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.
Single Sport vs. Cross-Training
Why DO we Cross-Train?
The search for mastery brings with it the question of specificity. If you are trying to master a particular sport, should you focus on and practice that sport exclusively? Or might cross-training, and using tools from outside that sport, benefit you in some way? Certainly, there is a lot to argue in favor of practicing only your sport in order to get better at it. From a physiological standpoint, there is even more to argue for multi-disciplinary training.
Most simply, cross-training allows you more tools to accomplish the job. And isn’t it always better to have a few possible solutions rather than just one?
Having more tools allows you to avoid repetitive movements, to change neuromuscular patterns quicker. Let me offer a real life example.
Many horses have a dominant side, meaning they lean with their bodies or drift towards that direction. Turning the horse in this direction, or trying to ride around a circle, will feel like being on a motorcycle that is tipped towards the ground. A horse with this kind of crookedness in his body alignment can be rough to canter, difficult to bend, and unresponsive to your leg cues.
When a horse has a side- dominance, the respective forelimb becomes not only stronger but also “stuck” to the body because of fascia adhesions and tighter muscles. The scapula loses its full range of motion to rotate back each stride. To use analogy, it is like one of your shoulders being glued in a rolled forward position. In a simplified description, the shoulder is frozen in place. To correct this, our job is to help the scapula rotate back fully each stride in order to move with more grace and fluidity.
In dressage, we usually attempt to accomplish this by riding exercises like circles, shoulder fore, or shoulder-in. These tools work by encouraging the shoulder that is positioned on the inside of the turn to draw upwards and back as the horse curves his body. As with any exercise, though, many horses quickly become clever about modifying their body position slightly in order to NOT draw the shoulder up and back. Sometimes they will make their necks rigid and push their jaw/head to one side or they might make other small changes that negate the outcome we are trying to reach: change their speed, hold their breath, shift their hips off the line of travel.
To use another human analogy, these occurrences are the same as when I change my form ever so slightly in order to make doing push-ups a lot easier. When I do this, I end up going through the motions of a push-up but without the positive result. A perfectly good exercise fails to reach the intended goal because of minor interference.
Luckily we can eliminate this interference through cross-training and utilizing a collection of varied exercises instead of drilling the same unsuccessful routine day after day. I consider this working smarter, not harder. In the above example of the crooked horse, an excellent complimentary exercise is riding down hills. The balance needed to negotiate this terrain necessitates good scapula rotation for the horse. The horse has to equalize the load and effort of each forelimb. Gradually, asymmetrical movement patterns become symmetrical. Crooked horses almost always are able to ride better circles in the arena after spending some time riding down hills. This is one example of the value in using multiple tools to resolve a challenge.
In closing, I offer the words of Dr. Gerd Heuschmann. “An excellent dressage horse moves safely through the countryside and willingly jumps obstacles of every sort.” Let us keep this goal of a well-rounded, mentally composed athlete at the core of our training, and let’s allow good old fashioned cross-training to be an integral part.
Value in Being Forever a Beginner
The longer I stay in this profession, the more I value experiences that facilitate what Zen teachers call Beginner’s Mind, which recently took the form of an early morning listening to Corazon chew his hay.
Becoming an expert in any field often entails specializing your knowledge and skills to the point of abstraction. You end up operating on a level that is detached from those with whom you are trying to serve and relate. Beginner’s Mind tethers you to the openness and fascination, the receptivity, of beginners in a sport.
Remaining relatable may or may not be important to every trainer. For myself, though, I have discovered that staying able to truly relate to my students is crucial for longevity in this career with horses. Without it, I run the risk of impatience, poor communication, and misguided instruction.
Having a horse of my own helps preserve a little bit of feeling like a fun-struck amateur even though I am a six-days a week professional. Finding experiences with Corazon outside my daily routines help even more. These are the vital moments where I find Beginner’s Mind. And the more years I spend with horses, the more valuable these occasions feel. They simultaneously keep my spirits fresh while mooring me to a relatable place for my students.
I took a small group of students camping with their horses this week at Waddell Beach Campground, a coastal valley filled with wildflowers and cypress trees with ocean views. We spent two days riding shaded trails beside the creek and then sitting around the campfire watching our horses doze in their corrals. We said goodnight to them under a star-filled sky aglow with the Milky Way.
One of my fondest moments, admitted with a pang of naivety, was mucking out Corazon’s pen as the sun rose. I sipped from a mug of coffee balanced on a nearby truck bumper and marveled at the pink sky. I moved slowly and mindfully, without any demands to answer, and listened to him chewing his hay. My contentment bordered on giddiness.
In other words, I felt the fascination and joy that beckons beginners to these experiences. Believe me, I have mucked a corral umpteen times before. But in this moment, at this delightful campsite, the methodical chore, and the coffee, and my sweet horse colluded to make me feel like nothing else mattered. And I let myself absorb the moment just as it was, without trying to elevate it to an abstracted fraction of my professional life.
I embraced Beginner’s Mind. Corazon swatted his tail at a fly under his belly, a hawk twirled overhead in a thermal updraft of clouds. I filled up Corazon’s water tub and fetched my grooming brushes. As I embarked on this day filled with small chores and time with my horse, none of if felt new and yet all of it felt magical.
Recalling these moments does not just mitigate the possibility of burnout after being involved with something as long as I have been with horses. It forms part of the equation for relating to and reaching my students. Without sharing relatable experiences like this, my instruction would risk hitting its mark. Instead, I remain able to discern when a student is so entranced by an experience with her horse, by the sheer enjoyment of just being with her horse, that she cannot intake the minutia of instruction I am trying to impart. Rather than feel futile, I shift my delivery to accommodate her raw bliss while hopefully still imparting the lesson I want to offer.
Numerous occasions aside from sleeping beside your horse under a starry sky could infuse a professional’s life with the lessons of Beginner’s Mind. There might be a sliver of each day, or a simple routine, that does this for any given trainer. For many of us, those moments are worth respecting and valuing whether or not they seem naïve. Or maybe, better yet, it is the sense of naivety that keeps the magic alive.
Fabulous & Fit: VERMONT Book Launch Party and clinic
Come enjoy our book launch party/clinic! Participants will receive a signed copy of Jec’s NEW book, enter to win cool door prizes, and receive an assessment of their horse’s current postural strengths/weaknesses. Riders will also be coached as a group through exercises from the new book, plus receive some take-home tips for how to help their horses.
3pm: Arrive and pick up books, door prizes
3:15 One-on-one sessions to assess individual horses’ posture and movement
4:00 Practice exercises from Jec’s new book together as a group
6pm: Pot-Luck dinner, location TBA