Conditioning and Schooling the Equine Athlete
For an equine athlete to remain healthy, the horse needs to have its body and mind strengthened and conditioned over a significant period of time. To perform to its highest level of potential, the horse needs to be encouraged into a ‘healthy frame’ or ‘position’ that allows it to develop the necessary muscles for balance and throughness. When these muscles have been developed through a careful and complete conditioning program, the equine athlete will be able to enjoy moving freely without injury for many years. For the horse’s mind to remain healthy and relaxed, the rider needs to approach each new level and exercise with calm and assertive leadership remembering to always bring the horse back to relaxation before moving along the training scale.
When being ridden, the goal is for the horse to regain the body position and balance it has when it is without the rider, and to learn to move easily and without restraint under the rider’s weight. For the horse to be able to obtain this unrestrained way of moving, the horse needs to be in balance. When the horse is in balance, then he can relax and then be able to move without hindrance.
So, where does one begin? Let’s start at the beginning with foundation groundwork.
Groundwork and why is is so important
What is groundwork? Dictionary definitions of general groundwork include: essential or fundamental part; preliminary work as a foundation or basis; preparation made beforehand. Equine groundwork is defined as a series of structured exercises performed on the ground with a horse to establish a strong and wide foundation that is used to advance a horse’s education and ability. While keeping the handler in a safe environment, these exercises establish and maintain a healthy leading partnership between the horse and the handler. This training is an essential part of the horse’s conditioning and schooling program.
Karen’s adapted slow, progressive stretching and bending exercises are designed to encourage mental relaxation and increased physical suppleness. Lateral exercises, such as leg yield, encourage the horse to stretch and bend on both sides of his body. This increase in flexibility and suppleness leads to straightness in the horse. Groundwork allows the handler to refine his/her skills and aids. It also allows the horse to find their own balance and throughness without the weight of the rider or the rider’s lack of balance.
Groundwork exercises prepare the horse to perform movements in a healthy and efficient way. This work helps the horse carry the rider while moving unrestrained; therefore the horse stays sound over a long period of time. When the horse is physically and mentally comfortable during the exercises, a positive experience is created for the horse and rider, which leads the horse to welcome such work in the future.
Following classical principles, along with an educated awareness of biomechanically-oriented movements, these exercises develop healthy muscling and increased flexibility. This type of groundwork encourages the horse to balance himself equally on both sides, move straight in both directions while on a line or curve, and carry himself with “lightness and self-carriage”. The exercises can be used to help school a green or young horse, warm-up a mount prior to riding, and confirm lateral movements on the ground before attempting them on horseback.
Groundwork provides the rider a new perspective in seeing how their horse moves and feeling any tensions within the horse. This adds an important dimension to the rider’s understanding of the horse’s body and the suppling, strengthening, and conditioning the horse needs to perform well.
- The handler should become relaxed and focused before beginning the exercises
- The handler’s calm and assertive energy helps the horse to relax and stay present
- The handler needs to understand that these exercises require time.
“I have time” – I want to vocalize this saying to every rider who runs into difficulties with their horses and can’t find a peaceful solution.” Translated from Alois Podhajski, Former Director of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna
- When the horse completes the exercise to the rider’s satisfaction, the horse can stop and relax
- The horse’s first reward is to have the exercise stop so that he can just relax
- After each exercise, the handler needs to stay quiet – both verbally and physically – until the horse blinks slowly, chews, or yawns
- The horse needs time to be able to process what has occurred
- Horse’s second reward is to be petted and reassured that he/she has done well
- The most important thing to do is to pet and encourage your horse.
The Rope Halter
Purpose: Many people feel that rope halters provide clearer communication with your horse as compared to a leather or web halter.
- Rope halter pressure is applied to the poll and to the nose by the thin rope and knots
- If the horse pulls it is uncomfortable
- A handler can more easily control an excited horse with a rope halter than with a web halter
- No buckles, snaps, or metal parts for the horse to get caught on or to break
- Weakest part is the buckle on a web halter
- Nothing can break on a rope halter
- Can have the lead tied directly to the halter
- If a person is handling many horses it is fine to have a lead with a buckle
- Use 12 foot lead for the stretching exercises
- Use a 20-24 foot lead for lunging (after establishing good steady contact at 12 feet and the horse is responsive to your aids)
Properly tied halter:
- Use a Sheet Bend knot because this knot can always be easily undone if the horse pulls hard
- The end of the tie goes towards the rear of the horse and not towards the eye
- The throatlatch part of the halter should not be too tight, but snug enough to keep the halter from shifting during use and getting close to the eye
Safety tips for using rope halters
- Best not to leave the rope halter on in the pasture
- Horse can get caught on something and the halter will not break
- Best not to tie a horse up to anything solid with a rope halter
- If the horse shies or pulls back it will not break
Purpose: Lead attaches to the center of the cavesson nose-piece which encourages bending from the poll
- Flexion can be created by encouraging the horse to move out on the circle and when the horse feels the contact the horse yields to the pressure
- Rope halters allow the horse to escape in the jaw whereas a lunging cavesson, by attaching to the center of the nose, helps prevent this evasion
- Progress to a lunging cavesson when the horse is obedient and relaxed to all of your aids
- Some lunging cavessons have a stiff cavesson nose-piece
- Should have a strap under the jaw that prevents the cavesson from slipping sideways into the horse’s eyes
- The cavesson nose piece should be resting on the nasal bone and not on the soft nasal cartilage
Purpose: Extends the handlers arm so that the aids can be more visual and directed
- Be very aware that the horse may become scared of the flag. The horse may try to pull away, move into you, or run over you; especially when waving the flag near its shoulders
- Be very careful to never put the flag on the side of the horse away from you – the horse could then spook and move into you
- When moving close to the hind end – be aware that a horse may want to kick out at the flag
An effective warm up has the benefits of enhancing performance and reducing the risk of injury. A well-designed warm up involves the gradual increase in exercise intensity, which facilitates the body’s adjustment from rest to exercise. The first objectives are to establish physical and mental relaxation in the horse, so that the limb movements become free and elastic and the horse starts to move through their back.
Relaxed and warm muscles are energetically efficient while tense and stiff muscles result in an overall increase in energy expenditure. Warm muscles contract more powerfully and warm fibers are more pliable. This reduces the risk of injury due to tearing of the muscle fibers.
Cold muscles are not as flexible and elastic as warm muscles and are prone to such injuries as: muscle, ligament, and tendon strains; muscle spasms; stiff gaits; and maybe even torn muscles or tendons.
“It can be a mistake to perform suppling exercises at the start of the warm up while the tissues are cold because the fibers in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments are more susceptible to overstretching injuries.” Dr. Hilary M. Clayton, Conditioning Sport Horses. Mason: Sport Horse Publications, 1991
Another warm-up objective is to increase blood and oxygen flow to the muscles. Clayton (1991) states,
“The increase in cardiovascular and respiratory responses increases the oxygen delivery to muscles, which enhances their ability to work aerobically and reduces lactic acid build up during the workout. Therefore, a good warm up delays the onset of fatigue and soreness due to lactic acid accumulation in high intensity sports.”
Warm up times vary depending on different variables
- Environmental temperature
- Warm weather = shorter time for the muscles to warm up
- Cold weather
- Use of a quarter blanket on the haunches and loin area helps facilitate in muscles warming up by reducing heat loss through the skin
- Age of the horse
- Breed of the horse
- Condition of the horse
- Activity to follow
- 10 minutes of active forward movement at the walk
- 10 minutes of active trot or canter on the lunge
- 20 minutes of groundwork exercises
- Stretching exercises
- Suppling exercises
Help keep your horse healthy, and avoid muscle strain and resulting performance issues by routinely practicing a sufficient warm up routine. The warm ups should be short so as not to promote fatigue.
Stretch and Relaxation movements
Why is it important to have your horse stretch?
Stretching increases the flexibility and suppleness of the horse. Suppleness refers to the range of motion about a joint. Not all joints are equally supple and there is a range of motion that is specific for each joint. During stretching, exercises tissues are elongated resulting in less motion restriction around the joints.
Horses naturally stretch and do so almost daily. This stretching helps to tone up the muscles that they use the most. Usually a horse does not over stretch.
“Stretching improves the tone of the muscle fibers and the elasticity of the ligaments and the joint capsules. Stretching reduces muscles tension, and therefore muscle pulls. A strong pre-stressed muscle resists stress better than a strong un-stretched muscle.” Hourdebaigt, Jean-Pierre, LMT. Equine Massage: A Practical Guide. Hoboken, Wiley Publishing, Inc., 2007.
The benefits of suppling include:
- Horses move more freely and athletically
- Equine performance is improved
- Greater protection against injury
Regular stretching exercises will benefit your horse by:
- Increasing relaxation
- Decreasing muscles tension and stiffness
- Increasing blood circulation
- Increasing oxygenation and nutrition levels delivered to the tissues
- Increasing the elasticity of muscles, tendons, and ligaments
- Increasing the range of joint motion
- Decreasing the number of muscle and ligament sprains
- Improving the length of strides
- Improving reflex time
Examples of increased performance in different disciplines (Clayton, 1991):
- Jumpers: increased flexibility in the shoulder, elbow, and knee tendons and ligaments help the horse flex their forearms, bend easily at the knee to fold the lower legs over a fence
- Dressage and reining: Increase in esthetic quality of graceful movements and helps to enables the horses to “collect” for piaffes and sliding stops
- Barrel and Thoroughbred racing: Increase of the range of motion of the pelvis, hips, and stifles allows the horse to increase the impulsion (“push-off”) forces against the ground for greater lengths of stride and better efficiency of stride
- For all disciplines: Due to the greater range of motion of the joints there is more shock absorption when the leg is on the ground which reduces the incidence of injury
Two types of suppling
Passive suppling is defined as (Clayton, (1991) :
“Slow controlled movement to the limit of joint motion through the action of an external force. Because the force is applied slowly it avoids stimulating the mytotic stretch reflex, which would result in muscular tension opposing the stretch. When the limit of the movement in a particular direction is reached, the stretched position is held for 20 seconds to enhance permanent elongation of the ligaments, tendons and joint capsules.”
When doing passive stretches, there is no muscle activity involved in generating the position.
Benefits of passive suppling include: increase of the range of motion in the neck, shoulders, and hips, increase in relaxation, and a reduction in post-exercise stiffness.
Carrot stretches and leg stretches are passive exercise examples.
Dynamic suppling is a horse’s flexibility while in motion. Dynamic suppling is defined (Clayton, 1991) as:
“Rapid movement of a joint due to muscular contraction or weight bearing…. Dynamic suppling involves rotating a joint rapidly through its range if motion due to muscular contraction or weight-bearing, as occurs during locomotion.”
All riding involves movement within the horse. All disciplines require dynamic suppling and flexibility. Exercise examples of dynamic suppling include: turns, circles, and lateral movements. More intense examples include: walking and trotting over poles, riding up and down hills, jumping, and barrel racing.
Can dynamic stretching cause injury?
Dynamic stretches have the risk of injury due to the movement involved. It is important to understand what muscle groups are being utilized and the maximum range of movement that is healthy. When doing dynamic stretches it is important to have the horse move slowly, gently , and with relaxation.
Muscle, tendon, and ligament fibers are torn when joints are overstretched. These tears can lead to soreness and lameness. Overstretching can be caused by stretching cold muscles, too intense of a stretch, too quick of a stretch, and too many repetitions. Signs of injury can include: local heat, sweating, and pain when moving or when palpating.
When muscles, tendons, or ligaments are overstretched different stretch reflexes are activated.
Stretch Reflexes and how they effect a horse’s movement
When a muscle or tendon is rapidly or strongly stretched, receptor organs within the muscles and tendons are activated and limit the amount of the stretch. These muscle or tendon receptors function to protect against injury due to excessive tension or stretching. Rapid muscle contraction (within healthy parameters) induces a powerful reflex contraction which is beneficial in strength training. But theses same reflexes can limit healthy stretching. For suppling, slow stretches minimize stretch reflexes. The muscle and tendons are then able to be held in a stretched position without an increase in muscle tension due to the receptors being activated. Muscle tension limits suppling benefits.
To maximize suppling exercises and to limit stretch reflexes, it is important to have the horse mentally relaxed before starting the suppling exercises. Mental tension and stress creates tension in the body and limits muscle stretching. Relaxation helps the brain to relax the muscles so that stretching can occur without tension. Relaxation exercises include: slowly stroking the horses neck (about 3 inches per second) , head down, and passive lateral flexion of the poll ( the head needs to move only 2-3 inches). Hold each exercise for about 20 seconds; it takes about 20 seconds for a muscle relax. Relaxation responses include: licking, chewing, slow blinking eyes, and yawning.
The goal of RPH stretching exercises is for the horse to relax and stretch throughout their body while maintaining a close partnership with the handler. RPH groundwork exercises include both passive and dynamic stretches. By omitting relaxation and stretching exercises, one may lose time instead of gaining it. The reason being is that a tense or un-supple horse will create considerable difficulties for the rider and will merely waste its own and the rider’s energy without bringing improvement into the quality of the daily routine work. After warming-up, the rider should devote at least 15 to 20 minutes to the exercises in order to enable the horse to get rid of any tension and stiffness. A relaxed and flexible horse is then mentally and physically ready to continue on with a conditioning workout or a schooling session.
A good rule of thumb is the 20/20/20 session workout:
- 20 minutes of warm-up
- 20 minutes of relaxation and dynamic stretching
- 20 minutes of conditioning and schooling
- Cool-down and passive stretching
Cool down you horse by walking until the chest feels cool. If it is cool or cold outside, add a blanket during the cool-down. After the horse is cooled and untacked, it is a great time to do passive exercise and a massage-like brushing session. This helps to prevent soreness and stiffness in the muscles.
Lateral Bend and Balance
Every horse has a stiff side and a more supple side. Horses are naturally “left” or “right-handed”. Most horses seem to be stiff going to the left and are usually heavier in the left rein/lead line; these horses travel with a hollow right side. A handler can see this from the ground because when the horse travels to the left on the lunge, their head faces to the outside and the barrel is counter-bent on the circle (barrel is curved inwards towards the handler). This stiff, counter-bent way of going is due to contracted muscles on the right side and overstretched muscles on the left side. When going to the left, the right side is stiff and the barrel cannot swing to the outside. When the barrel does not swing to the right, the left hind has a hard time coming through and the horse travels stiffly around the circle. If the horse is stiff going to the left, the horse will usually travel around the circle leaning in with more weight on the left shoulder. The head and neck counter-balance the shoulder, thus they are turned to the outside.
When the horse goes to the right (if he is hollow on the right side), he can easily swing his barrel to the left (overstretched side), the head comes in towards the handler, and the contact becomes too light on the rein/lead line. It is easier for the horse to travel on his hollow side because the inside right hind has a place to go when the barrel swings to the outside and the horse can come through.
For horse to be able to go evenly on both reins and equally pushing with both hind legs, the horse needs to develop straightness. Straightness can be defined as a horse whose forehand is in line with its hindquarters (its longitudinal axis is in line with the straight or curve track it is following).
The horse’s shoulders are narrower than the hindquarters and when ridden on the rail this can encourage crookedness. This encourages the horse to travel with the inside hind to the inside of the inside fore. The result is that the inside hind has to push forward more while the outside hind is required to carry more weight and to bend more. The inside hind carries less weight and over time can become weaker.
Why is straightness important?
Straightness is essential for the following:
- To evenly distribute the horse’s weight on both sides to avoid excessive wear and tear on one of the limbs
- To have the horse push equally and effectively with both hind legs, thereby increasing the efficiency of forward energy
- To have even contact in both reins
- Helps the rider keep the horse on the aids (horse is not leaning or pulling to one side)
- For a horse to attain collection, the horse must be able to equally weight both hind legs
Straightness can be accomplished through lateral suppling exercises and the stretching exercises.
Longitudinal and Lateral Balance”
“Balance in connection with a moving horse is understood to mean correct, uniform distribution of the weight of the horse and rider on its four legs.”, Steinbrecht, Gustav. The Gymnasium of the Horse. Cleveland Heights:Xenophon Press, 1995.
When a horse is standing still, the front half of the horse is heavier than the rear half. This naturally puts more weight on the front legs. With the additional weight of the rider, the horse’s balance becomes even more on the forehand. Additional weight on the forehand hinders the horse’s ability for quick turns and limits the range of motion of the shoulders. Limited range of motion in the foreleg shortens the horses stride.
Longitudinal Balance – weight distribution from front to back
The weight distribution should be that the horse balances the weight from front to back in a ratio in alignment to the natural carrying capacity of the four legs. The hindquarters are stronger in nature due to stronger bones, joints, and muscles and because their joints are like compression springs and are able to bend under heavy loads. The foreleg joints are not able to compress their angles and only serve as pillars to help carry the horse’s torso. Therefore under saddle, the hind legs should carry more weight than the front legs. (Steinbrecht, 1995).
“The object of training will be to correct the balance by making the hindquarters carry a greater proportion of the weight and to relieve the forehand by transferring the weight from the shoulders to the quarters.” Podhajsky, Alois. The Complete Training of the Horse and Rider. Hollywood: Wilshire Book Company, 1967.
Groundwork exercises that shift the horses weight from front to back, help the horse find a balance point that encourages the horse to carry more weight on the hind legs.
Lateral balance – weight distribution from side to side
Many horses struggle with balancing their weight evenly from side to side. This can be due to a straightness issue. (See Lateral Suppleness above.) Many horse tend to lean on corners and turns. This uneven weight distribution can cause lameness and a decrease in efficient movement.
Groundwork exercises that require the horse to evenly weight their legs from side to side help the horse to find lateral balance. This lateral balance can easily be taken up into the saddle.
Equine groundwork can be very fulfilling and extremely beneficial to your equine athlete. Yes, it does take time, but it is time well spent. With these exercises the handler can form a close, leading, partnership with their horse and their horse can find relaxation, balance, throughness, and suppleness. Both the rider and horse can refine their movements and aids in a safe, slow paced environment that results in better communication in the saddle. This groundwork builds a strong foundation that leads to better performance for both the horse and rider.