Working in an arena has multiple goals for developing a horse mentally and physically. As a benefit, carefully considered training agendas can develop a trainer’s perception and knowledge base. Among the goals for development are items such as attention, confidence, rhythm, relaxation, balance and straightness on a “training Tree.” However, this discussion of an exercise program goes beyond a standard Tree and examines some factors of an equestrian development program that are based on the structure of a horse. Some of these factors are therapeutic and focus on rehabilitating an injured or ill horse.
First, we will consider how to relax the “sleep locks” or stay apparatus that the horse uses for multiple purposes. Besides sleeping standing up, horses must use their interlocking stay apparatus ligaments, muscles and bones for movement. We will take an expanded view of the stay apparatus, because of the need for more research on its functioning as a system. It is possible that more anatomy than shown here is involved with the “standing sleep,” and that would include the ligaments of the topline. For the horse to move elastically, the passive portions of the sleep locks need to make the transfers of kinetic and potential energies generated by muscle movements of the limbs. These transfers are stored briefly in the “elastic ring” of the trunk before being released in a specific stride instant. If there is tension or dysfunction in any part of the neck-trunk-limb system, there is loss of power or even symmetry in the gaits. Timing of the storage and release of energies is critical, making tempo and elastic quality of movement important for dressage.
Second, there are warm up patterns under saddle that assist a change from “body in sleep mode” to “body ready to move” with its “elastic ring” activated. Sleep mode here (not the non-reactive sleeping condition) refers to a horse that is awake and responding to its environment but has not “shifted its sleep locks into gear.” In other words, it is stiff with limited range of motion, perhaps also lacks motivation for work. Good muscle, tendon ligament and bone generally build during a training program that recognizes cellular replacement rate in these tissues. For bone, ligament or tendon, that rate may be 18 months to two years, depending on age, nutrition and condition. Muscle can react to training regimes in a month to three months. Blood is the most rapid complex tissue to respond to training in about two weeks. This regeneration time is different from the reserve blood from the spleen horses have available for sprinting.
WHY IT HELPS TO RELEASE THE “SLEEP LOCKS” IN A WARM UP
The rationale for a whole exercise program is based on the way horse anatomy and movement interacts with gravity. This remarkably adapted animal is considered one of the finest middle distance runners to have graced our Earth. In a chase, faster predators may lose the chance for a meal because they tire before the chase ends (or are kicked). This is why horses sleep standing: it makes for faster starts in an ambush and takes weight off internal organs. The predator/prey history of horses also explains some of the flight reaction in our equine friends. In brief, the bulky body works with the slender column of legs to produce efficient motion.
A horse’s leg system pivots against the ground as though it were an inverted pendulum. In walk, the inverted pendulum creates some kinetic energy as its center of mass arcs during the grounded part of a stride. In the ballistic gaits of trot, canter and gallop, there is a spring component to the action during the cycling of legs. All this activity must depend on quality of muscle, ligament and bone to produce optimal performance. If the horse’s equestrian discipline requires “pushing the envelope” of limits, as in endurance, eventing, cutting, reining, dressage and racing, the training program that creates healthy tissues capable of performing without damage is even more important than developing a horse for a less aerobic life.
Riders sit in an optimal place to influence the whole horse. This place is mid-body, so each part of the “circle of aids” can be employed to guide the horse. An ill-positioned rider can easily inhibit the performance desired, which has been discussed in a different article on forward riding. Brief rider posture discussion is included with the suggested exercises for warm up in the arena.
Horses prefer to take quicker steps rather than slower: it is less demanding of energy. Be careful with your demands for slower tempos, because while they build muscle, too much “drilling” in slow tempos can take a toll on willingness to perform if the horse is made sore.
SOME EXERCISES THAT HELP RELAX THE SLEEP LOCKS
The “Clock” Exercise
Poles can be placed at various distances on a circle of about 12 to 20 meters. Poles should be of light material (easily moved) and not over eight inches high. One end of a pole can be raised on a block. The simplest form of this exercise is three single poles, with more advanced complicated patterns introduced as a horse advances its skills. The power of this exercise is its ability to foster coordination and flexible strength because each circuit of the poles is different in its spacing. This is emphatically NOT a measured jumping grid. As a horse learns it, it must drop its head, rounding its back to look at each set of poles, then flex its joints when it passes over them.
Work on the clock need not be more than five or six minutes each way daily or every other day. A very inexperienced horse or one recovering from equine protozoal myelitis (EPM) can be led in walk or the poles can be set on the long side of an arena. Julie, an Oldenburg mare came to my farm having had EPM and a fall that injured her right shoulder. She held herself stiffly, either from remembered pain and/oror from damaged coordination from the parasite infection. After a year of working on the clock (her owner is a faithful and meticulous trainer), she is fully recovered and muscular.
A useful feature of the clock exercise is that it works for most equestrian disciplines. We found it helpful to avoid problems with relaxing tonge and jaw if we longed with a fitted halter or soft cavesson. Some horses can be aggressive on the longe, and the clock may have to wait until such horses are safe to handle.
Rosita, my Azteca, had a severe injury to her left croup as a foal, causing her to protect her left hind leg. Work under saddle and on the clock has filled out the left quarter so that the injury is now only visible from on top. Her gaits are symmetrical and elastic.
Both Julie and Rosita receive regular visits from a chiropractor and a massage therapist. We owe Beverly Brady of Midwest Natural Healing for Animals credit for some of the variations on the clock exercise. A full program of therapy for horses is not given here, just some basic material that works for healthy or injured horses.
Circles, Squares and Serpentines
Dressage riders who wish to use lateral work, squares and circles to relax their horses can use classical work in the arena. Exercises on the square combine bending and stretching in the whole horse. Stretching and bending in the walk is as therapeutic for the horse here as it was on the clock exercise. Riding circles and serpentines of various dimensions in trot helps a horse with strength, suppleness and straightness.
Intervals of free walk are a useful reward for work done on the various stretches of the circles and squares. I include passade and renvers in walk as a relaxation exercise (not illustrated). At the Spanish Riding School of Vienna, it can be seen in trot and canter, where it is proof of true balance, coordination and collection. As a walk exercise, it “leaves no stone unturned,” so to speak! It tests lateral and longitudinal suppleness on the stiff (short) side of a horse. Followed by free walk, it is a means of extending a horse’s range of motion, lateral symmetry and developing confidence.
Exercises on a square figure with quarter pirouettes (see the video series with Morgan Raynyday Maximillian below) requires different half halts in rider posture than work on serpentines and circles. On a square, riders keep the outside shoulder behind the inside during the quarter pirouette (three strides) with the inside seat bone weighted, the outside leg behind the girth to keep quarters from drifting. This keeps the rider’s chest oriented to the outside and parallel to the horse’s chest. On circles or arcs, the shoulders parallel not only the horse’s chest but are aligned along the radius of the circle.
Walk work on squares is also preparation for piaffe (diagonal moments of walk in place with the foreleg at mid stance and the hind legs braking – hind quarters slightly lowered). If squares are ridden in canter, it helps to teach the horse not to hop with hind legs together and can be used with straight lines to help flying changes be at least level instead of croup high. In trot, it is a very advanced exercise, with corners performed in piaffe.
For those wondering how to teach a horse to bend evenly through the body, work on quarter pirouettes in walk is gentle and precise, provided the rider does not become tense, break at the waist, throw the outside shoulder (displaces the alignment of chest with respect to the horse) and shift weight to the outside seat bone. Horses can be clever at avoiding the bend by rolling riders to the outside. Do not despair if this happens: most of us have been shifted to an outside seat bone at one time or another. Adjust position and continue with the exercise sequence.
In this pirouette exercise. Max is straight with his head in the center of his chest, showing that the bend is in the body, not the neck. Frames 4, 5, 7, 9 and 12 show lateral suppleness. Frames 1, 5, 8, 9 and 10 show the ability to support himself (and me) with legs in mid stance under shoulders or hips. Frame 7 shows the degree of bend in the body, with balance (no leaning or stiffening) enabled by the inside hind placed under the inside hip.
I have tried to present a set of exercises that can serve as therapy for horses needing to recover from misfortune as well as prepare for advanced performance. The essential outcome of whatever program you choose to follow should be a calm, active, healthy horse.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR DR. NANCY NICHOLSON