How to Train on the Trail
How to Train on the Trail
Students who ride primarily on trails often ask me what kinds of exercises they can do to benefit their horses. If they don’t plan to be in an arena any time soon, does that mean they can’t give their horses the gymnastic and core exercises that optimize their bodies and comfort? Luckily, no. Plenty of valuable exercises can be added to a trail rider’s regular routine without stepping foot in an arena. First, though, I want to applaud these riders for acknowledging that their horses will gain from focused exercises that target their postural muscles. There is actually a lot you can do out there in the woods!
Below are my top suggestions for trail riders, mostly for their simplicity of execution. Obviously, the terrain sometimes dictates where or how long you might perform them, and you will be a lot more successful if you can convince your riding buddies to do these exercises along with you. Some days, you might elect to spend 5-10 minutes at the parking lot or trailhead working your way through them as a warm-up. Other days, you might ride on terrain that is suitable for incorporating a few of these on your outing. Or you might have a moment to do them after you get back. When you do them matters less than making sure you do them consistently.
These are intentionally simple exercises to perform but they create measurable changes in the horse’s body and posture when done consistently. Can you do them at least 3 times per week in addition to, or as part of, your trail ride?
Either before you mount up, or at some point during your ride, ask your horse to walk backwards at least 30 steps. Ideally, you want the horse in a lowered neck position (poll and withers at approx. the same height) and you want to make sure the horse steps backward an equal distance with each foreleg. If your horse tends to anticipate and rush backwards instead of calmly walking back step by step, you can repeat a sequence of backing up 10 steps and then walking forwards 10 steps. Repeat a few times.
Turns on forehand
Before you mount up, or at some point en route, execute 3 turns-on- the- forehand in each direction. I’m defining each turn here as a full 360-degree turn. Be sure the horse crosses his hind legs to form an “X” as he makes the turn. For detailed instructions about turn-on-the-forehand, you can read up in my books.
Transition of speed within gait
Arena riders like to wax poetically about the value of riding transitions between gaits. These simple maneuvers help balance the horse to carry more weight on his hindquarters, improve responsiveness, and stimulate fuller neuromuscular recruitment. But transitions are not just for arena riders! In fact, I like to head down a flat stretch of trail with the goal of riding at least three gait transitions. Every twenty meters or so, I’ll switch from walk to trot then back to walk and up to trot again. It keeps my horse listening to me AND using his body more fully.
I also encourage trail riders to practice walking and trotting their horses at different speeds. Make transitions between a slow trot, a faster trot, and a medium paced trot. Ride frequently between these different speeds. Doing so will keep your horse much looser in his back and haunches. Too often, people get stuck riding at one steady speed all the time on trails and like any repetitive motion this creates stiffness.
Change up the Frame
Similar to the advice above, change your horse’s posture and body carriage frequently to encourage fuller recruitment of core muscles. When you are on a flatter section of trail, ride a half -mile or less, depending on your terrain, in a shorter or more “collected” frame followed by the next half-mile asking your horse to stretch his neck forward and downward towards the ground. This is an exercise that we arena riders do frequently to develop good flexibility and range of motion in the horse’s musculo-skeletal system. This exercise can—and SHOULD—be done on the trail, too. Don’t worry, as with any of these exercises, you do not need to spend your whole ride practicing. You can still relax and just enjoy the view for much of your trail outing, but do try to find 5-10 minutes where you can ask your horse to change his frame a few times while cruising along.
Help, my Horse is Stumbling!
Help, my Horse is Stumbling!
The most obvious place to look when a horse begins to stumble regularly is his feet because they are after all what he is tripping over, right? While he might be stubbing them, his toes are infrequently the source of this problem. In fact, a tripping problem that shows up acutely often has nothing to do with his feet. Before you call your farrier, rule out faulty mechanics in the rest of the body.
Tripping and stumbling often develops from poor movement patterns that restrict the front limbs, progressing sometimes to the extent that a horse will fall all the way to his knees. Riding a horse that is scrambling like this can be unnerving, and it also causes a fair bit of worry for owners. They want to know what is going wrong. Why is their horse suddenly tripping and falling?
It is natural to look at the horse’s front end for blame. But I have more often found the problem in these horses to be in the HIND end. When a horse stiffens through his lower back during motion, it pushes his stifle joints out behind him, essentially blocking the hind legs from swinging forward each stride. In the absence of flexion in his pelvis and hind limb joints, the horse’s spine becomes like a rigid piston that shoves motion forward on to the forelimbs. Overburdened, these limbs lose their smoothness of movement. The result? A horse will catch his toe instead of rolling over smoothly to the next stride. Plus, the hind legs are no longer participating to catch his balance.
Until the lower back and hindquarter stiffness is resolved, the horse is likely to continue tripping. A deeper problem arises once he has tripped enough times to not be worried about it anymore. Once this occurs, he no longer hurries to get his balance. He submits to a persistent lack of coordination. The primary nerves that generate forelimb movement gradually deactivate, the horse’s whole movement pattern alters. Smoothness of movement begins to disappear.
When caught early, many tripping problems can be corrected. The most beneficial place to begin your inspection is the horse’s hind-end, unless there is a clear reason to suspect the feet as the primary problem such as the case of a new and dramatically different hoof trim. Assess the following: dorsal flexion and overall state of the back muscles (are they normal temperature and pliable? Or are they ropey, hot, tense?), stifle flexion and perceived comfort, hamstring tension. Studying your horse’s natural standing posture will factor in your inspection of these as will your hands-on touch. Once you locate what you suspect as the source of restriction, you can begin to treat it. Generally, I recommend a Masterson Method practitioner but other good body-workers can also help.
Once the body-work therapies are administered, I have found certain corrective exercises to be especially beneficial. These include: Long and Low Transitions (Ex. # 27); Figure-Eight bars (Ex. #18); Lateral Pelvic Flexion (Ex. #31); Giravolta (Ex. #46). In addition to a good amount of backing the horse up daily, these exercises will help restore equilibrium between forehand and hindquarters, which will help you on your way to overcoming a stumbling issue that seems to show up out of nowhere.
As you work through these corrective exercises and body therapies for a focused two-week period, avoid riding at speed or on hard surfaces. Both increase the likelihood for tripping.
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.
Fabulous and Fit: Book Launch Event
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.
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?