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.
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.
What if my Horse Gets Anxious About Ground Poles?
Occasionally while giving clinics, I encounter a horse that becomes anxious or revved up about working over ground poles or cavalletti, which are a large part of my lessons. Often frustrated or embarrassed, the rider will ask what she can do. She understands that ground pole exercises are beneficial and yet she can’t ride the horse over poles without him getting charged up.
First of all, there is no reason to become embarrassed or frustrated. Plenty of horses find their own ‘creative’ ways of negotiating pole work, including leaping sideways, bounding spastically across the poles, or standing in place snorting at them. Sometimes this is due to stress arising from past negative or forceful experiences, but other times it can be from the horse getting evasive about the task in front of him.
Fortunately, helping an anxious horse settle to a calmer approach of ground poles is usually very doable and straightforward. And it actually involves NOT crossing poles. Instead, it can be fruitful to school the horse around, between, and through poles for a while without asking him to travel over them. Once he has relaxed in to a steady rhythm and body posture during these tasks, then he transitions seamlessly to riding across the poles.
Exercises that ask him to organize his body while bending or turning around, but not over, poles help him approach the objects as just another part of his steady work routine rather than something different, exciting, or scary. Often it takes just a day or two to accomplish this, but give yourself as much time as you need. Rushing the horse in this process generally only causes his leaping or evasion of poles to persist.
If you are at a loss for patterns that are useful in this situation, try starting with the following two exercises from my new book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses.
Exercise #15, Snake Over Poles, Variation 2
Exercise #37, The Labyrinth
When you’re able to practice these two exercises without fanfare, you will be riding across cavalletti routines in no time. And then you will be reaping all the goodness they have to offer.
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.
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.
The Silver Lining of Rehab
As an equine fitness enthusiast, I occasionally end up helping students develop rehabilitation programs for their horses after injury or prolonged layup. This is never a bright time. Faced with wasted muscles or lower legs mottled with inflammation or hooves with sections missing, owners look at their steeds warily. How will they ever perform normally again?
While optimism can be a challenge, I take every chance I can to remind students that this phase has a silver lining. By the fact that so much confinement and downtime has robbed your horse of movement and muscular tone, you now have the chance to rebuild him from scratch. This means you can entirely erase old movement patterns or unwanted habits he had prior to the layoff.
Consider Bentley, for example. Bentley is a sweet Foxtrotter that I saw monthly for clinics over the past year. Like many horses new to dressage, he was VERY one-sided. He traveled by twisting his nose to the right and carrying his ears un-level. His bends and circles to the right were disorganized; he struggled to maintain a steady rhythm. All this asymmetry made his trot irregular and labored. Then a few months ago, he sustained an injury to his rear fetlock and spent two months on stall rest with daily hand walks.
He has now been cleared by the vets to begin short walking sessions under saddle. He is weak, unfit, and a little stir crazy. But he is also a clean slate. He has had months without accessing his habitual movement patterns, or in his case the crookedness on his right side. So, yes, it would be lovely if he were not limited to only a minimal rehab schedule right now and his rider were able to trail ride and take him to ranch riding competitions as she wants to. But on the other hand, these next few weeks are going to make Bentley a better athlete in the longer run. As he slowly rebuilds his neuromuscular system, he stands a chance to be more symmetrical than he ever has.
In his first week back under saddle, our program goes as follows. I hand walk him for 10 minutes to get joint fluids circulating and soft tissues stimulated. Then I get on and ride him in a marching walk for 20 minutes, primarily on straight lines, with 15-second bouts of trotting interspersed. Afterwards, I ice his fetlock. We do this routineroutines twice per day.
Indeed, this much walking under saddle COULD be seen as maddening in its boredom, but I’m determined for it to be as productive as possible. First off, I ask that he stretch his neck forwards and downwards so that his top and bottom muscle chains are positively tensioned. Next, I ensure that he keeps a steady rhythm and stretches STRAIGHT in to my reins– no head tilting– which means he has to engage both hind legs equally. His old crookedness habit tries to crop up occasionally but I coax him through it quickly, and since he does not have any strength behind that pattern right now, he is plenty willing to let it goo when I ask.
As Bentley slowly rebuilds over the next weeks and months, he will not just be returning to a previous level of strength. He will also be implanting new, more correct ways of using his body. Therein lies the silver lining. I implore students who find themselves in these situations to treat them as the opportunities they are. Do not just hurry to restore your horse’s performance to pre-injury status. Aim instead to use rehab to permanently fix problems that lurked before.