Wobbling to Better Movement
(periods of instability can lead to better proprioception, even in Terriers!)
Wobbling to Better Movement
Out of necessity my horses have become lighter and balanced in their movement over the past two years since moving to a new facility. I say out of necessity because this facility, while ideal in almost every way, lacks an ideal arena. What this means is that we do our schooling in a variety of places: the field, a track, the small sand arena, trails. This variety, plus less than perfect surfaces translates to the horses needing to recruit their stabilizing and postural muscles more than if they worked solely in groomed arenas.
This appreciation of mine for varied surfaces is not new; you’ve read it before in my posts. For those without access to so much variety, or with horses aboard which they prefer not to wander around outside, I’ve become increasingly compelled lately by a useful tool in the form of a squishy mat. Basically, the mat provides a slightly unstable surface that when stood upon the horse needs to fire up his postural muscles.
Now, I am not one for gimmicky toys and definitely would not suggest anyone is going to get ‘fit’ by wobbling around a foam mat for five minutes a day. But plenty of athletic outcomes do seem to come as a result of this tool, again especially for those that do not have regular access to naturally unstable surfaces (trails/hills, mud, cavalletti patterns, and so on).
I have repeatedly observed horses becoming incredibly relaxed as soon as they stop swaying from side to side on the mat, which is usually within 90 seconds. Some yawn and get sleepy, others lick and chew a lot; unanimously they appear very content. What this owes to, as I see it, is the large gymnastic muscles relaxing as their small postural muscles engage to find balance on the mat.
As the tension and tightness held in these big surface muscles releases, it turns down the level of involvement of a horse’s sympathetic nervous system. This system controls flight-or-fight response, heart rate, and tone in large locomotion muscles. When this quiets down, an animal’s parasympathetic system can play a larger role. This is often called the rest-and-digest system. Placing horses on mats or similarly unstable surfaces appears to trigger this system.
A horse in this state can gain quick access to his postural muscles, which, like his human companions, are often the weak links in his performance. When his gymnastic muscles are for the most part turned off and he is asked to make small movements, or to simply stand and find his balance amidst the wobbling, he engages those smaller muscles. The more frequently they are engaged, the more they become habitual.
Some trainers attest to seeing completely different movement as soon as the horse leaves the mat. I have not observed that myself, but I can report that most horses do FEEL differently to ride when they have stood immediately beforehand on the mat. I also ask them to do some small calisthenics on the mat, which for reasons of brevity, I won’t go in to with this post. Basically, I ask them to make small achievable movements that cause them to engage the trunk and hip stabilizers.
Again, these movements are not necessarily ones that could not be replicated by calisthenics with cavalletti poles, or varied riding surfaces. For riders without access to those tools, though, something like a big foam mat might be a useful alternative, so I wanted to share my experience and feedback with it. You can buy fancy horse-specific mats and pads on-line, or you can make your own semblance of one with a big piece of foam, a futon, etc. I am currently using a children’s gymnastic tumbling mat that works well.
Shoulder-in…a.k.a “Abdominal Therapy”
Believing that I was offering some insightful coaching, I nearly assaulted my student with picky corrections about her leg-yield. Make him straighter, I urged. No, now get him bent more. He needs more energy. Wait, not too much—now LESS energy. She rode a few more attempts and I kept picking them apart.
Finally Kay stopped, put down her reins, and gave me a wise smile. “You need to realize that I am happy just to be going sideways at all,” she admitted. Sure, all those other details sounded like worthy goals, but for now the plain act of getting her horse to move sideways when she asked seemed pretty great.
What a good reminder. Exercises like lateral work can be so complicated and nuanced to master that for many learners it feels good to be doing any semblance of them. I remember that stage of tackling the complexities of shoulder-in. Heck, some days, I feel like I am still IN that stage. Like my student, I remember being grateful to have my horse sort of bent, mostly trotting, and kind of moving laterally up the track. Whether or not it was anywhere near exquisite mattered much less.
Today of course I am fixated on nuances and standards of shoulder-in. As I have learned to appreciate its gymnastic effect on the horse, I am grateful for these high standards. Often called ‘abdominal therapy’ by therapists, shoulder-in is not just a classical dressage tool whereby a horse’s balance is elevated and tested. It also served to equalize muscle tonicity on both sides of his body, engages his abdominals, and strengthens adduction muscles in the fore- and hindquarters.
A few days ago, I found myself bouncing through my checklist while riding shoulder-in. It went like this: angle of horse’s body, rhythm, my own posture, poll flexion, line of travel, my position again, frame of horse, angle of his body again. This all happened in about 7 seconds and even though I mostly passed the checklist sufficiently, I broke out in laughter. I could feel my forehead very pinched in concentration, my lips squeezed in a tight line. I was on quality control overload.
I wished momentarily that I could return to that feeling of raw bliss when my horse was doing what felt to me like something unfamiliar and therefore probably a shoulder-in but my instructor was barking: not quite it, not quite it! After indulging in the recollection of that learning curve, I recalibrated my present schooling. I relaxed my forehead and mouth, remembered to be less uptight.
Wherever you fall in the journey of mastering shoulder-in, here are some of my best tips:
- Shoulder-in can be equally effective for your horse when schooled in-hand from the ground and ridden under saddle.
- When riding, keep your hips parallel with the horse’s hips and your shoulders parallel with his shoulders.
- Nine times out of ten, you need to refresh your horse’s energy immediately following a shoulder-in. Think about stepping on the accelerator as you ride forward from the shoulder-in.
- Some horses’ improve their lateral movement and freedom when the rider posts the trot as opposed to sitting it. Try both to find out.
- Do not over-school shoulder-in with a young or unfit horse. It taxes the stifle, which then strains the lumbar region.
Here We Go Galloping
Here We Go Galloping
Gulp. I tried to work up the nerve to let the reins out another inch or two as we cantered around, but I was having a really hard time doing it. First of all, my horse might run off. Second, if I got lucky and she did not run off, she would definitely fall on the forehand and careen about like an untrained plodder.
A conversation with Dr. Gerd Heuschmann kept playing through my mind, during which he insisted on the value of galloping dressage horses while riding in a light seat with long reins. He referenced several research studies that showed the full, powerful contraction-relaxation cycle of the horse’s longissimus dorsi muscle when galloping. This muscular effort along the back resolves tension and bunching that builds up from the demands of schooling. It also stimulates relaxation in the gluteal muscle group, which has a reflexive effect on the rest of the extensor chain.
In other words, it does a lot of positive things.
“It keeps the canter pure,” Heuschmann said, conviction filling every word. “The back is released, and the beat becomes regular.”
I certainly knew what he hinted at in terms of the challenges we all face with irregularity of rhythm in the gaits. We have all ridden—and tried to fix—walks, trots, and canters that are rough, varying in speed, and generally unbalanced. It is frustrating work. And maybe the task had been taking me longer than it needed to given that I wasn’t using this all-important tool of galloping?
Dr. Heuschmann raised his palms in the air like he planned to sweep dust particles forward.
“Ba-da-buhm. Ba-da-buhm,” he repeated, emphasizing the precision of three clear beats. His point: the horse’s back must be relaxed and rounded for the gaits to move through with purity. Galloping does this. “One-two-three. One-two-three.”
Finally I did ease the reins out a bit more, and surprisingly nothing awful happened. I let them go a little longer. The horse moved bigger, but far better, across the ground. Instead of throttling me around, her back softened and I was able to sink down in to it. Her beat became so clear that I could hear it with every bounding stride. Ba-da-buhm. Ba-da-buhm.
All the other horses since have responded just as well. Needless to concede, I’ve become a convert to the merits of galloping. I’ve adopted that same wistful expression that I saw as Dr. Heuschmann urged any rider who would listen that we must all go gallop our horses.
So, now I urge you: try to keep a weekly practice of galloping for a few minutes. It does not need to be a white knuckled, racing speed. Galloping is defined simply as a strong canter with an emphasized moment of suspension when all the feet are off the ground. Think of it as a moderately brisk canter, one where you cover a good amount of ground each stride. Let the horse stretch his neck out, move your elbows forward and backwards like a jockey. Lighten your seat, look up. Oh, and have fun.
Blissfully Backwards by Horseback
By my instructor’s amount of hand wringing, you might have thought I had no idea how to back up my horse while mounted. To the contrary, I felt well schooled in the fine art of rein-back. But I had never backed horses up this much. Here in Portugal, it seemed like a fourth gait: walk, trot, canter, and backing up. And evidently there was a minutia of the movement that I failed to get right, although honestly I had no clue what it could be.
When our instructor Georges told us to back our horses up, which he did about a dozen times each lesson, I got my horses moving backwards no problem. Georges was still shaking his head, though, by the end of the first week. Finally, one day he asked me to get off the horse, to hope down to the ground right in the middle of what felt like a darn good rein-back.
Church bells banged in the hills around Alcainca, the warm sun fell around us, and I stood frozen in confusion. I had not been asked to get off a horse since I was a kid and riding so wretchedly that it was in kindness to my pony that an instructor plucked me off. But for flunking some hair-splitting details of a Portuguese rein-back? This seemed a bit much.
“Now, here, put your hand over mine like this,” Georges said, holding out his arm in a way that made me think briefly that we might waltz together around the arena. Then, I saw he held his fist more like the way a falconer gets his hawk to alight. Perplexed, I placed one of my hands over his sideways-turned palm.
“It’s like this. This.” Georges rocked me ever so gently back and forth on my feet by drawing my hand a fraction of an inch forward and then back. The whole time, he kept tipping his palm to keep my fingers stretching forward no matter which direction my body shifted.
“See? Like this, it’s like this.”
And suddenly it all made sense.
The horse needed to continue reaching forward with his body and energy even while he stepped backwards. That was what differentiated a really good rein-back from simply traipsing in a backwards direction. Georges guided me back and forth across the sand, my sweaty horse standing patiently near us, until I had the subtlety of movement in my body.
Since those early visits to Portugal, I have seen and ridden and experienced rein-back in entirely new light. It is a deceptively simple exercise that a rider can forever refine. And its gymnastic benefits for the horse cannot be over-stated. In addition to releasing tension from the lower back, it flexes the joints of the hind limbs—hip, stifle, hock—while toning the abdominal muscles and stretching the deep digital flexor tendon. It improves the horse a myriad of ways and makes him a far better athlete, especially when its minute nuances are accessed.
Originally appearing in Grand Prix tests from days bygone, this simple maneuver loosens the horse’s sacral region, enabling him to use his hind legs more powerfully and evenly. Ideally, the last hind hoof to step backwards is the first to move forward when motion is again initiated.
- From a square halt with the horse on the bit, ride four to six steps backwards.
- Immediately walk the horse forward four steps and halt again.
- If the horse is not square, take a few steps to square him up.
- Immediately, back up again for four to six steps.
- Repeat this sequence.
- Aim to create the feeling of a carousel horse cycling forwards-backwards, forward-backwards.
In step 2, you want him to surge forward as soon as you ask. His movements should be quick and light rather than lumbering or sluggish. If any resistance is encountered, it is best to tune up this movement from the ground off his back.
The Magic Behind the Poles
Walking Ground Poles
For years, they sat on one end of our indoor arena—five ground poles anchored by concrete blocks. With unwavering consistency, we worked our horses over them once a week, either ground driving or riding. But it was not until the winter when my mom and I watched Dr. Reiner Klimke videos over and over that I realized why our ground poles remained set up all the time.
Their purpose was not to alleviate the monotony of training sessions as I assumed but to physically improve the horse. As I sat in Mom’s office and watched the videos of Klimke’s students beginning each ride walking and trotting over poles, I realized there is really something to this. On the screen, sleek Warmbloods became looser and freer in their bodies right before my eyes. Of course it would be a couple of decades before I learned why they did; at that moment the mystery intrigued me enough to commit to keep using our own poles, no matter if I could describe why or not.
If world-class equestrians found it useful to ride over ground poles, then I thought we should, too. Various pole patterns have since formed a central part of my clinics and lessons. Most riders can feel the positive changes right away in their horses: their gaits become springier, jaws soften, cadence improves. Finally, about ten years ago, equine fitness studies caught up to some of the practices of old classical dressage masters. Now we had our why for riding poles.
Thanks to researchers and vets like Jean-Marie Denoix, Gillian Higgins, Hilary Clayton, and Andris Kaneps we have learned how successfully ground poles serve the horse’s neuromuscular coordination. They activate and release tension from his bottom line muscle chain, which in turn softens his jaw and poll, resulting in reflexive signals for relaxation throughout the body. Also, because of their fixed position on the ground, poles interrupt the horse’s habituated stride patterns. In this way, they stimulate activation between his brain and nervous system. This leads to gaits that are not only more rhythmic but also stay free from restricted ranges of motion.
Ground Poles at the Start of Your Ride
The following are my tips for benefitting from ground poles on a regular basis.
- The simplest way to use ground poles consistently is to walk back and forth over them 20 times at the beginning of your ride. You can do this every day. Do not assume there is more value in trotting them.
- Make a place on your farm where you can LEAVE them set up. If you have to set them up each time to use them, you will not stick to a consistent plan.
- There is no exact formula for how many poles you should set up. Just use what you have. Typically, four to six poles in a row works for most riders/horses. You do not need a fancy type of poles.
- Take note of what changes in your horse as he works over poles. Does he stretch his neck lower? Have more energy? Does his back feel any different under you?
- For walking, space the poles approx. 2’8” apart.
- Do not micro-manage your horse if he stumbles or trips. Try to stay out of his way and let the poles do their work. They WILL do the work.