My Horse Doesn’t Care Where His Feet Are…
“My horse doesn’t care where his feet are.” I hear this from at least one student in every clinic as a reason to bow out on conditioning exercises involving ground poles. The student will explain that her horse knocks his feet against the poles rather than picking them up nicely to step over them and the rider, therefore, no longer bothers using ground poles when schooling despite my arguments in favor of their conditioning benefits.
For a few reasons, this statement does not make sense to me. First of all, as prey animals that need to hustle quickly from danger, horses care VERY MUCH where their feet are. Their evolution and survival has depended on this.
Secondly, nearly all of the riders who decide their horses don’t mind banging their legs and feet against poles in their path of travel arrive at their diagnosis after a handful of attempts with ground poles. They might spend a total of six sessions, spread across a few years attempting poles before writing them off as unproductive.
In other words, they do not spend nearly enough time and consistency to develop the horse’s aptitude. It is akin to the impromptu gym sessions I tackled in my mid-twenties hoping to define my calf muscles. After a somewhat random amount of time and focus, I decided the exercises did not work. (much later on, I remedied my follies and found those calf muscles!).
Finally, I believe that when we decide a horse does not care where his feet are, it allows us to skip out on answering a much tougher question: WHY is he not able to step cleanly over the poles? Much as we like to believe that these big powerful animals can easily navigate up, over, and around exercise routines that seem so simple, the reality is often different. In fact, more often than not, our horses’ coordination, stabilizing muscles, and movement patterns are more compromised than we realize. Riding ground pole routines makes us address this.
Is it possible that some horses might not care at all about banging their legs and feet against objects in their path? Possibly. But it’s MORE possible that they have a weak thoracic sling; or poor proprioceptive conditioning; or deeply embedded asymmetry in the body; or a stiff neck. Basically, just because an animal (or human, for that matter) cannot perform an exercise well initially, it does not mean he does not care for what he is doing. It means he is not doing well and it is our job to improve it.
This is not an elusive idea, especially when it comes to ground poles. Over the years, of all the horses that came to my barn for training and knocked in to ground poles, not a single one went home banging them anymore. I believe horses care very much where their feet are, but that is no guarantee their fine motor control is as tuned as it could be.
Training by Time or Feel?
Horse training happens most often through non-quantifiable skills, relying instead on an artistic balance of feel, observation, emotional equilibrium, and a dose of intuition. It tends not to go so well when we try to apply prescriptive formulas. And yet I wish to argue in favor of at least one plain old tool that is neither touchy nor feely: your watch.
Early on, the words of legendary horseman Nuno Oliveira made an impression on me. He admonished riders who looked at the clock for any kind of guidance when schooling their horses. Nothing about the clock would make them better riders, he said. Riders needed to throw away their watches and ride strictly by responding to their horses’ needs in every moment until arriving, through keen sensitivity, at what felt like a natural terminus of the lesson.
Let me first state that I love this idea. And then let me quickly acknowledge that we humans are often not capable of fully adopting it. Most of us on any given day are a little distracted, fatigued, unfocused, annoyed by weather, or maybe even bored. So, while I agree that most good training happens through a kind of symbiosis, I also advocate strongly for using a watch.
Specifically, there are three necessary instances when you should consult your watch during a lesson. The rest of your ride will be spent feeling and responding to your horse, but in the following three instanced you should look at the clock.
Every horse, regardless of age, requires at least 10 minutes of continuous walking at the beginning of any session to achieve lubrication of his joints. Until then, the joint fluid is thick. As the joint moves, it gradually thins out and warms up this fluid, dispersing it around the joint capsule so it can cushion the cartilage and bones as needed. It takes 10 minutes or more for this to happen. Until then, sustained action of the limbs/joints causes friction on the cartilage.
Depending on your mindset any given day, 10 minutes might seem like a flash or it might seem like an impossibly long period of time. But the point is that most of us are very inaccurate estimators of that time passing. When I consult my watch each day to be sure I have walked the full 10 minutes, it keeps me accurate and consistent. It guarantees I am setting my horses’ joints up for the healthiest possible future.
During an exercise
As an author of several exercise books for horses, I am obviously a fan of using routines that strategically condition a horse’s body. These might include cavalletti patterns, speed drills, workouts on terrain. For exercises to be their MOST beneficial, though, they need to be performed for the prescribed amount of time. As the horse adapts to them, the rider needs to increase the time spent doing them by measurable increments. This means noting how much time you perform each exercise.
For instance, I might have a rider practice trot-canter-trot transitions for three minutes (which is a good amount of time to target the back muscles, some cardio effort, and coordination improvements), and then the rider will take a short break for about 30 seconds. If the exercise is not going smoothly, riders might be tempted to continue drilling it. In their pursuit of perfection, riders can sustain exercises long past their helpful duration. Nerve signals dull, fewer muscle fibers are recruited, tension builds in the nerve endings. Nothing is gained by continuing on in this state. This is where your watch comes in. If you stick to the planned time intervals for the exercise, regardless whether the results match your aesthetic goals, you will be rewarded and, more importantly, so will your horse.
Athletes require a diversity of stimulus, meaning they cannot make gains by working at the same intensity level every day. A simple formula I encourage riders to follow is to exercise horses EASY one day, MODERATE the following day, and HARD the next day. On the fourth day, the sequence begins anew with an easy day, then moderate, then hard. Remember here that you can adjust the difficulty level by increasing either duration or intensity of the workout, not both. For instance, to adjust duration: on your EASY day you ride for 30 minutes, on your moderate day ride for 45-minutes, and one your hard day ride for 60- to 90-minutes.
Alternatively, you could ride every day for the same duration but modulate the difficulty levels by using harder exercises. Tracking your workout times with your watch ensures you stay within these parameters.
In summary, using a watch does not overrule your chance to adapt to your horse’s needs from moment to moment, nor does it need to steal any of the artistry or intuition that plays a part in training. Instead, it balances those elements with care for his physiology that requires particular windows of time.
Are you Riding the Head and Neck?
The Head and Neck Will Take Care of Itself
Somewhere along the path of their learning journeys, many riders including myself became conditioned to constantly observe and correct the horse’s head and neck position. We were taught that if the horse’s head/neck was in a desirable frame it meant everything about our ride was going well. This led to over-prioritizing the front end of the horse, often at the expense of addressing all the other critical components of a horse’s body mechanics. Without realizing it, we spent the ride fidgeting with the bit above all else.
When I first rode with trainers who thankfully steered me on a different path, they spent a lot of time reminding me to lengthen the reins. Stop playing around with the bit. Just forget for a moment about the head and neck. Huh? Forget about the factor by which we measured our session’s success?? Wasn’t that like copping out from our goal? “The head and neck will take care of itself,” Manolo Mendez used to plead with me, reminding me to focus on everything else. And he was absolutely right every time.
As I have experienced over and over, a horse’s head/neck will adopt the ideal position as I help the horse bend and align his ribcage, travel with steady rhythm and symmetry, and relax emotionally. At first this can seem inexplicable; it’s almost too easy. Without constant fiddling with the reins or encountering resistance, we end up at our goal. In other words, we ride the horse from back to front, as the classical masters taught repeatedly.
A brief consideration of the horse’s muscles explains why the head and neck will take care of themselves. In order for him to stabilize his neck posture, the horse must relax and tone the interconnected muscles in his trunk and along his spine. The neck muscles do not work in isolation. They can support postures only when the groups that attach to them make it possible. For instance, if the trunk muscles are completely slack or hyper-tensioned the neck muscles on the end of that chain cannot perform correct contractions independently.
The more a rider fiddles with the reins the more rigid these muscles become, which makes them unstable. This creates a vicious cycle with the rider tempted to niggle the reins even more to get the head and neck right. The solution is not in the neck; it is in the body. We must fix the body first and the head placement will result automatically.
Trusting this process requires gumption, though, and it can be easier to succumb to the expectations of those watching us. Letting the BODY take care of the HEAD requires letting things get a little messy. The picture will not be one of a horse that is ready for the show ring but one of navigating his imbalances to find a good, sustainable change. Things will look, necessarily, like a work in progress. And that is okay. In fact, it’s better than okay. You might be in this process for 10 minutes, 10 days, or sometimes 10 months. Take a deep breath and relax. You might as well enjoy the process because there is no way around it: the only way to improve a horse’s mechanics is through his whole body not just his neck.
Mystery Lameness?: exploring rein lameness
I call it the lameness that is not really lameness. Sometimes, a horse develops an unexplainable hitch in his movement that leads to much head scratching from vets who, after an array of diagnostics, find no clear answers. The horse is described as being “not quite right,” but beyond that, there is no reason or treatment.
This mystery lameness that produces an inconsistent limp during one or more gaits is often what we call “Rein Lameness.” It is a disrupted gait pattern owing to muscular tension or imbalances that have reached a point of negatively affecting motion through the spine. The term ‘rein lameness’ originated from the frequent occurrence of horses made sore from riders with too much rein pressure. It does not, however, only originate from tight reins. In fact, I observe it most often in recreational riders’ horses ridden on loose or inconsistent rein contact.
The following is a simplified description of the development of this condition. In good healthy movement, the horse’s torso channels energy forward from the hind legs. It both creates and stabilizes the force of the hind limbs swinging forward each stride. Tension in the back or abdominals disrupts the synergy needed between these two muscle groups in order to play this role. The disruption in their interplay due to this tension and imbalance causes the horse to short-stride with one hind leg. This causes his trot rhythm to be noticeably uneven, or it may cause an actual limp. While it can sometimes be observed in other gaits, rein lameness is usually most notable when trotting.
Rein lame horses rarely show gait patterns that are explained through the typical diagnostic veterinary exam. They can be intermittent, or the soreness might appear in the front limbs one day but the hind limbs the following day. Sometimes they appear sound on the longe line but start limping when a rider gets on.
In the past year, I have become increasingly vocal about drawing riders’ attention to the fact that muscle tension patterns can indeed be the source of ‘lameness.’ Initially, this can sound too simplistic; riders assume that something on their horse must be broken, pulled, or otherwise very wrong if the horse is moving “not quite right.” But let’s stop and think about this.
To make a human comparison, consider how altered your own gait becomes following even a mild exertion. If you have ever used your body in an asymmetrical fashion (worn shoes with uneven soles, for example, or sat in a twisted position on an airplane), you have experienced a mild lameness without breaking or tearing anything. In order to resolve your disrupted gait, you must loosen up your muscles and rid them of the tension that is causing the limp. These occurrences are quite frequent over the course of our lives. For many horses, it is the same.
Of course, plenty of horses can be exercised in all manner of incorrect postures and states of tension, and yet they do not develop rein lameness. Others, however, are very susceptible. In my own experience, I believe some horses are just naturally more negatively affected by muscle tension and imbalance. Perhaps it is because of a less than ideal conformation or metabolism, or a delicate constitution. The good news is that despite having a slight limp in their gait, many rein lame horses are not in pain. Remember, the limp comes from a mechanical glitch, not necessarily from a glaring soreness
The answer that many vets do not provide is that the problem must be fixed with good, correct gymnastic exercise. The horse must be ridden in a basic dressage balance and required to stabilize his core for short, rhythmic bouts of exercise.
Resting a rein lame horse does not usually resolve the problem. Chances are high that once he is put back in a training routine the underlying gait patterns will show up again after a week or two. In order to resolve the problem, the horse must be exercised with his body in an ideal balance and engagement. On several occasions, I have seen the disrupted gait pattern disappear immediately once a skilled rider gets on and asks the horse to carry his body with correct posture. Other times, it might take a day or two, but it rarely takes longer than one week.
It is too tempting for modern riders to think they can resolve any abnormality in their horse’s movement with an injection or medicines or costly layups. My plea is to do our horses well by treating dysfunctional movement with a protocol of good, functional movement. This should be our first plan before taking more drastic actions.
** If you would like to read and learn more about rein lameness, I recommend Dr. Gerd Heuschmann’s book “Balancing Act.” It contains a very informative section about this disorder.
How to Train on the Trail
How to Train on the Trail
Students who ride primarily on trails often ask me what kinds of exercises they can do to benefit their horses. If they don’t plan to be in an arena any time soon, does that mean they can’t give their horses the gymnastic and core exercises that optimize their bodies and comfort? Luckily, no. Plenty of valuable exercises can be added to a trail rider’s regular routine without stepping foot in an arena. First, though, I want to applaud these riders for acknowledging that their horses will gain from focused exercises that target their postural muscles. There is actually a lot you can do out there in the woods!
Below are my top suggestions for trail riders, mostly for their simplicity of execution. Obviously, the terrain sometimes dictates where or how long you might perform them, and you will be a lot more successful if you can convince your riding buddies to do these exercises along with you. Some days, you might elect to spend 5-10 minutes at the parking lot or trailhead working your way through them as a warm-up. Other days, you might ride on terrain that is suitable for incorporating a few of these on your outing. Or you might have a moment to do them after you get back. When you do them matters less than making sure you do them consistently.
These are intentionally simple exercises to perform but they create measurable changes in the horse’s body and posture when done consistently. Can you do them at least 3 times per week in addition to, or as part of, your trail ride?
Either before you mount up, or at some point during your ride, ask your horse to walk backwards at least 30 steps. Ideally, you want the horse in a lowered neck position (poll and withers at approx. the same height) and you want to make sure the horse steps backward an equal distance with each foreleg. If your horse tends to anticipate and rush backwards instead of calmly walking back step by step, you can repeat a sequence of backing up 10 steps and then walking forwards 10 steps. Repeat a few times.
Turns on forehand
Before you mount up, or at some point en route, execute 3 turns-on- the- forehand in each direction. I’m defining each turn here as a full 360-degree turn. Be sure the horse crosses his hind legs to form an “X” as he makes the turn. For detailed instructions about turn-on-the-forehand, you can read up in my books.
Transition of speed within gait
Arena riders like to wax poetically about the value of riding transitions between gaits. These simple maneuvers help balance the horse to carry more weight on his hindquarters, improve responsiveness, and stimulate fuller neuromuscular recruitment. But transitions are not just for arena riders! In fact, I like to head down a flat stretch of trail with the goal of riding at least three gait transitions. Every twenty meters or so, I’ll switch from walk to trot then back to walk and up to trot again. It keeps my horse listening to me AND using his body more fully.
I also encourage trail riders to practice walking and trotting their horses at different speeds. Make transitions between a slow trot, a faster trot, and a medium paced trot. Ride frequently between these different speeds. Doing so will keep your horse much looser in his back and haunches. Too often, people get stuck riding at one steady speed all the time on trails and like any repetitive motion this creates stiffness.
Change up the Frame
Similar to the advice above, change your horse’s posture and body carriage frequently to encourage fuller recruitment of core muscles. When you are on a flatter section of trail, ride a half -mile or less, depending on your terrain, in a shorter or more “collected” frame followed by the next half-mile asking your horse to stretch his neck forward and downward towards the ground. This is an exercise that we arena riders do frequently to develop good flexibility and range of motion in the horse’s musculo-skeletal system. This exercise can—and SHOULD—be done on the trail, too. Don’t worry, as with any of these exercises, you do not need to spend your whole ride practicing. You can still relax and just enjoy the view for much of your trail outing, but do try to find 5-10 minutes where you can ask your horse to change his frame a few times while cruising along.