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?
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:
- activation of under-utilized muscle chains
- stimulation of sensory nerves and improved PROPRIOCEPTION
- recruitment of deep postural muscles to resolve imbalances and asymmetries
- 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.
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.