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?

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.

(As the sympathetic nervous system relaxes, a mental-physical state of calm moves in, as demonstrated by Turbo.)

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.

Have fun!

Here We Go Galloping

Here We Go Galloping

Gulp. I tried to work up the nerve to let the reins out another inch or two as we cantered around, but I was having a really hard time doing it. First of all, my horse might run off. Second, if I got lucky and she did not run off, she would definitely fall on the forehand and careen about like an untrained plodder.

A conversation with Dr. Gerd Heuschmann kept playing through my mind, during which he insisted on the value of galloping dressage horses while riding in a light seat with long reins. He referenced several research studies that showed the full, powerful contraction-relaxation cycle of the horse’s longissimus dorsi muscle when galloping. This muscular effort along the back resolves tension and bunching that builds up from the demands of schooling. It also stimulates relaxation in the gluteal muscle group, which has a reflexive effect on the rest of the extensor chain.

In other words, it does a lot of positive things.

“It keeps the canter pure,” Heuschmann said, conviction filling every word. “The back is released, and the beat becomes regular.”

I certainly knew what he hinted at in terms of the challenges we all face with irregularity of rhythm in the gaits. We have all ridden—and tried to fix—walks, trots, and canters that are rough, varying in speed, and generally unbalanced. It is frustrating work. And maybe the task had been taking me longer than it needed to given that I wasn’t using this all-important tool of galloping?

Dr. Heuschmann raised his palms in the air like he planned to sweep dust particles forward.

“Ba-da-buhm. Ba-da-buhm,” he repeated, emphasizing the precision of three clear beats. His point: the horse’s back must be relaxed and rounded for the gaits to move through with purity. Galloping does this. “One-two-three. One-two-three.”

Finally I did ease the reins out a bit more, and surprisingly nothing awful happened. I let them go a little longer. The horse moved bigger, but far better, across the ground. Instead of throttling me around, her back softened and I was able to sink down in to it. Her beat became so clear that I could hear it with every bounding stride. Ba-da-buhm. Ba-da-buhm.

All the other horses since have responded just as well. Needless to concede, I’ve become a convert to the merits of galloping. I’ve adopted that same wistful expression that I saw as Dr. Heuschmann urged any rider who would listen that we must all go gallop our horses.

So, now I urge you: try to keep a weekly practice of galloping for a few minutes. It does not need to be a white knuckled, racing speed. Galloping is defined simply as a strong canter with an emphasized moment of suspension when all the feet are off the ground. Think of it as a moderately brisk canter, one where you cover a good amount of ground each stride. Let the horse stretch his neck out, move your elbows forward and backwards like a jockey. Lighten your seat, look up. Oh, and have fun.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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?
  5. For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
  6. 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.

Make a plan to be productive in your 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.