How to Exercise Your Horse for Strength and Flexibility
by Stefanie Reinhold
As an equine massage and bodywork practitioner, I often witness what a beneficial effect a change towards a better, well thought-through warm-up and gymnasticizing routine can make in regard to the horse's wellness and performance. I would like to introduce some of the basic principles of gymnasticizing and warm-up to you in this article.
Many good books have been written about the topic of exercising your horse for strength and flexibility and I will simply echo here in a brief summary what are considered to be the basic strengthening and flexing exercises. I recommend to enlist the help of an experienced training in perfecting these techniques.
>>>>image right: Hillwork is great exercise.>>>>
While there are many different philosophies out there, I will refer to the principles laid out in the German Cavalry Guidelines for Training Horse and Rider (HDV12). These guidelines have proven effective and are in fact basis for today's FN guidelines.
Carrying a rider is a most unnatural activity for our horse and we must ensure that he is physically capable of doing so comfortably and in balance. Without proper conditioning, the horse is not naturally able to do so without damaging his anatomy!
This must be learned! No matter what your area of specializiation is, whether it’s dressage, eventing, trail or western pleasure, you must create the physical foundation to build on to keep your horse sound and healthy.
Exercises that strengthen the muscles of your horse and promote flexibility will result in less injury, less strain on tendons and ligaments, and keep your horse fit for the task:
After your initial warm-up you will want to add a few rounds of relaxed canter. Still on the long rein, your horse is further encouraged to stretch the head downward and round his back.
Now your horse should be relaxed and moving forward willingly. You can commence your exercise, pick up your reins to gain soft contact and incorporate some of the following movements to build strength and flexibility in your horse:
a) Trot over ground poles
Start by walking over ground poles. The distance between the ground poles should be about 5 feet, depending on the size of your horse and the length of his stride. You will want to start with 3 ground poles and work your way up to 5. Trot over ground poles and stay in a two point seat to make it easy for your horse to round his back and move freely. Be sure to give enough rein to enable the horse to stretch his neck. What this will do for your horse: Trotting over the ground poles will encourage rounding of the back and therefore strengthening of the abdominal muscles. Your horse will learn to pick up his feet, stay in a rhythm, be coordinated and learn to negotiate obstacles at his own pace. Note: If this is difficult for your horse or he shys away from the ground poles, have him do this exercise on the lunge first. Start with one ground pole, if necessary. Build up his confidence and coordination and praise him for a job well done, then call it a day. Then try it again mounted during your next session. Stepping it up a notch: Once your horse has mastered the ground poles, try to raise the height. Reading recommendation: Cavaletti: The Schooling of Horse and Rider over Ground Poles
b) Riding Transitions
Ride transitions to encourage your horse to bring his hind under and carry himself better and rounder. Depending on the skill level of your horse, ride trot/walk/trot transitions or canter/walk/canter transitions. Be sure to pay attention to the quality of the transition and to your own balance and riding technique to precisely encourage the desired effect. What this will do for your horse: Riding transitions encourages your horse to bring his hind end under and get him to carry himself in a rounder frame. What to avoid: Pay close attention to your own riding skill. If you are heavy on the hand, this will have the adverse effect of either the horse hollowing his back and lifting his head during downward transitions, avoiding your heavy hand by coming behind the bit or developing a dull mouth. Have a light hand, ride with your seat and reward by giving in, taking off the pressure. Do not rush, but rather stay in a relaxed, forward tempo and pay close attention to a steady rhythm.
c) Lateral exercises
Lateral exercises strengthen and stretch muscles that are usually underexercised and help the horse develop balance, coordination and a round frame.
However, lateral exercises must be approached with patience. It takes years for a horse to get to the point of perfection, where lateral exercises can be performed with the ease and precision we see at top international dressage shows etc.
Set realistic goals, evaluate the skill level of your horse and your own riding skills and get assistance and advice from an experienced trainer, if needed.
Shoulder fore and shoulder in are your basic starter lateral exericses. Start practicing these exercises in hand. You will have one hand on the bridle or on the reign close to the horse’s head, the other holding your riding crop with the grip pointing towards the horse. The grip of your riding crop will simulate your leg and you will give the respective ‚leg aid‘ with your crop.
In the beginning, be satisfied with a few correct steps. Then praise and move on to something else.
Once the horse grasps the concept, he will be more than willing to give it a good try when you are mounted. What to avoid: Do not overdo lateral movements. At first, a few steps each session suffice. When the horse grasps this and is comfortably able to perform a few steps, move on to a short side, then to a long side. One long side in each direction per exercise session is sufficient. Too much lateral moving at an early stage can sour the horse. Note: Shoulder in in the walk is actually harder for the horse than shoulder in in the trot. Due to the 2-beat nature of the trot, the horse does not feel like ‚there is a leg in the way‘, as he does in the walk. When your horse is ready for this exercise in trot, you should preferably ride it in trot.
d) Turn on the forehand
Turn on the forehand is a wonderful starter exercise that is quickly learned by the novice horse in one or two sessions and is tremendously helpful by stretching and exercising muscles that are otherwise underused as well as encouraging your horse to carry himself in a rounder frame.
Practice the turn on the forehand in hand first, as described above, with the riding crop as your ‚leg‘. Once the horse perfects it in hand, move on to ride this exercise. Note: Pay attention to your own riding skill. Be sure you fully understand the aids, so that the horse can benefit from the exercise by stepping over with the hind legs and rounding his frame. What to avoid: Do not overdo this exercise. 2 x on each side during each training session is enough. You don’t want to turn a happy volunteer into a sour recruit... Don’t underestimate the ‚boredom factor‘!
e) Gymnastic Jumping
Once your horse trots over ground poles in a coordinated and willing fashion, add a small jump to it.
Your horse will strengthen abductors and engage his abdominal muscles, which in turn will help support his back.
Gymnastic jumps can also be used in different ways on the longe and in all sorts of set ups.
Be sure to educate yourself or get the aid of an experienced trainer in order to develop a suitable and successful gymnastic jumping program for your horse. What to avoid: Done right and appropriately, gymnastic jumping can benefit any healthy horse. However, you will need to educate yourself in order to apply the correct exercises or injury and discouragement can easily result. Reading Recommendation: 101 Jumping Exercises for Horse & Rider
3. Hacking Out - Trail Riding as the Ultimate Gymnasticizing Program
The benefits of trail riding are manifold and - if done correctly - will cover just about all aspects of equine physical fitness. The following guidelines will help you turn your trailride into a targeted gymnasticizing adventure, which is enjoyable for you and your horse. Tip: leave auxiliary reins, ambitions and overcritical companions at home and enjoy! Walking on the long rein on the trail at a fresh working walk, having the horse step out energetically and allowing him to bob his head as his neck muscles swing the front leg forward, swing his rump from side to side and curiously move forward, is not only the best physical exercise for your horse, but also a refreshing, relaxing way to spend some time in the fresh air. Soon your horse will start snorting and relaxing. What this does for your horse: The horse uses his two big neck muscles on each side (bracchiocephalicus) to move the front leg forward. Keeping him on a long rein and allowing him to fully execute this movement while being motivated to step forward by the interesting surroundings of the trail environment, will improve range of motion, relax the neck and poll and strengthen the shoulders. Allowing him to bob the head and swing the rump from side to side freely; this relaxes his entire anatomy and strengthens the horse's back. Remember, the long back muscle (longissimus dorsi) is a locomotion muscle and we riders sit ride on top of it! Feel it moving! Walking up hill, slowly trotting down light slopes. Too many riders practice the opposite and give in to the horse's inclination to rush up a hill in the canter (which is easier for the horse). What this does for your horse: This will strengthen your horse's hind end and encourage him to step under himself and round his back. Stay in a light seat or two-point seat when trotting down hill (light slopes only) to enable your horse to round his back. Cantering for 10-15 minutes at a time. This requires a high level of fitness on part of the horse AND rider. Work up to this slowly!! What this does for the horse: The canter - if practiced over longer stretches - is the best exercise to strengthen the horse's back. In addition it's a phenomenal cardiovascular workout. Again, work up to this slowly! It also requires a high level of fitness on part of the rider.
This list is by no means complete, but I do hope it will encourage you to investigate further into the subject.
Remember: Training – for horse and rider – never stops! Keep it interesting and diverse, keep your horses best interest in mind and have fun with it!
*) Please note: Equine massage and bodywork is a non-invasive, gentle wellness modality aimed at enhancing performance in the healthy horse and never replaces proper veterinary care. If in doubt regarding the physical health of your horse please consult your veterinarian.