Remember I went to the Horses Inside Out conference in September? I’ve recently used yet another exercise that I picked up from that informative day, to help improve stability and flexibility.
At the conference, we learnt that whilst it’s important to improve the flexibility of our horses it’s also important to consider joint stability. If we only focus on our horse’s suppleness in one direction then the joints lose stability because the muscles around the joint in the other directions are weaker, which makes the horse more prone to injury from hyperflexion.
By working horses in a variety of ways and directions we improve the strength and range of movement of their limbs. Lateral work is perhaps the most obvious way of increasing a joint’s range of movement.
In the horse’s legs, it is only the shoulder and hip joints which are capable of adduction and abduction of the limbs, so this is the area of focus in lateral work.
The idea of this exercise, which can be done ridden or inhand, is for the horse to move their legs forwards and sideways with each stride. Having a pole to negotiate ensures each foot is moved cleanly. For the horse to abduct a limb it requires balance, and core stability. A bit like the balance exercises we do in Pilates. This week we did one which involves standing on one leg and sending opposite hand and foot diagonally out, akin to doing the jive. With our eyes closed! But it hurts the outside of your thighs!
Lay out a line of three or four poles, end to end in the middle of the arena. Walk your horse towards the end of the first pole, so that the pole is on their left. Then ask your horse to walk forwards and to the left so that their left foreleg steps over the pole first. Their left hindleg is the first of the hindlimbs to step over the pole. That part is very important!
So the left limb bends as it’s lifted and then the abductor muscles at the shoulder and hip lift the limb away from the horse’s body before replacing it to the ground. The abducting requires abdominal strength and balance in order to keep the rhythm of the walk. Once the horse has crossed the pole you can ask them to step right across the next pole.
If they find it difficult, then the horse will turn their body so that the limb furthest away from the pole will step over first (if the pole is on their left, the right leg crosses first), which means the horse isn’t actually doing any abducting of their limbs, and are almost serpentining over the poles.
You can place more demands on your horse by getting them to cross the pole more frequently, say after three walk steps. This requires more balance, strength and joint stability. You can also raise the poles by using potties or cavaletti cubes. Below is a video of the exercise when I tried it with Phoenix. I could only raise my poles by jump blocks so had to accommodate them in the exercise. Hopefully it is clear enough to give you an idea of how to do it. Next time, we’ll be trying more poles and using cavaletti cubes to raise them.
I’ve used it recently in a couple of lessons with horses coming back into work, or who are a bit tight over their backs, and when they’ve been trotted afterwards, their riders’ have felt the improvement in their way of going as they’ve all looked looser over their backs and swinging more in their stride.