Fabulous and Fit: Book Launch Event

horse physical therapy

Come enjoy our book launch party! Participants will receive a signed copy of Jec’s NEW book, coffee and cookies, a tour of the Lichen Oaks adaptive riding center, and enter to win cool door prizes. In her demo and mini clinic, Jec will show how to assess a horse’s current postural strengths/weaknesses. Handlers and riders at this event will use resident horses rather than their own.

10am: Arrive and pick up books, door prizes

10:30 demo and short talk by Jec

11am-1pm: One-on-one sessions with rider/handlers and horses. *when participants sign up, they will be matched with a horse.

Good vs. Evil: the horse’s nervous system

An ever-present challenge of training horses is that they are hard-wired to escalate tension. This has helped them survive in the wild. Studies of the amygdala area of their brain show that when a horse is in a state of mental tension, even a small external stimulus causes the anxiety to quickly ratchet up. The horse is then trapped in flight mode. Unfortunately, we load them with stimulus whenever we interact with them, especially when we are trying to attain specific results.

Obviously a horse in a hyper-toned state of mind cannot be expected to use his body in ways requiring precise motor control. Or perhaps I should say that we cannot successfully ask him to do this when his brain and body are operating from signals to be tense. We cannot fine tune recruitment of muscles that are primed for flight. It does not matter how skilled a rider or trainer might be; a horse will never make good gains until he is under the influence of a calmer nervous system. How, then, do we go about our training in a way that diffuses, rather than builds, tension?


Our task is to untether the horse from his sympathetic nervous system (the flight/fight center) and recruit his parasympathetic nervous system (the ‘rest and digest’ command center). Studies of the equine brain show that the activity in the amygdala, the anxiety and flight center, can in fact be re-programmed significantly. This happens through hands-on touch and bodywork followed by the correct physical exercises.

This equation rewires a horse’s operating system in a way that enables them to learn and adopt new behaviors and movement patterns. Over time, this rewiring becomes a permanent state of being. Without this approach, we trainers are generally just loading tension on top of already existing mental or physical tension, alienating the horse from his ‘rest and digest’ mode of operation, which is the only environment where positive change happens.

Every single cue we give our horses, every interaction and request, can send them more firmly under the influence of either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. Being a trainer that can help access the parasympathetic nervous system means acquiring a whole new set of skills than the ones most of us were originally taught. Some days it feels like a slower path forward, but if we wish to see permanent changes, it is the only path forward. Otherwise, we try and try to change habits without getting very far because we fail to address the underlying control center for these habits. In reality the seemingly slower path is actually the faster path forward.

Jec Ballou

When a horse is not able to change in ways that we might wish—the ways that will benefit him—we need to stop and ask what about his living conditions or training might we shift in order to not continue adding fuel to the fire of his sympathetic nervous system? Is there discomfort we can alleviate? Are his schedules consistent and predictable? Is his training making measurable contributions to utilizing his parasympathetic nervous system? This sort of inquiry led me to write my latest book, 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, and continues to challenge me to become a more helpful trainer. During my upcoming clinics, I’ll be asking students to join me in this inquiry. Meantime, what thoughts do you have to share on this?

What are Horse Calisthenics?..and Why Do They Matter?

What Counts as Calisthenics? And Why Might You Care?

Luckily, someone interrupted my rhapsody during a clinic last week praising the value of calisthenics for developing equine athletes. What exactly did I mean by calisthenics?, the student asked. She was probably not alone wondering, lost as  I was describing the power of these exercises.

The Webster dictionary defines calisthenics rather broadly as: “Exercises to develop a strong, trim body.” These exercises, the definition continues, require minimal gear or complicated moves. They build body strength while simultaneously developing GRACEFULNESS through their precise execution.

So, what counts as calisthenics for horses, and what makes them good? In a nutshell, they are finely controlled maneuvers that support the more active, speedier exercises a horse regularly performs. They are often slow-moving and very specific in terms of body alignment and hoof placements.

Calisthenics are best done at the beginning of a session or during periods when a horse has become confused or stressed or fatigued, because they support the role the gymnastic muscles need to play. Without that support, the body’s larger muscles tend to create faulty circuitry, poor postural habits, and opposing muscular efforts from incorrect movement patterns. You can think of calisthenics as a compliment to your normal schooling. In fact, they allow you to go about that schooling with more efficient, successful effort.

Calisthenics exercises, examples of which follow below, are used in my programs to strengthen and release tension from areas that are neglected during even a fit horse’s everyday training. In this way, you can think of them playing a similar role to Pilates and yoga for well-conditioned human athletes. Their benefits include:

  1. activation of under-utilized muscle chains
  2. stimulation of sensory nerves and improved PROPRIOCEPTION
  3. recruitment of deep postural muscles to resolve imbalances and asymmetries
  4. increasing joint range of motion

Because of these benefits, I generally recommend students perform calisthenics at the start of a session prior to any deeply embedded habits from the neuro-sensory system firing up and carrying out their status quo. This is the best time to positively alter this system to gain the benefits listed above.

Indeed, sometimes the same exercise might serve as a schooling technique or as a calisthenics routine, and in this case the speed and intention with which the exercise is performed will differentiate its effect and outcome. Many exercises, though, like the ones in my forthcoming book, stand alone fulfilling the purpose of calisthenics as I’ve stated it above.

Some of my most frequently prescribed calisthenics include:

*Backing the horse up un-mounted with perfect form for 60 strides

*walking obliquely across raised ground poles

* riding serpentines and transitions between gaits in a long/low stretched frame

* walking over raised poles arranged in a tight arc, or fan shape

* turns on forehand with correct inside bend, hind legs crossing, and steady rhythm

As you read my articles, you’ll come across several other calisthenics that I encourage riders to use because they are simple and highly effective, and most likely you have come up with some of your own along the way. My goal when prescribing them is always to recruit the horse’s slow-twitch postural muscles where patterns and memories are stored. By accessing this system, we gain the ability to influence it more and more, thereby developing better equine athletes.

What is Proprioception?…and why Should Equestrians Care?

What Is Proprioception?

It probably pegs me as a total geek for horse fitness, but I’m delighted by how frequently I hear folks using the term proprioception nowadays. Hopefully it doesn’t mean that equestrians just like fancy words, but signals instead that they are clued to how crucial this concept is. Still, though, some of us might be a little foggy on the exact meaning or definition of this term, so I wanted to clear it up.

Proprioception, a term used frequently in physical therapy and in my books, refers to how individuals “read” the position, motion, and equilibrium of their body parts, and the strength of effort being employed during movement. You can think of it as the way a body interprets and makes adjustments to the demands of any given moment. Proprioception is responsible for shifting your balance when you sense the terrain change underfoot, or for modulating muscular effort when you need a harder effort to get up or down a hill, for example.

An athlete with well-developed proprioception has good coordination and quick reflexes and balance control. Proprioception can suffer for many reasons including over-specialization in a discipline, injury, or too many sedentary
daytime hours. Many horses suffer poor proprioception arising from hoof problems or past injuries, emotional stress, fatigue, or poor weather.

horse fitness

The muscular tone needed for—and employed to tackle— any task is provided by specialized cells known as proprioceptors throughout the body. These spindle cells are located in skeletal muscles and tendons and play mostly a sensory role, shuttling information about position, motion, and equilibrium between the nervous system and the muscles. The information generated by these spindle cells gets relayed to motor neurons that are responsible for forming the actual movements and effort that takes place. You can see, therefore, how critical it is for a body to “read” where it is in time and space. Otherwise, it cannot generate the right signals for correct movement.

Horses with well developed proprioception are more fun to ride: lighter on their feet and what we usually call “sure-footed” on varied terrain. And while it might sound like it’s a natural born trait with some horses just possessing more than others, proprioception improvement can be– and should be– part of every training program. Fortunately, a few simple exercises is all you need. This work needs to be neither complicated nor time-consuming; it just needs not to be ignored.

Muscles: Should you ride fast or slow?

Muscles: Shall we Ride Fast or Slow?

Perhaps one of the most delightful aspects of riding is the way it steadies and focuses our human minds in those moments we sit astride. For myself, anyway, I savor the monastic contemplation of the first minutes of a ride as I consider what does this horse need? Every session originates from how I can improve the horse’s physical wellbeing, and this requires a good deal of paying attention.

It also requires a decision: to ride fast or slow? Many of us ride at a speed WE prefer, or one that the horse dictates from habit. Any given day, a horse’s individual mechanics and musculature can be improved—or not—by schooling at just the right speed. Some need to strengthen their longissimus and organize their bodies by riding briskly while others need to confirm better joint flexion and easing tension from a tight topline by trotting slowly for periods of time.

western dressage

A mare I have been working with lately has a nicely forward-going attitude; she is not lazy or dull. When moving in her default trot speed, however, she pushes her weight forward to her chest and forelegs, becomes rigid through the neck, and drags her hind feet.

In her case, I school in a slow jog rather than her preferred trot speed, because she then balances her body weight more equally over all four legs, softens her neck, and motion begins to swing through her spine. In other words, her muscle development and correctness of movement will progress much faster as a result of riding slower. The old classical master Alois Podhajsky touted the value of schooling this “pony trot” for horses like my mare.

Not ALL horses benefit from riding so slowly, though. For horses that have become restricted in the lower back and hips from draw reins or aggressive bits, or horse entirely lacking conditioning, it is more useful to ride in a faster tempo. At a faster trot, the back muscles have to become more tensioned to balance the exaggerated motion of diagonal pairs of legs swinging.

Every horse is unique, and so is the speed that most suits his workouts. So how to you tell which is best for your horse, fast or slow? Ask yourself at which speed does the horse’s back feel more springy and soft? Then, have someone knowledgeable observe you from the ground and note these three measurements when riding in different speeds:

If you are still unsure which speed suits your horse most, ride the following two figures at both speeds to get clearer. Ride a large figure of 8 in both slow and fast trots. And then ride a large square in both slow and fast trots. At what speed was your horse less wobbly on his line of travel and steadier in his topline posture?