Focus and Fitness in Horses
What Does Focus Have to do with Fitness?
It is a conundrum that many riders have faced in the midst of consistent, focused effort: despite hours of invested time and exercises, the horse’s fitness and athleticism show no improvement. Even the most wisely chosen exercises do not seem to be working. One explanation for this might be due to the precision with which they are executed. Research from the past few years, though, has revealed an alternative—and surprisingly non-physical—explanation for some of these cases.
What we have learned recently about horses’ brain function shows us that curiosity, or mental engagement, plays a large role in the success of physical adaptations. A horse needs to be alert enough (not too much, not too little) in order to form the neural pathway bridges that create new movement patterns.
When a horse participates in a task without giving it full attention, whether from dullness OR tension/anxiety, he does not form an optimal number of synapses from the task that he would otherwise. This means he fails to form the pathways in his brain that connect nerve signals for particular movements. In fact, these nerve signals will degrade over time due to lack of stimulation and chemical input to the areas of the brain that store them.
In the case of fitness, this translates to diminishing returns. Rather than make consistent positive gains in the precision and/or power of his locomotion, the horse idles at his current fitness level. Many horse will not make the fitness gains you would expect after routinely performing exercises that promise strength, agility, and so on.
As an example from my own training, I had the opportunity to work with a lovely Andalusian mare that had been schooled extensively with various groundwork programs. The problem was that she had done TOO much groundwork. She was docile and obedient about the patterns and games that her owner liked to do with her, but she went through the motions with a vacant expression and slow, shuffling steps. She was bored and tuned out. The mare was not doing anything “wrong” per se, but she resembled a sullen child sitting slumped at her desk passively listening the her teacher.
Consequently, when the mare came to me at 7 years old she had some persistent movement and balance challenges. She could not sustain a canter for any duration, she did not bend through her spine to the right, and her body posture was disorganized and unbalanced for a horse of her age. The solution? Use entirely new exercises to encourage full mental and physical engagement. Within six months, she could sustain a very nice canter and developed much greater propulsive strength.
Your fitness goals rely on keeping your horse’s attention dialed in. Any time you notice it shifting, whether tension is escalating or the horse is fading and getting dull, you need to make a change. This might be as simple as speeding up or slowing down changing gaits, switching to a different exercise, or taking a quick break.
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.
The Not-So-Scientific Training Challenge
If you have spent any time trying to train horses to accomplish physical goals, like moving more athletically, chances are good you have discovered that some individuals are more willing than others. Much as I would like to offer science-based explanations for this, I believe a lot of it owes to a less scientific trait that we’ll call ‘personal space.’
During recent clinic observations, I heard author and trainer Mary Wanless use this term to refer to a horse that was tickly in his back muscles. This made it difficult for his rider to help him travel with his back consistently engaged. The horse would offer a few quality steps followed by several unbalanced ones. His rider worked hard at getting the position of her seat and legs just right to influence him, because generally the better we improve our cues, the better our horses respond. Occasionally, though, as in the case of this horse, that equation isn’t fail-proof. As this rider sat deeper in to the saddle, the horse canted his body in ways to avoid her influence. In other words, he didn’t want her in his personal space.
So, was this particular horse being difficult? Was he confused? Or maybe even uncomfortable? In my daily life teaching horses to use their bodies more optimally, I often encounter their unique personal spaces as either an impediment or accelerant to what I’m trying to do. I define personal space here as an individual’s guardedness against contact or stimulation to his physical body.
Depending on temperament and past training or injuries, some horses have a much stronger sense of this. With these horses, training progress is often not linear. It requires more time and finesse. It can seem repetitive or frustrating to a rider, who asks herself: “Why is my horse not doing (X) today?? I thought we mastered this yesterday!” Mastery with these horses vacillates between fully owned and partially realized.
To be clear, I don’t intend the concept of personal space to give us reasons to not ask these horses to use their bodies in the ways we wish. I bring it up instead to help ridersbe more patient with the process. With most horses, physical progress is measurable daily. They respond comfortably and willingly to the tasks we undertake to make them more athletic, functional, and healthier.
Other horses, those with a strong personal space, can only be measured month to month. They initially wiggle away from, rather than respond to, our cues. They fidget in the postures that should bring them relaxation and ease. They tighten their bodies against any kind of stimulus rather than gain better alignment. My own horse, Corazon, has been my most convincing case for personal space and its influence on training.
As a breed, Andalusians tend to freeze up their backs rather than allow movement to swing through them. On top of that, Corazon is clever and sensitive and very adept at taking care of himself, which translates to not always offering up his body to be shaped as I’m trying to. Some days are harmonious, easy, and successful. Other days, though, feel like a constant negotiation with me reminding and convincing him that engaging his back really IS good for him. This can get frustrating.
When I feel that frustration, however, I remind myself that this trait, this protection of his personal space, is what makes Corazon such a strong horse and what keeps him not prone to injury. He is incredibly sure-footed and aware of his surroundings, he adapts quickly to situations that could otherwise escalate and cause harm. One time, I found him rubbing on a strand of barbed wire that I didn’t realize was in his pasture and saw him begin to get tangled up in it. Immediately, he paused, adjusted his neck motions, and carefully removed himself from harm. I stood there amazed, knowing most other horses would have started scrambling and cut themselves badly.
I remind myself of these instances when I struggle with Corazon’s personal space. This helps me see that, rather than be a struggle, his self-preservation is actually a gift to both of us. I cannot get caught up thinking his training will be as sequential as the timelines offered in books and training manuals. As I navigate his personal space, our progress can seem circuitous, lurching, or just plain halted. And that’s okay. In fact if there is any truth in the notion our horses mirror us, I have to admit that my own personal space is pretty big, too.
Help, my Horse is Stumbling!
Help, my Horse is Stumbling!
The most obvious place to look when a horse begins to stumble regularly is his feet because they are after all what he is tripping over, right? While he might be stubbing them, his toes are infrequently the source of this problem. In fact, a tripping problem that shows up acutely often has nothing to do with his feet. Before you call your farrier, rule out faulty mechanics in the rest of the body.
Tripping and stumbling often develops from poor movement patterns that restrict the front limbs, progressing sometimes to the extent that a horse will fall all the way to his knees. Riding a horse that is scrambling like this can be unnerving, and it also causes a fair bit of worry for owners. They want to know what is going wrong. Why is their horse suddenly tripping and falling?
It is natural to look at the horse’s front end for blame. But I have more often found the problem in these horses to be in the HIND end. When a horse stiffens through his lower back during motion, it pushes his stifle joints out behind him, essentially blocking the hind legs from swinging forward each stride. In the absence of flexion in his pelvis and hind limb joints, the horse’s spine becomes like a rigid piston that shoves motion forward on to the forelimbs. Overburdened, these limbs lose their smoothness of movement. The result? A horse will catch his toe instead of rolling over smoothly to the next stride. Plus, the hind legs are no longer participating to catch his balance.
Until the lower back and hindquarter stiffness is resolved, the horse is likely to continue tripping. A deeper problem arises once he has tripped enough times to not be worried about it anymore. Once this occurs, he no longer hurries to get his balance. He submits to a persistent lack of coordination. The primary nerves that generate forelimb movement gradually deactivate, the horse’s whole movement pattern alters. Smoothness of movement begins to disappear.
When caught early, many tripping problems can be corrected. The most beneficial place to begin your inspection is the horse’s hind-end, unless there is a clear reason to suspect the feet as the primary problem such as the case of a new and dramatically different hoof trim. Assess the following: dorsal flexion and overall state of the back muscles (are they normal temperature and pliable? Or are they ropey, hot, tense?), stifle flexion and perceived comfort, hamstring tension. Studying your horse’s natural standing posture will factor in your inspection of these as will your hands-on touch. Once you locate what you suspect as the source of restriction, you can begin to treat it. Generally, I recommend a Masterson Method practitioner but other good body-workers can also help.
Once the body-work therapies are administered, I have found certain corrective exercises to be especially beneficial. These include: Long and Low Transitions (Ex. # 27); Figure-Eight bars (Ex. #18); Lateral Pelvic Flexion (Ex. #31); Giravolta (Ex. #46). In addition to a good amount of backing the horse up daily, these exercises will help restore equilibrium between forehand and hindquarters, which will help you on your way to overcoming a stumbling issue that seems to show up out of nowhere.
As you work through these corrective exercises and body therapies for a focused two-week period, avoid riding at speed or on hard surfaces. Both increase the likelihood for tripping.
Round Pens: training for good posture…or bad?
Believe me when I tell you that I love freedom as much as anyone. I love trimming away boundaries, living widely in each moment. And, yes, I love to watch a beautiful horse running free across a meadow with his legs surging and his expression content. That, to me, is a wonderful sight. On the other hand, a horse careening around a round pen with his neck twisted sideways and his body misaligned disgruntles me.
The reason it disgruntles me is that this practice forms—and strengthens—poor movement mechanics that can have pretty significant consequences. Primarily, when a horse travels around the round pen with his head turned slightly to the outside of the circle, he ends up catching his balance every stride by planting his inside foreleg harder. This tightens and strengthens his shoulder girdle on that side, embeds crookedness in addition to limited range of motion in the scapula.
When a horse has spent a fair amount of time in this incorrect balance, a few of the results can include: chronically cross-cantering, balky behavior under saddle, stiffness and lack of responsiveness to the rider’s leg cues when ridden. The problem is that the undesirably tight scapula muscles contributing to these problems have been made stronger by the round pen work.
I absolutely believe that round pen work has a valuable place in every horse’s training life. Much of the value comes from body alignment. The round pen is not a place to chase around a loose horse while ingraining poor habits. Unless you can 100-percent affirm that your horse’s ENTIRE spine (head to tail) follows the curve of the circle prescribed by your round pen, then you are far better off to have a line attached to his halter/cavesson/bridle.
Any exercise undertaken without a complete inwards arc of the horse’s spine to match his line of travel creates postural imbalances that become stronger each session. These imbalances are manmade and easily avoided.
Somewhere along the way, many of us have become besotted with liberty work, or exercising the horse without any reins, longe lines, etc. Liberty work IS a delightful concept, but it often comes with irony. The irony appears when students wish to change a particular movement pattern (i.e. fix a canter lead, solve a persistent crookedness) without realizing that their liberty work has contributed greatly to the problem they wish to resolve.
When it comes with the outcome of developing comfortable and functional posture for your horse, attaching a line is a gift we can offer him. It allows you to guide the horse to correct posture inside the round pen, enabling his inside scapula to rotate upwards and back each stride, which in turn allows his topline to lift and swing.
Sure, there are a small percentage of horses with fine training and balance that are able to work at liberty in a round pen while maintaining correct posture and bend. In these wonderful cases, there may be no need whatsoever to have the horse on a line. But let’s not be overly generous in our self-assessments. Far fewer of us are in this camp than we might wish to accept. A closer look at most round pens reveals the horse’s head turned slightly outside the circle, and to that I say put on a line. Allow your horse to experience his freedom in other ways, but not at the expense of solidifying poor balance.