How do you approach your horse’s training? What kind of goals do you set? How do you structure your training program to work towards these goals?
While much emphasis is placed on training various movements and exercises progressively, this is not always true of the physical preparation of the performance horse. Eventing riders are perhaps most at home when it comes to carefully devising fitness programs that allow their horses to perform at their best while minimising the risk of injury.
Eventer or not, this is a principle that we can all apply to our training.
What is a sound back? Why should we care?
When approaching the training of our horse, we should consider two fundamental rules as outlined in Physical Therapy and Massage for the Horse:
“ ‘No abdominals, no back.’ Sound movement proceeds from a strong back, and a strong back from strong abdominals.”
“Engagement is the only way of exercising the horse without making it suffer.”
Working without engagement weakens the abdominal muscles and shortens the back
muscles. Think a hollow horse is unpleasant to ride? Put yourself in their shoes! Muscular pain can be addressed with a combination of therapeutic treatment and correct riding – but left untreated, back pain caused by poor training techniques are compounded and can cause irreversible damage to the spine and pelvis. Using the principles above, we have an opportunity to develop the horse’s musculature in a way that protects and preserves the health and function of the spine. How? We develop engagement gradually and carefully.
How do we get started?
When introducing the young horse to ‘flatwork’ and working on a contact, it is important to begin in a ‘long and low’ frame. Asking the horse to work too high, too soon, will cause them to recruit incorrect muscles to compensate for their lack of strength and fitness. However, we don’t want them slopping around on the forehand either. The aim is to keep them active, swinging, soft and round from nose to tail – when they are able to do this in trot, short periods of canter can be introduced. This frame allows the back to lift, stretching and relaxing the topline, and strengthening the abdominal muscles – the first step in laying the foundation for a healthy back. At this point it must be stressed that even the yoga-like ‘long and low’ frame is intensive work for a young, unfit horse. Be aware of your horse’s limits – go for quality over quantity, and avoid fatigue by resting the horse frequently with periods of walk on a long rein.
As the horse’s training continues, the rider will be able to progressively increase the amount of engagement. This will continue to strengthen the bottom line, and begin to develop the muscles of the topline. However, stretchy, long and low work should remain a key part of the horse’s warm up and cool down during each training session. See also our article on using a lunging program for rehabilitation
The take home message? Remember the hare and the tortoise…
Use these principles wisely, giving the young horse time to develop balance, strength and suppleness before introducing any specialised movements. The same applies to the older horse returning to work after a spell. Resist the temptation to rush into more advanced training – while the talented and trainable types can seem ready mentally, the body may be lacking the necessary strength and fitness. Avoid boredom by mixing up their routine until they build enough strength to introduce new exercises.
Slow and steady wins the race – treat your horse as an athlete and train for soundness, comfort and longevity.
Cat provides remedial and sports massage therapy to horses in Adelaide and surrounds. Cat is passionate about improving and sharing her knowledge in the fields of equine therapy, rehabilitation and training for soundness, with the firm belief that as horse owners we never stop learning. You can read more about her and the services she offers.