaxing through her neck. The right rein felt heavy and lifeless, no chewing or salivation or elasticity. And yet whenever I finished riding Sem, she would work her tongue around her lips in big relaxed smacking motions, spending notably more time with her tongue wringing around the right side of her mouth.

Around this same time, Sandy worked on Sem for the first time.

Without any input or prompting from me, Sandy shared afterwards that Sem’s response to her bodywork was a pronounced amount of releasing tension from her right side. Sandy observed one particularly odd form of release: Sem twisting and twirling her tongue around the right side of her mouth accompanied by some head-twisting and yawning, all on the right side only. During the session, Sandy felt that Sem’s right scapula was fairly adhered to her thorax and possibly pulling her entire torso over to that side. Basically, her right shoulder and base of her neck felt stuck or glued to something.

cavalletti

Sandy’s feedback afterwards was not a revelation in the sense that it offered information I had not suspected. But it DID offer me a clearer and narrower focus for my training efforts. Instead of trying vaguely to improve Sem’s general right-sidedness daily, I could now focus my exercises on the front end, the base of her neck, the shoulder. Based on Sandy’s feedback, I now had a priority for my game plan.

I can’t tell you how valuable this kind of collaboration has been for horses in the past. It creates an excellent cycle of effort-progress—feedback. If a bodyworker informs me that one of my training horses is sore in an area I feel he should not be, it causes me to pause and take inventory of the horse’s lifestyle and workload in recent weeks. If on the other hand, the bodyworker tells me how excellent a horse feel when I have been pushing him harder then I know I can accelerate his training even more. This kind of feedback and open-mindedness among horse professionals is singularly focused on the horse’s wellbeing. Every horse should have a support team around him.

Muscles: Should you ride fast or slow?

Muscles: Shall we Ride Fast or Slow?

Perhaps one of the most delightful aspects of riding is the way it steadies and focuses our human minds in those moments we sit astride. For myself, anyway, I savor the monastic contemplation of the first minutes of a ride as I consider what does this horse need? Every session originates from how I can improve the horse’s physical wellbeing, and this requires a good deal of paying attention.

It also requires a decision: to ride fast or slow? Many of us ride at a speed WE prefer, or one that the horse dictates from habit. Any given day, a horse’s individual mechanics and musculature can be improved—or not—by schooling at just the right speed. Some need to strengthen their longissimus and organize their bodies by riding briskly while others need to confirm better joint flexion and easing tension from a tight topline by trotting slowly for periods of time.

western dressage

A mare I have been working with lately has a nicely forward-going attitude; she is not lazy or dull. When moving in her default trot speed, however, she pushes her weight forward to her chest and forelegs, becomes rigid through the neck, and drags her hind feet.

In her case, I school in a slow jog rather than her preferred trot speed, because she then balances her body weight more equally over all four legs, softens her neck, and motion begins to swing through her spine. In other words, her muscle development and correctness of movement will progress much faster as a result of riding slower. The old classical master Alois Podhajsky touted the value of schooling this “pony trot” for horses like my mare.

Not ALL horses benefit from riding so slowly, though. For horses that have become restricted in the lower back and hips from draw reins or aggressive bits, or horse entirely lacking conditioning, it is more useful to ride in a faster tempo. At a faster trot, the back muscles have to become more tensioned to balance the exaggerated motion of diagonal pairs of legs swinging.

Every horse is unique, and so is the speed that most suits his workouts. So how to you tell which is best for your horse, fast or slow? Ask yourself at which speed does the horse’s back feel more springy and soft? Then, have someone knowledgeable observe you from the ground and note these three measurements when riding in different speeds:

If you are still unsure which speed suits your horse most, ride the following two figures at both speeds to get clearer. Ride a large figure of 8 in both slow and fast trots. And then ride a large square in both slow and fast trots. At what speed was your horse less wobbly on his line of travel and steadier in his topline posture?