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.
Happy Horse by the Numbers
200 steps chasing neighbor’s black cat around pasture; 50 prances along perimeter fence next to a mule deer; 150 relaxed ambles moving from one nap spot to the next; 2,000 strides hunting/nibbling the ideal blade of grass all afternoon.
If Corazon wore a Fitbit, or other daily activity tracker that have become popular devices for people aiming to more active lifestyles, I imagine this is how it might read. Sometimes when I am schooling another horse in the arena visible from his pasture, I catch him making all kinds of goofy moves and self-entertainments. It brings me so much joy that I want to record them all, because I am plain grateful to keep my horses in a facility with so much room to roam. With so much space available to them 24/7, this past year became one of verifying statistics. Whether taken lightly, dogmatically, or amusingly, these stats shift the concept of helping horses’ bodies.
Statistic one: horses in their natural state roam… a lot. Some figures I’ve read in magazines put the estimate as high as 20 miles a day, though most agree more conservatively on at least six. But most domesticated horses I’ve observed who receive daily turnout in paddocks tend to stand around the gate waiting to come back to their stalls. They might spend the first five to ten minutes rolling and steaming around the pen, but then they do a lot of stationary waiting and watching.
These observations made me dubious about the roaming statistics I read. But then when I observed horses who lived outside 24/7, rather than ones who were turned out for a few hours a day, the data suddenly got valid. This does not necessarily mean they are fit, because most of their movement happens in short bursts rather than continuous sustained efforts. But it does mean their joints and connective tissues and blood receive the regular spurts of motion so critical to a healthy body.
Statistic two: progress can be made by schooling dressage for no longer than thirty minutes a day. Sessions that run longer than that on a regular basis end up taxing the horse mentally and adding lots of repetitive strain to his musculoskeletal system. When a horse begins his daily work session stiff or amped up (or both), though, riders end up needing to school them a fairly long time just to reach the point at which anything productive starts to happen. And this unfortunately means lots of repetitive movement and subpar muscular recruitment. Whereas, when a horse can begin his workout relaxed and loose—as is often the case with horses living in roomy areas—schooling routines can be immediately focused, productive, and briefer. This translates to a mentally and physically fresher horse throughout his career.
Statistic three: natural postural habits DO change. But a horse needs to be allowed the space and terrain for that to happen. When he lives out in nature, not boxed in and on padded floors, he adapts to the physical changes introduced in his training. I’ve been able to observe proprioceptive improvements in my horses moving around on their own in the fields. The way they carry themselves on their own has improved and so has their knowledge and control of what their feet are doing, their agility and balance. This result is always the hope among us dressage trainers. But I will argue that these changes don’t often happen unless horses are allowed lots of time to move around and feel their bodies, integrating new neural pathways and sensory feedback well beyond the time their schooling session ends. Otherwise, when a schooling session ends and they return to a small enclosure for day’s remainder, their nervous system returns to a full resting—almost dormant—state. In this case, it can take much longer to create or change movement patterns.
Sometimes when I see Corazon menacing the cows across the fence, I shake my head at his goofiness. Or I’ll yell at him to quit charging the neighbor’s cat. But of all this activity I am always thankful. It makes my job as a trainer so much easier when a horse’s living arrangements complement my goals for his body: range of motion, joint freedom, nerve stimulation. Often, progress in training is not limited by the right formula of schooling exercises but more so by the challenges arising from a horse’s care and custody.
The Perfect Horse
What is the perfect horse? We trainers should have the experience to define one, to measure challenges versus desirables. After years of hands-on work and education, envy over other trainers’ successes, and hours flipping through trade journals or watching YouTube videos, we can pick the perfect horse from a crowd. Or can we?
A few years ago, a friend of mine bought a promising weanling that we hoped would become my horse for the future, a prospect with gobs more talent than some of my clients’ horses I’d been wrangling the past several years. “Paris” had the pedigree for dressage excellence, and a trainable temperament to make good on all that promise. During her first two years, sport horse judges confirmed our dreamy impression that Paris was exactly the horse I wanted and needed– capable of high performance, beautiful, athletic, and sane.
Finally, I could lay to rest the what-of and if-only thoughts that had nagged me professionally, in which I fantasized about the trainer I could become with the right horse. Really great rider-horse combinations need talent on both sides. For years as a professional, I gave so much sweat and effort and reputation to horses that were difficult, un-sound, or just plain untalented. At the end of every day, I always felt like the other side of the rider-horse combination was a dead-end.
Now, with Paris, I began to imagine myself alongside other trainers in glossy magazine photos atop enviable mounts. Here was a horse I could pour my skills in to and watch them take shape, bloom. I watched her as a two-year old float across the ground on the end of my longe line and began mapping out our future show career with a tingle of excitement. Her long agile legs, three of them splashed with high stockings, swung effortlessly each stride. Her natural rhythm propelled her around the arena with strides of perfectly suspended arcs. I began indulging daydreams about future schooling sessions that included canter pirouettes and tempi changes.
Paris spent the winter before turning three at home growing up more before I planned to break her to ride. In the spring, my friend called to say something was wrong with the young mare, but she couldn’t quite explain it. Overnight, our young superstar had developed an erratic goose-stepping movement in her left hind that sometimes froze the leg in a lifted position. After a full year she had not matured out of it as the vets hoped she might. The left hind still snapped and jerked and swung sideways every step. Eventually diagnosed as the generic neurological condition of stringhalt, vets suggested surgery while adding that it most often minimally corrected the problem.
Since the vets agreed she was not lame nor in any kind of pain, we opted to skip surgery and break her to ride anyway even though her dressage career looked hopeless. Except for her snapping left hind leg, Paris proved straightforward and easy to train. She took to riding with ease, progressed quickly through her fundamentals and introduction to trail rides. She was the kind of horse that gave me energy as a trainer—the sort that never feels like a job– rather than draining me. I looked forward to working with her every day.
As I write this, I reflect on a student I met in a clinic recently. She started by telling me how much she enjoyed her brown gelding, but then began listing, almost apologetically, his shortcomings. He could be pretty stiff on the left lead; he was clumsy over cavalletti, sometimes he twisted his poll to resist the contact. I could tell these things frustrated her, but I could also see in her eyes the gleam of pure affection for this horse. In light of how solid their bond appeared, I thought her complaints were trivial. I urged her to not think of them as failures or shortcomings of a less-than-perfect horse. Trust me, I said, every horse has something that needs work. There always exists something to fix: a trailering aversion, fear of trail-riding, a bone-rattling canter, a soundness issue.
There are perfect horses, yes. But there are not flawless ones.
It would be false or me to pretend that there have not been times when I wished Paris were less complex physically, or fantasized what I might have accomplished by now if we did not have to contend with a neurological condition. Sometimes that old familiar sliver of self-pity pokes me, imagining that other trainers have all the un-complicated horses. But then just as quickly it fades. My thinking clears up.
Were I the type of rider to fixate on dressage levels and awards and notoriety, then, yes, Paris’ career took a disappointing turn a few years ago. But I’m not that kind of rider, which my wise friend knew when she bought Paris as a weanling with me in mind to be her rider. She bought exactly the horse that suited me: beautiful and curious, kind and sane, willing and athletic. She bought me the kind of horse I could create and show harmonious, classically correct dressage movements on, as well as fly down the trail and ford creeks. Paris is still that horse, random stringhalt moments be damned. She was, still is, and will continue to be the perfect horse for me.
Age and experience do not bring more preferences to be added to the description of a perfect horse. They land you at the acceptance that a perfect horse, as with any partnership, is one that is not only enjoyable but that leads you to a better version of all your capacities as a trainer. So. What is the perfect horse? It’s the one that suites you, individually.
Cross Training Fitness Test
Get in the habit of performing a fitness test every 6 to 8 weeks. This will be your check-up and time to assess which cross-training exercises to utilize over the next several weeks. Remember that the goal is to avoid getting stuck in a rut where no progress is happening. Without using a fitness test, you cannot accurately monitor improvements or setbacks in training and fitness. This practice will help you stick to your plans and timelines, which is when progress happens.
Under the same environmental and footing conditions, evaluate sweating response, respiration, coordination, energy levels. Fitness tests should be sport specific, incorporating exercises and movements specific to respective to your chosen discipline. To get started, though, use the following one which tests basic fitness for most arena horses. Use a watch; do not rely on estimations of time. If you have access to a heart rate monitor for your horse, use it. During none of this test should his heart rate get above 130 beats per minute. At the end of your test, after a rest, his heart rate should be down to 60 beats per minute. If it isn’t, this is your indication that the test was stressful for him. Your regular workouts, therefore, should be quite a bit less difficult than the material in this test. You should plan to re-test him every few weeks, with the goal of seeing improvements. In other words, the test should stress him less and less each time you do it. This will give you accurate feedback on how difficult—or easy—he finds this test. You can then assess where he lies on a fitness spectrum. A word of clarification: this fitness test is designed for horses who have been in regular work (3-4 days/week for 3 months) at the time of performing it.
- Execute a warm-up as follows: 5 minutes of loosening up riding the horse at a walk on a long rein all over the arena. Then, warm up his body by executing equal amounts of working trot and canter on 20-meter circles and straight lines for 10 minutes.
- After this warm up, go immediately to the workout (do NOT pause or take a walk break): ride 2 minutes of trotting serpentines. This should be done with a lively trot and asking the horse to bend his body on the curved lines.
- Then immediately canter for 2 minutes. While cantering, ask your horse to get a bit more collected in the corners and short ends of arena and then extend his gait down the long side. Do this in both directions until your 2 minutes is completed.
- Then, perform 5 minutes of trotting over ground poles*.
- After this, ride 2 sets of trot-canter-trot transitions in EACH direction.
- Now walk and observe your horse. After walking for 3 minutes, dismount and take horse’s heart rate. His resting heart rate should be at or below 60 beats per minute. Compare to previous executions of fitness test. Each time you do your fitness test, the horse’s heart rate should drop more quickly after exercise. It may also begin to drop lower (which is what you hope for!) than his former “resting rate” after exercise.
** ground pole arrangement: for our purpose here, set up five ground poles in a row, spaced approx. 3.5 feet apart or the distance of your horse’s trot stride. Arrange them in an arc or fan shape on the perimeter of a 15-meter circle. Be sure to ride an equal duration of time in each direction of the circle.
For successful assessment of fitness, you’ll want to monitor other feedback besides the horse’s heart rate, although that is perhaps the most important bit of data you’ll want to collect. You also want to assess his energy levels start to finish; his respiratory rate (which should be around 20 breaths per minutes after 3 minutes of walking/cooling down after exercise; his coordination (did he trip or stumble? Did his gaits stay springy or did his strides get flat and unanimated?). Also make note of where and how much he sweat. Monitor if this is any different than last time you did the fitness test. Lastly, observe how he seems. Following this test, he should—if he is in moderate fitness—be perky and plenty eager to do lots more riding that day!
How Mindful Are We (Not)?
It was possible, I thought, that such distractedness arose from some evolutionary necessity. But I could not figure out how such fractured focus would have served us in the wild. In any case, it never fails amazing me how often during a 20-meter circle we riders drift off purpose. It seems like a small, clear task of this sort ought to keep us hooked with laser concentration. And yet our focus drifts so frequently, I wonder how any of us manages to drive from our houses to the supermarket without forgetting our destination. Or, for that matter, how do ever finish tasks like brushing our teeth without spacing out and wandering off?
I recent years, a surplus of skillful horsemanship information has hit the market. An eager student can now study videos and books and blogs to her heart’s content. And then, in theory anyway, she can go apply it to her horse. If it were it that simple! Likely, her horse does not pose the biggest challenge to implementing that new knowledge. Her human brain is the trickier beast to tame. As she heads to the barn, it will settle for a moment on her new skill set… and then bounce to an unrelated thought, then back to horses… and then to her plans for the weekend, and then…
During a recent lesson, I sounded like a stuttering machine. I reminded my student to keep her horse’s body bent inside for the duration of the 20-meter circle. She kept him bent for the duration of two or three seconds. Then her body and effort shifted, her eyes fogged with different thoughts. Her gelding bent to the outside and clambered out of balance. Again, I reminded her to bend him inside for the entire circle. Once more, she bent him as desired for a fleeting few seconds, and then—remarkably—drifted off task. I wondered if she were an airplane pilot if we would have struck a tree by now. Or if we would have ever cleared the runway to begin with.
As frustrating as these scenarios can be for instructors, I have full empathy for scattered human thought in the saddle. A few days ago, I was trying to access just the right parts of my body to ride a more successful half-pass on Corazon’s difficult side. I felt myself—and him—find the sweet spot of balance and the movement flowed sublimely. For two seconds. Then somehow I didn’t sense it happen, but obviously my brain fidgeted and fled off that wonderful focus. Corazon and I both fell apart. I became my own internal stuttering machine chanting reminders in order to find that feeling again.
Desperate to not sound like a repetitive nag with students, I started using patterns of cones to keep riders focused. In fact, way back in 2005, my attempt to conquer the ping-ponging nature of the human brain resulted in writing a whole book of exercises to keep focus: 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse and Rider. Give the mind some visible points and it tends to attach to each moment a little longer. Sometimes, with wavering concentration, prescribed exercises end up like collision courses (though cones are forgiving and scatter on impact), but mostly they have helped me harness riders’ minds.
A pattern with visual targets allows riders to self-correct when their brains scamper off to unrelated tasks. They can regain focus and offer more sustained clarity to their horses before wham!—they hit another cone and realize their distraction. Then they’re back on task and determined to execute the requirements of not hitting the next one. Occasionally, a rider will wince that it feels like a crutch to use cones and markers to stay on an exercise. But crutch or no, until riders can prove they can tame the ping-pong activities in their brains on their own, I keep giving them targets to pull them along. And I should add that I’m still waiting for an evolutionary explanation for our hyper thought patterns. Until then, you’ll find me chasing cones, repetitively spewing dressage terms.