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?

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.

Make a plan to be productive in your 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.