On the Bit… or on the Buckle?
On the Bit… or on the Buckle?
Since I advocate strongly for dressage horses to also ride trails regularly, I found myself years ago implementing a rule or mantra that applied to any time spent in either of these experiences: on the buckle OR on the bit. Essentially, this boils down to riders keeping their horses in one of these states at any given time. Whether on trail or in the arena, they would ensure their horses were either working on the bit or traveling ‘on the buckle’ on a loose rein.
It is the middle ground between these two states where horses’ bodies suffer most. When a horse is neither fully engaged and carrying himself ‘on the bit,’ as we call a rounded topline posture in dressage, nor stretched out in utmost relaxation, problems arise. When a rider carries the reins somewhat vaguely, with what I call a kinda- sorta contact, the horse pays a price. Why? He is neither engaging his musculature for healthy biomechanics nor is he on the other hand entirely at ease throughout his body.
This is when kinks in his muscle arise, when he uses the wishy-washy rein contact as a fifth leg to balance on. In the absence of clear cues and support from his rider’s seat to flex his spine and tone his ring of muscles above and below it, the horse falls forward with his weight and bumps in to the kinda-sorta rein contact. He will often become rigid through the bottom neck muscles, which in turn stiffens his jaw and poll. After a few moments, this stiffness reciprocates throughout the body. The result is system-wide rigidity, a dull mouth, and most often a hollow spine.
Am I saying, then, that horses should go down the trail in a dressage frame? I do want to clarify that, yes, by all means they can spend time traveling in this posture over the course of a trail ride. Obviously, you are not going to go out and ride for 10 or 50 miles this way. But remember, if you’re not asking the horse to be on the bit, then you’re asking him what? To be on the buckle! And this is a great way to spend many hours on the trail.
For me, riding ‘on the buckle’ is defined as offering the horse a long and loose rein to stretch his neck out and down towards the ground. Think of a cowboy/cowgirl moseying along across an open prairie with his/her reins drooping. The horse should be fully relaxed with his ribcage gently swinging from side to side as he walks. His head should be at or below the level of his chest.
For a horse to use his body productively when ridden, it is best for him to always be in one of these two states—on the bit or on the buckle. The best approach to your ride is to spend time in both of these states. Whether you are on the trail or in the arena, spend several moments riding on the bit and then ride for a period on the buckle. Continue alternating like this and you will do right by your horse. Just avoid getting stuck in that vague middle ground.
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.
Are the Hind Legs Pushing Equally?
Equal Forces Makes Correct Movement
Challenges when a horse cannot collect or extend his stride with ease, not to mention travel in truly straight alignment, most often arise from unequal use of his hind legs. In other words, he pushes harder off one hind leg than the other. This is akin to we humans using one of our hands more to accomplish tasks (in my case, I’m right-handed). We end up stronger, more confident, and coordinated with that limb.
I mention this comparison to illustrate the prevalence of limb dominance. It is far more present in our quadruped companions than most of us realize. It is a normal, natural thing. Unfortunately, though, it creates problems when we ask the horse to engage his hindquarters and carry more weight on his hind legs. Minor asymmetries suddenly become major impediments, and the horse most commonly develops compromised ways of moving. These creative workarounds put strain on his joints and increase tension in muscle groups that make him even more asymmetrical.
Sometimes we inadvertently contribute to unequal use of the hind legs by over-schooling certain exercises or riding the horse past the point of muscular fatigue. Other times, horses mature on their own learning to push off the ground more forcefully with a preferred hind leg. In either case, good training ensures week to week that the horse is developing equal force and power in both hind legs.
So how do we go about this? My books offer several helpful exercises to assist. The first step, however, is that the rider learns to feel if and when the horse is not flexing and pushing off both hind legs with the same force while traveling in a particular gait.
Here is an effective way to do that. We dressage trainers usually refer to this exercise as asking the horse to travel “fore and aft.” That describes how you will be dialing your horse’s energy up and down. The exercise is as simple as that. You will practice in all three gaits (or four, for gaited horses) asking the horse to travel in three distinct speeds: very slowly, moderately, and briskly. I always suggest that students think of these speeds as the gear on their cars, shifting smoothly between each gear.
For instance, begin in a slow jog with your horse. Ask him to jog as slowly as he can while maintaining the gait and not stuttering to the walk. Proceed like this for about 40 strides and then shift up one gear, adding about 2mph to your speed. Ride another 40 strides and then shift up one more gear, again adding 2mph. Then begin shifting back down through the gears, dialing the speed down the same way you added it on.
After you have practiced that a few times in the different gaits, begin to note if/how your horse changed his posture moving between these speeds. Did he become wobbly and disorganized through his body? Did he stagger off your intended line of travel? Did he lean or drift sideways with one of his shoulders? What about the quality of his strides underneath you?—at any point did they feel choppy or stilted, or tight like they were a struggle for your horse?
Taking inventory like this while practicing the Fore and Aft exercise will provide you valuable clues about whether or not your horse is using his hind legs equally and, if not, which leg he might prefer. With this information, we can then devise specific exercises to help him find symmetry. The first step is learning through feel where we need to improve him, and the tools I’ve offered above will help you do this.
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)