How to Place Ground Poles for Gaited Horses

It’s no secret that I rely a lot on cavalletti routines in clinics and training. Riders of gaited horses, though, occasionally feel left out since much of the information about how to arrange ground pole exercises is based on the average distance of trot strides. I myself have been guilty of writing articles that refer only to how to set up poles for walk, trot, and canter. Riders of non-trotting horses are left with the impression that cavalletti routines are not for them. To the contrary, gaited horses benefit enormously from the spinal stabilizing effects of these exercises.

As gaited breeds gain popularity among adult amateur riders, I have noted the paucity of information available to them about modifying our most useful exercises to meet their particular needs. To this end, I wanted to share some quick advice on setting up ground poles in a helpful way for gaited breeds. This is just one exercise among dozens of possibilities, but it’s a simple and quick one. And the benefit for clinicians is that the distance between poles in this example can work for both trotting and non-trotting breeds, allowing a group of riders to work together without anyone feeling left out.

Any ground pole exercise for gaited horses has the goal of improving or clarifying the rhythm of their particular gait. We never wish to arrange poles just for the sake of challenging their coordination or seeing how high they might lift their limbs. Instead, we want to use exercises that confirm the power and steadiness of their unique footfall patterns that often become disrupted or irregular when a gaited horse does not use his body correctly. Never practice cavalletti exercises that interrupt the smoothness of their stride or cause them to struggle to maintaing gait. Bear this in mind as you scan articles and books for routines that are relevant to your Icelandic, Missouri Foxtrotter, Tennessee Walker, and others.

Meantime, you can use the following arrangement regularly in your training to help gaited breeds flex their hind limbs and find stability through their trunk.

Simple Ground Pole Set-up for Gaited Breeds

  1. Set four or five ground poles parallel to each other in a line (so that you can ride straight across them). Space the poles at a distance of 8 feet* apart.
  2. Now develop your working gait (Tolt, Foxtrot, Running Walk, etc.)
  3. Ride straight across the poles.
  4. You should count TWO steps from your horse between each pole. For instance, each front foot should take a step in the space between the poles before crossing over the next pole.
  5. Your rhythm should feel like this: CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, One-Two, CROSS the pole, and so on… Feel for those beats and aim to keep them consistent each time you ride over the poles.
  6. Repeat the pattern at least 12 times.

**this is an average spacing for a horse about 15.2 hands tall. If you ride a horse with a shorter stride, you will modify the spacing suggestion by 2-3 inches.

Riders are the Best Training Aids

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place. I have watched a couple of my colleagues step away from riding and training for just this reason, causing me to question my own participation.

I continue to believe that nearly every horse can be made better by a rider. To be clear, that rider needs to be skilled and patient, mindful and committed, and a keen observer. But having witnessed the value of dressage applied to all kinds of horses over the years, I believe a horse can have a better life through riding than without it. The physically transformative influence of the rider’s educated seat upon the horse guides him to a better version of himself– balanced and symmetrical, strong and noble, elegant, and confident through his partnership with a patient leader. I have witnessed dozens of horses ‘fixed’, or given more comfortable lives, because of the therapeutic training through dressage.

Last week, I was sorting through some videos and articles about vertebral crowding (aka “Kissing Spine syndrome”) among performance horses and several of the x-ray images showed such evidence of discomfort that I thought briefly maybe we have no business riding these poor animals. If we are pinching their vertebrae and bruising their mouths and causing imbalanced muscular development, then maybe we should just leave them alone. Probably this is a quandary many trainers wrestle with, but might feel ridiculous voicing.

When I went to the barn the following day, the x-ray images were still lingering in my mind especially as I saddled up my first horse of the morning. I paused and looked around my training facility. I noted the once anxious mare that has blossomed through training in to a serene and confident animal. I noted the big gelding that used to get stuck in place out in the middle of the field because his stifles locked up from lack of fitness. I watched the two senior Icelandics (one is 24 years old, the other 26) that remain healthy, sturdy, and energetic because of the consistent exercise program they’re in. All of these horses would currently lead lives quite a bit less comfy and content were it not for regular riding.

A rider’s seat can accomplish magical things. It can guide a horse to use his own body in ways that are far more functional and therapeutic. In this way, it is one of our most valuable training assets. Sure, many folks can accomplish– and enjoy– playing with horses from the ground only without riding. I don’t mean to infer that this has no value; it clearly does. I just wish to sing the praises of riding because I have seen it deliver such wellness to so many horses. And, yes, probably just as equally poor riding delivers deleterious effects, which we could rant on and on about here. In the spirit of remaining positive for the best interest of our noble steeds, though, I prefer to focus on the good we can achieve. For me, this means riding them.

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more clear it becomes just how good we need to become as riders.

dressage horse

What are Corrective Exercises for Horses?

What are Corrective Exercises for Horses?

Whether or not it works in our favor, horses become stronger somewhere any time they exercise. Unfortunately, this often means tightening up muscles and patterns we wish to change for ideal wellness and performance. For instance, when a rider spends ten minutes trying to help a stiff horse bend his body on a circle but only achieves good results for two or three of those minutes, that means the horse has spent the remaining eight (or more) minutes adding strength to the areas in his body we are trying to change. This ratio does not favor our goals.

When the horse spends more minutes getting stronger in ways we don’t want rather than the ones we do want, our goals become elusive. How, then, do we ensure that our horses move more frequently in optimal patterns of muscle recruitment?

The more often we can put their bodies in the correct alignment and balance, the more this becomes a habit for them. They learn, like us, to move with better posture for larger percentages of time without constant reminders. Corrective exercises help do just this. These simple routines guide the horse without mental or physical resistance through the versions of bodily alignments we wish to make habitual. To draw on human analogy, you can think of them as the exercises a physical therapist would have you perform in order to use your body optimally in all aspects of your life.

Once you are using your body optimally within each exercise, the results soon carry over to your overall movement and mechanics. By working through a toolbox of exercises to establish good range of motion in joints, resolve muscle imbalances, and improve recruitment of core muscles, you create a new operating code for the neuromuscular system. The ratio of time spent moving correctly and efficiently then shifts in our favor.

dressage exercise

Given that we do not yet have an established field of physical therapy for horses, at least here in the U.S., I am hoping my newly published book creates a dialogue that broadens in to something like a paradigm shift. As I continue to study and learn, my own training practices have changed a lot. My goals and ideals remain the same and I am still always coming from a dressage foundation, but how I go about working with each horse has shifted remarkably. Specifically, my studies of equine fitness and physiology have led me to incorporate far more Corrective Exercises than I would have imagined before. This change has allowed me to achieve positive lasting results quicker, but without taking shortcuts.

Nowadays, I approach a horse with the goal of training his neurosensory and neuro-motor systems first and then working on his muscles. Corrective Exercises work for several reasons, but here are the primary ones:

-reduce the percentage of time spent in unhelpful movement patterns, so that good habits become more the norm.
-increase range of motion in joints, which in turn creates reflexive ‘releases’ and looseness through the horse system-wide
-recruit postural muscles, often referred to as core muscles. This recruitment allows the limbs to move more freely, resulting in engagement.

-Develop new postural habits with minimal confusion, tension, or anxiety in the horse.
The paradigm shift I mentioned above will see more riders spending less time riding around trying to achieve good results while only achieving a few fleeting golden moments each ride. Sure, golden moments can be stitched together over time to create positive changes. But instead how about if we constructed training scenarios that were entirely golden moments and nothing else? How wonderfully helpful might this be for our horses?

Who wishes to join me in this growing dialogue about a smarter, not harder, way to work with our horses?

On the Bit… or on the Buckle?

On the Bit… or on the Buckle?

dressage

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.

western dressage

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:

  1. activation of under-utilized muscle chains
  2. stimulation of sensory nerves and improved PROPRIOCEPTION
  3. recruitment of deep postural muscles to resolve imbalances and asymmetries
  4. 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.