Conditioning Horses: Stability before Strength
For most horses, it is in the area of strength that they can—and need to—make the most gains. Evolution has given horses remarkable aerobic adaptations. Generally speaking, they make rapid gains from cardiovascular exercise and their bodies handle aerobic demands efficiently. Their musculoskeletal system, however, lacks the same adaptability. Most often when a horse cannot perform a particular task, it is due to insufficient muscular strength, coordination, or motor/sensory nerve recruitment.
So does this mean you should spend a lot of time trying to increase your horse’s strength? Yes, but with a caveat. You cannot build strength until you have stability in the system. If the nerve signals and joints and postural muscles are deficient in their effort, there is no point trying to build up the locomotion muscles for stronger outputs. The reason for this is because any strength you add to those muscles will be compromised unless they have full cooperation from the other systems. Most frequently it will be tense or asymmetrical from trying to stabilize and propel a body that is wobbly and disorganized underneath.
We must always prioritize stability ahead of strength. A stable body is one that can become stronger. The core is supported and aligned while the limbs and locomotion muscles can deliver their full power. The horse’s body can organize itself, make adjustments to balance, move without tension, and relax his back. In this state, he is able to gain the necessary strength in his locomotion muscles.
There are a few ways to address and improve your horse’s stability. It does not need to be a complicated task; it just needs to be consistent. I find the easiest way to do it is to add 3-5 calisthenics exercises to your session each day. Calisthenics are routines that target fine motor control, placing the horse’s body in various alignments during a state of relaxation in order to create fuller range of motion, new proprioceptive changes, and recruitment of postural muscles. You can find ideas for routines in my book 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses.
In just five minutes a day, you can work through 3- 5 calisthenics either at the beginning or end of your session. This five minutes is as important as the gait transitions, trot extensions, and other gymnastic routines during your actual workout.
Alternatively, you can designate a particular day or two each week to only performing calisthenics exercises. By choosing 5-10 exercises, you can put your horse through a 30- minute postural workout. If you wish to lengthen the session, you can add several minutes of brisk walking, either in -hand or under saddle, to both ends of your session.
Again, whether you choose to make it a daily staple or a twice-per-week regime all that matters is that you remain consistent with your efforts to increase your horse’s stability. Without stability you cannot have strength. And without strength neither the horse nor you will fully enjoy your rides.
Single Sport vs. Cross-Training
Why DO we Cross-Train?
The search for mastery brings with it the question of specificity. If you are trying to master a particular sport, should you focus on and practice that sport exclusively? Or might cross-training, and using tools from outside that sport, benefit you in some way? Certainly, there is a lot to argue in favor of practicing only your sport in order to get better at it. From a physiological standpoint, there is even more to argue for multi-disciplinary training.
Most simply, cross-training allows you more tools to accomplish the job. And isn’t it always better to have a few possible solutions rather than just one?
Having more tools allows you to avoid repetitive movements, to change neuromuscular patterns quicker. Let me offer a real life example.
Many horses have a dominant side, meaning they lean with their bodies or drift towards that direction. Turning the horse in this direction, or trying to ride around a circle, will feel like being on a motorcycle that is tipped towards the ground. A horse with this kind of crookedness in his body alignment can be rough to canter, difficult to bend, and unresponsive to your leg cues.
When a horse has a side- dominance, the respective forelimb becomes not only stronger but also “stuck” to the body because of fascia adhesions and tighter muscles. The scapula loses its full range of motion to rotate back each stride. To use analogy, it is like one of your shoulders being glued in a rolled forward position. In a simplified description, the shoulder is frozen in place. To correct this, our job is to help the scapula rotate back fully each stride in order to move with more grace and fluidity.
In dressage, we usually attempt to accomplish this by riding exercises like circles, shoulder fore, or shoulder-in. These tools work by encouraging the shoulder that is positioned on the inside of the turn to draw upwards and back as the horse curves his body. As with any exercise, though, many horses quickly become clever about modifying their body position slightly in order to NOT draw the shoulder up and back. Sometimes they will make their necks rigid and push their jaw/head to one side or they might make other small changes that negate the outcome we are trying to reach: change their speed, hold their breath, shift their hips off the line of travel.
To use another human analogy, these occurrences are the same as when I change my form ever so slightly in order to make doing push-ups a lot easier. When I do this, I end up going through the motions of a push-up but without the positive result. A perfectly good exercise fails to reach the intended goal because of minor interference.
Luckily we can eliminate this interference through cross-training and utilizing a collection of varied exercises instead of drilling the same unsuccessful routine day after day. I consider this working smarter, not harder. In the above example of the crooked horse, an excellent complimentary exercise is riding down hills. The balance needed to negotiate this terrain necessitates good scapula rotation for the horse. The horse has to equalize the load and effort of each forelimb. Gradually, asymmetrical movement patterns become symmetrical. Crooked horses almost always are able to ride better circles in the arena after spending some time riding down hills. This is one example of the value in using multiple tools to resolve a challenge.
In closing, I offer the words of Dr. Gerd Heuschmann. “An excellent dressage horse moves safely through the countryside and willingly jumps obstacles of every sort.” Let us keep this goal of a well-rounded, mentally composed athlete at the core of our training, and let’s allow good old fashioned cross-training to be an integral part.
Value in Being Forever a Beginner
The longer I stay in this profession, the more I value experiences that facilitate what Zen teachers call Beginner’s Mind, which recently took the form of an early morning listening to Corazon chew his hay.
Becoming an expert in any field often entails specializing your knowledge and skills to the point of abstraction. You end up operating on a level that is detached from those with whom you are trying to serve and relate. Beginner’s Mind tethers you to the openness and fascination, the receptivity, of beginners in a sport.
Remaining relatable may or may not be important to every trainer. For myself, though, I have discovered that staying able to truly relate to my students is crucial for longevity in this career with horses. Without it, I run the risk of impatience, poor communication, and misguided instruction.
Having a horse of my own helps preserve a little bit of feeling like a fun-struck amateur even though I am a six-days a week professional. Finding experiences with Corazon outside my daily routines help even more. These are the vital moments where I find Beginner’s Mind. And the more years I spend with horses, the more valuable these occasions feel. They simultaneously keep my spirits fresh while mooring me to a relatable place for my students.
I took a small group of students camping with their horses this week at Waddell Beach Campground, a coastal valley filled with wildflowers and cypress trees with ocean views. We spent two days riding shaded trails beside the creek and then sitting around the campfire watching our horses doze in their corrals. We said goodnight to them under a star-filled sky aglow with the Milky Way.
One of my fondest moments, admitted with a pang of naivety, was mucking out Corazon’s pen as the sun rose. I sipped from a mug of coffee balanced on a nearby truck bumper and marveled at the pink sky. I moved slowly and mindfully, without any demands to answer, and listened to him chewing his hay. My contentment bordered on giddiness.
In other words, I felt the fascination and joy that beckons beginners to these experiences. Believe me, I have mucked a corral umpteen times before. But in this moment, at this delightful campsite, the methodical chore, and the coffee, and my sweet horse colluded to make me feel like nothing else mattered. And I let myself absorb the moment just as it was, without trying to elevate it to an abstracted fraction of my professional life.
I embraced Beginner’s Mind. Corazon swatted his tail at a fly under his belly, a hawk twirled overhead in a thermal updraft of clouds. I filled up Corazon’s water tub and fetched my grooming brushes. As I embarked on this day filled with small chores and time with my horse, none of if felt new and yet all of it felt magical.
Recalling these moments does not just mitigate the possibility of burnout after being involved with something as long as I have been with horses. It forms part of the equation for relating to and reaching my students. Without sharing relatable experiences like this, my instruction would risk hitting its mark. Instead, I remain able to discern when a student is so entranced by an experience with her horse, by the sheer enjoyment of just being with her horse, that she cannot intake the minutia of instruction I am trying to impart. Rather than feel futile, I shift my delivery to accommodate her raw bliss while hopefully still imparting the lesson I want to offer.
Numerous occasions aside from sleeping beside your horse under a starry sky could infuse a professional’s life with the lessons of Beginner’s Mind. There might be a sliver of each day, or a simple routine, that does this for any given trainer. For many of us, those moments are worth respecting and valuing whether or not they seem naïve. Or maybe, better yet, it is the sense of naivety that keeps the magic alive.
Dressage Principles that Sound Like Zen Riddles
It sounded like one of those Zen riddles intended to puzzle my brain until it staggered upon some flicker of enlightenment. Forward does not mean faster, my dressage instructor annunciated, her exasperation rising. And then with the next breath she waggled her longe whip towards me to assist in creating a forward-but-not-faster movement.
My Welsh pony surged ahead in a bone-rattling trot as our speed ticked up, and I gleaned from my instructor’s grimace that I was failing her proverb. As I understood it, I needed to get my pony’s hind legs moving with more activity and energy. But how was I supposed to do that without changing her speed? For as simple as it was in theory, I found out the concept of riding a horse correctly “forward” was surprisingly elusive in practice.
I’ve observed numerous dressage riders banging their legs on their horses’ sides to get the horse moving more ‘forward’ until they are charging around the arena in a state of tension or frenzy. Just as often, I see riders who are unwilling to ride this way plodding around on a horse that appears disinterested and utterly disengaged with the work he is doing. Neither scenario is ideal. Nor are they the correct interpretation of riding a horse “forward.”
What IS the correct interpretation? A Western trainer I admire named Tom Pierson defined it best, and I think he did so without even realizing he was talking about dressage. He said working with a horse is like constantly checking in with the temperature gauge on your car. When the car is running right, the needle on your gauge should be directly in the middle of the spectrum between too hot and too cold. Think of your horse’s attention and focus being this way, he explained. You do not want him so hyper alert and fired up that the needle on your gauge tips one way. Nor do you want him so tuned out and sleepy that it tips the other way. You want it in the middle. Always.
Lately, I have begun to adopt the Western terminology of “readiness” in favor of the word “forward” that we dressage riders have relied on. No matter whether I am mid-stride in an extended trot, a halt, or a canter transition my horse needs to be fully ready and responsive for the next cue I give. When he is in this state, he travels with the activity and engagement in his limbs that we pursue as evidence that he is correctly moving ‘forward.’ In other words, nobody needs to chase after me waggling a longe whip to create a desirable amount of engagement. And I do not need to keep my horse in a state of chomping edginess masquerading as liveliness and energy.
Of course, even the term “readiness” would have been murky for a 13-year-old to solve so it still might have taken me years to arrive at the understanding that good, classical dressage requires a horse to be alert but not frenzied. If I could offer one tip for how to keep your horse in a state of readiness without chasing him unnecessarily faster, it would be the following.
At various moments during your ride, no matter what you are doing (or not doing), ask yourself: does it feel like I could instantly and immediately extend my horse’s stride right now? Does it feel just as likely that I could stop him on a dime without encountering resistance? If these answers are yes, chances are good that you’ve done well keeping him in a state of readiness. If the answer if no—and be honest with yourself—it would be a good idea to prioritize spending a week or so of your training working solely on this.
Operating with the above question in mind as you ride will inform your training considerably. The next time you are riding around practicing elusive dressage ideals and you think to yourself I think this trot is pretty good…but is it good enough?, ask yourself the readiness question and you will have your answer.
Good vs. Evil: the horse’s nervous system
An ever-present challenge of training horses is that they are hard-wired to escalate tension. This has helped them survive in the wild. Studies of the amygdala area of their brain show that when a horse is in a state of mental tension, even a small external stimulus causes the anxiety to quickly ratchet up. The horse is then trapped in flight mode. Unfortunately, we load them with stimulus whenever we interact with them, especially when we are trying to attain specific results.
Obviously a horse in a hyper-toned state of mind cannot be expected to use his body in ways requiring precise motor control. Or perhaps I should say that we cannot successfully ask him to do this when his brain and body are operating from signals to be tense. We cannot fine tune recruitment of muscles that are primed for flight. It does not matter how skilled a rider or trainer might be; a horse will never make good gains until he is under the influence of a calmer nervous system. How, then, do we go about our training in a way that diffuses, rather than builds, tension?
Our task is to untether the horse from his sympathetic nervous system (the flight/fight center) and recruit his parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ command center). Studies of the equine brain show that the activity in the amygdala, the anxiety and flight center, can in fact be re-programmed significantly. This happens through hands-on touch and bodywork followed by the correct physical exercises.
This equation rewires a horse’s operating system in a way that enables them to learn and adopt new behaviors and movement patterns. Over time, this rewiring becomes a permanent state of being. Without this approach, we trainers are generally just loading tension on top of already existing mental or physical tension, alienating the horse from his ‘rest and digest’ mode of operation, which is the only environment where positive change happens.
Every single cue we give our horses, every interaction and request, can send them more firmly under the influence of either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. Being a trainer that can help access the parasympathetic nervous system means acquiring a whole new set of skills than the ones most of us were originally taught. Some days it feels like a slower path forward, but if we wish to see permanent changes, it is the only path forward. Otherwise, we try and try to change habits without getting very far because we fail to address the underlying control center for these habits. In reality the seemingly slower path is actually the faster path forward.
When a horse is not able to change in ways that we might wish—the ways that will benefit him—we need to stop and ask what about his living conditions or training might we shift in order to not continue adding fuel to the fire of his sympathetic nervous system? Is there discomfort we can alleviate? Are his schedules consistent and predictable? Is his training making measurable contributions to utilizing his parasympathetic nervous system? This sort of inquiry led me to write my latest book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, and continues to challenge me to become a more helpful trainer. During my upcoming clinics, I’ll be asking students to join me in this inquiry. Meantime, what thoughts do you have to share on this?