Improving Joint Stability

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.

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An Accuracy Grid

One of the horses I teach with has a tendency to drift slightly through grids. It’s not noticeable over single fences, and has vastly improved through doubles, so I wanted to test his rider’s accuracy to ensure she wasn’t allowing him to drift around courses.

I began with setting up a two stride double, with tramlines to focus both horse and rider on straightness. We kept the fences as cross poles too, to help them get central.

Once they were riding through the fences comfortably, I began to ask the questions. One stride before the first cross, I added a skinny fence. With no short poles, I had to use a barrel. This meant that the pony might back off the skinny jump, as well as trying to dodge round it. However, as it was the first fence in the grid my rider could set them up in a controlled, balanced canter and focus on her accuracy and the cross poles would follow naturally.

As predicted, the pony backed off the barrel fence, chipping in a little stride, so his rider had to ride positively to prevent him squeezing in three strides between the cross poles. They repeated it a few more times until the pony stopped backing off and felt more confident.

Next, I added a second skinny barrel jump at the end of the grid, one canter stride away from the second cross pole. As this question came up rapidly after the cross jump my rider couldn’t have a lapse in concentration through the grid or else her horse will have either drifted past the skinny, or will chip in a second stride. She also needed to pick up on any slight deviation from straight.

They jumped the first three fences neatly, straight, and on the correct stride. However, they drifted slightly right through the grid which gave the horse the perfect opportunity to slip past the last jump. The next time, my rider corrected their line throughout the grid, by opening her left rein and using her right leg. Because the horse was less able to circumnavigate the skinny fence he chipped in a stride, so disrupting the flow of the grid.

To overcome this, my rider had to recover quicker from the cross poles, and ride forwards and positively to the barrel fence to give her horse the confidence to take the distance on one stride. It took a few tries, and they only managed it from one canter lead, which suggests we have work to do on their weaker canter lead. Which fills my next couple of lesson plans!

Adding a skinny into a grid keeps horse and rider switched on, and ensures the rider doesn’t become a passenger once they’ve entered the grid of fences. It highlights any drifting by horse or rider, and by working on both canter leads you can see if there’s any asymmetry. For example, if a horse is stronger with their right hind leg then they will push more with that limb over the fence so the horse will always drift left over jumps. However, this horse drifts fractionally right in right canter but drifts significantly right in left canter, suggesting that the cause of his drift comes from the fact his body is crooked to the left, which is exaggerated in left canter so drifting becomes more apparent.

The grid can be made harder by removing the tramlines and converting the cross poles into uprights to make it harder for horse and rider to stay on their line. You can then remove the wings from the barrel jumps to make it easier for the horse to run out. If you can negotiate that in a fluid and confident manner then you know you’re riding straight and accurately!

Moving Yards

Moving yards is almost as bad as moving house, isn’t it? I can’t say it’s something I’d undertake lightly.

However, having recently done it so that Phoenix is at a yard with winter-friendly facilities because she’s now in more work and I need the ability to ride after bedtime if needs be.

I’ve come up with some, well I like to think of them as, helpful tips.

  • Use the opportunity to have a big sort out of your things. Take rugs to be cleaned. Ask yourself if you really need that ancient whip with a wobbly end. When Otis moved to his retirement field and I was effectively horseless, I had a good clear out and sold things I definitely wouldn’t need or use again. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve gone through what was left in my garage with Phoenix in mind. For example, does that stable rug of Otis’s fit her? Will that saddle rack fit over her new stable door? So I’ve had quite a sort out. I’ll accumulate more, I’m sure, but it’s nice to have a declutter.
  • Organise your things in the yard into boxes so that moving is simple, and you’re not making endless trips to the car with forgotten haynets or spare stirrup leathers. Plus you’re less likely to forget anything.
  • Plan your move so that you can be around for any teething issues. We decided to move Phoenix on a Friday so that the new yard was quiet when she arrived, and I was around over the weekend to provide a familiar face and meet all her needs should she be unsettled.
  • Check the isolation procedure, if the new yard has one. A lot of yards require worming on arrival, so ensure you’ve got a wormer or have a recent worm egg count result. Some yards require horses to be stabled for forty eight hours in isolation on arrival. If your horse would find this particularly stressful; perhaps they’re young and never been stabled, or they struggle with separation anxiety, I would definitely recommend speaking to the new yard to see if anything can be done to reduce your horse’s stress.
  • Plan your moving day so you have plenty of time to observe your horse settling in. We moved all of my things to the new yard first thing in the morning, dumped it in Phoenix’s stable, and then went to pick her up. Then I unpacked and organised my things while she settled in the field. Once I was finished, she’d been there an hour and quite content. Then I went back to the yard later in the afternoon to check her again before dark.
  • Plan a couple of quiet days while your horse settles in. They may not seem outwardly disturbed, but internally there’s a lot of new things to process; new equines, new field, new yard environment. This may result in them lacking in a sleep because they aren’t fully comfortable in their surroundings so don’t have sufficient R.E.M. sleep, as I blogged a couple of weeks ago. I definitely found that Phoenix tired more easily when I rode her the first day, so I kept it short and sweet, being much more of an introduction to the new arena than anything else. I’ve found that Phoenix is very settled in the field, but slightly more anxious in her unfamiliar stable, so on the first day she just had her feed in there and spent a very short time in there. Then the following day slightly longer, all the time with hay. Gradually I’ve left her there for longer, and then yesterday she spent a couple of hours in there until being turned out, seeming farm more relaxed about the situation.
  • In the first few days I would be guided by your horse. Just ride them according to how they feel, or have a gentle hack in company so they can begin to take in their new surroundings. Some horses may benefit over the first couple of days or just being introduced to their new routine, so coming in and spending a few minutes being groomed in their new stable, having a hard feed in there and just generally absorbing their new environment. I think how well a horse takes to a yard move depends on their age (if they’ve had experience of a stable then they’re less phased by a new stable), their experience (if they’ve done a lot of competing then they are used to different environments and possibly staying overnight at competitions and camps), and their temperament – some horses just accept change more readily than others.
  • Although not always possible, I would definitely look at moving yards and keeping my horse’s general routine the same for at least a couple of weeks. For example, they’ll find it more stressful moving from living out twenty four hours a day to living in with daytime turnout only. Either move so that they can continue living out at the new yard for a couple of weeks, or begin bringing them in overnight at the old yard during the run up to them moving.
  • Introducing horses into fields is always the political, and delicate situation. Definitely speak to the new yard and the field mates, neighbours in individual turnout setups and those in the herd in group turnouts. If there’s a known leader to the herd, who can be quite bossy, (or even if your own horse is dominant!) having your horse on individual turnout adjacent to the herd field for a few days can help the horses introduce themselves, and then put the new horse in with the dominant horse for a couple of days, and then run the herd together. The horses will run, they will bite, and they will kick out while they establish their new pecking order.
  • You can help reduce the running round effect when a horse enters a new field. Phoenix went into a field on her own for the first few days, with neighbours either side, so upon her arrival I gave her a hard feed and then turned her out with a pile of hay in the field. If there’s plenty of grass that’s not necessary. The idea was that she wasn’t starving, and would quickly settle to eat some hay. She barely looked at her neighbours but took to the hay before happily wandering around the field, replete and unlikely to run around in excitement.
  • After a few days on individual turnout, Phoenix was joined by another horse. To integrate them I ensured Phoenix had had her hard feed and hay ration in the field, and the other horse was likewise fed, so that when the two were introduced hunger wouldn’t cause any arguments and they could concentrate on being friends. We also put out plenty of small piles of hay. Unfortunately Phoenix decided that all the hay was for her, especially that which came with the new horse. So the following day we gave them some time apart to ensure that they both ate sufficient hay, and then used my less exciting bale of hay in the field which seemed to help settle them. It usually takes a week or so for a new herd to establish their pecking order, but it’s beneficial for all if you make temporary accommodations to reduce the likelihood of any going hungry or getting hurt.
  • Take enough hay with you to the new yard so that your horse won’t be put off eating new hay whilst also being slightly stressed by the move. Then you can introduce the new yard’s hay over the course of a couple of days. Obviously with the greedy horses and ponies this isn’t so much of an issue!
  • Be aware that your horse may be unpredictable for the first few weeks as they settle in, so keep things quiet and be aware that the tractor on the new yard is scary because your horse isn’t as confident yet in their new surroundings.

A Staircase

I did this little gymnastic exercise with a pony and rider last week. The pony has a strong shoulder and on the penultimate stride to fences drops his forehand, which isn’t a huge problem at the lower levels, but now the jumps have started getting bigger we’ve noticed he isn’t jumping so cleanly. When the pony drops onto his forehand, he unbalances his rider so he collapses through his core and gets in front of the movement.

I’ve done a lot of grid and pole exercises with the pair to help break this habit. Last week’s exercise built on the bounce grid from last week.

I laid out four canter poles, nine foot apart, and had the boys cantering steadily over the poles, checking that they maintained their rhythm and didn’t rush. Because we’re working on the pony not dropping his forehand in front of the fence I’ve been using short distances with them. This encourages the pony to stay uphill in the canter and to sit on his hindquarters, which helps improve their jumping technique.

With the canter starting to improve just over the poles I made the last pole into an upright, about a foot high. So it was more of a raised pole, but because I hadn’t adjusted the distance the pony had to adjust his canter in order to increase his bascule over the raised pole.

Next, I made the third pole into a foot high upright, and raised the fourth pole to about two foot high.

We progressively increased the heights of the poles until the second pole was eighteen inches high, the third pole roughly two foot three and the fourth pole approximately two foot nine.

The first pole acted as a placing pole, still nine foot from the second pole. I didn’t need to alter the distance between the second and third poles, but I did lengthen the distance between the third and fourth jumps so that it was a generous ten foot. This is closer to a bounce distance, and the pony needed more space between the bigger fences.

The purpose of this exercise is to improve the pony’s front leg technique, so he tucks his forelegs up quicker and more neatly. It stops that dropping feeling before a fence, so the pony is utilising his hindquarters, and his rider gets a better feel for a good jump.

The exercise itself is physically demanding, but it helped the pony get used to jumping with his hindquarters underneath him. It also ensured that his didn’t land to heavily on his shoulders, which meant he landed more lightly and so the overall quality of the canter improved as it became more uphill.

A slightly easier version of the staircase, which I used with a different client, has one canter stride between each jump, rather than being a bounce. It still got the horse thinking, cantering more uphill and picking up neatly over each fence.

Circles, Canter, and Control

I’ve not used this exercise for a while, but recently brought it out for a couple of clients as it was perfect for improving their canter work.

Start by riding a continuous twenty metre circle at A in trot. At A, ride forward to canter. At X, ride a downward transition to trot. Repeat the transitions at A and X on each lap. Then progress to riding four transitions per circle; so a transition at A, halfway between A and X, X, and halfway between X and A. You should repeat the exercise on both reins.

There are several purposes to this exercise. Firstly, the rapid succession of transitions between the two beat trot and three beat canter means that the horse has to engage their abdominal muscles, which helps improve their posture and develops their top line. So it’s very good for their balance and core stability.

If you have a lazy horse, or one who is slow to respond to the leg, riding transitions quickly in succession engages the horse’s brain and teaches them to react more quickly to the aids. The exercise can also increase the rider’s speed of riding. I don’t mean that they trot or canter faster, but that they process the preparation and execution of their aids faster.

Riding the transitions at given points on the circle can be tricky because the horse has less support from then fence line so is more likely to wobble through the transition or hollow their frame. I find this to be especially so in the upwards transition over X. Which of course is quite a common movement in dressage tests. To help stop the horse from drifting, the rider should focus more on their outside aids (usually they’ve slipped so aren’t supporting the horse) and think of riding a straight stride during the transition as opposed to the continuous curve of the circle. This helps prevent the horse drifting out though his outside shoulder and lifting his head because he’s not engaging the hindquarters.

The horse I used this exercise for whilst schooling is fairly forwards but always pokes his nose slightly in the canter strike off. While he’s active in the trot and using his hindquarters to push into canter he just doesn’t quite carry it through. Back and saddle are fine so it’s just a quirk of his. Anyway, I hoped that riding multiple transitions in quick succession would get him fractionally more forward thinking and he would stay connected as he picked up canter. Which he did. He stayed completely soft in my hands and I felt more of a jump into canter as I could use lighter aids because he was anticipating the canter.

A pony and rider that I also introduced to this exercise have a problem with lack of forwardness. After riding a couple of circles the pony was anticipating the transitions so responded immediately to his rider’s aids and then she could put more leg on as she rode him into trot which resulted in a more active trot and the pony became more forward thinking. The upward transitions became more active so the quality of the canter improved. This pony also drifts through the right shoulder on the left rein, so the transitions over X highlighted this so by holding him straighter and with a more supportive outside rein his rider could correct the drift. Then the canter improved further because the inside hind leg started propelling the horse forwards towards his centre of gravity, instead of pushing the energy out through the right shoulder. It was great to see the improvement in the accuracy of their transitions and the quality of the pony’s canter.

To add another level of difficulty to this exercise, count the number of strides in each gait, aiming to get the same number of strides in each quarter. This also encourages you to ride a more accurate transition, which helps improve your accuracy marks in dressage tests.

Wonky Poles

I came across this exercise a few weeks ago, which is a great variant on usual trot poles. It’s good for adding an extra level of difficulty to trot poles, keeping a horse thinking about the exercise, and checks both them and their rider’s ability to ride a straight line. Especially useful for green horses, it improves proprioception.

Begin by trotting over a series of trotting poles laid parallel, approximately four foot six inches apart. Adjust the poles to suit your horse’s stride. Once your horse is confident, balanced and negotiating the poles straight and easily, you can begin to put him on his toes.

You should be trotting over the centre of the trotting poles, and the horse should increase their cadence over the poles and increase their impulsion. With the poles parallel, the horse can see either end of the poles as they trot over it. This helps the horse judge where the centre of the pole is, which is where they need to lift their feet over. Remember horses have that blind spot just in front of them, with a small amount of binocular vision, so rely on their peripheral vision, which is monocular. The binocular field of vision is where they gauge depth perception, which is vital for negotiating poles and fences.

Now your horse is happy with parallel trot poles, angle them so that they form a zig zag pattern. The centre of each pole should still be four foot six inches apart (or whatever distance best suits your horse). An easy way to create the zig zag pattern is to hold the pole in the middle, and lift and swing it so that it is then at an angle.

Usually, when first trotted over the zig zag poles, a horse will lower his head, pause, and increase their cadence. As long as you ride the centre of the poles, the distance is correct for the horse, but the zig zag position of the poles will make them think about where they’re putting their feet.

Going back to their vision. The ends of the poles are in their monocular vision, and they aren’t level. One eye will see the ends of two poles close together, and the other eye will see two pole ends together further forward in their field of monocular vision. Therefore it is not immediately obvious to them where the centre of the poles are, which is the part they’re stepping over. This means they need to engage the binocular vision to gauge the position of the centre of the poles. So they pause, lower their head to look carefully at the poles, and then lift their feet high to give the poles plenty of space just in case.

This means that the horse is working his body harder, so improving his balance, coordination, impulsion, rhythm and proprioception. It’s a good variation of trotting poles for those horses who get bored, or need to do a lot of pole work for rehab, and can be made physically more demanding by increasing the number of poles.

I don’t think this pole arrangement would work as raised poles, but they would work as canter poles, with the centre of the poles approximately nine feet apart.

Herd Dynamics

I’ve had a couple of conversations recently with different clients who are finding that their horses are very tired and lethargic when they bring them in. One mare keeps falling asleep on the yard!

We discussed the management side of things. The change in the weather as we head into winter can mean that some horses start to get a bit chilly at night, and the change in the nutritional level of the grass can mean some horses start to get a bit hungry. Both these reasons can cause horses to become a bit flat in their personality.

An increase in workload can also make a horse become a bit flat as they improve their fitness.

None of these reasons really explained why the two horses were lacking enthusiasm for life. Both had recently had their saddles checked and were sound so pain was unlikely to be causing the tiredness.

Then we realised what it was. Both horses, at different yards and different times over the last month, had moved fields. One mare had moved in with two other mares who, whilst not bullies, were definitely above her in the pecking order and hassled her in the field. The other had just moved in with quite a dominant gelding, who was a little territorial over his hay, and generally pushed them about a bit.

As a result of this new herd dynamics, neither horse was resting properly. They might snatch ten minutes here and there, but they’d constantly have one eye open in case their field buddies came over.

Horses devote between five and seven hours a day to resting. They can achieve slow wave sleep whilst standing up, but must lie down to enter the REM phase of sleep, which is the restorative phase of sleep. A horse can become sleep deprived if they don’t have at least thirty minutes of recumbency to fulfil their R.E.M. requirements.

I found a really interesting study by Kentucky Equine Research which found that horses at the lower end of the pecking order could suffer from sleep deprivation. Check it out in the link above.

I suggested to my clients that they tried giving their horses a bit of down time. Perhaps bringing them in to their stable for a few hours so they could get some rest, or separating them in the field if they were more likely to rest in the field than in the stable. Since then the mare has been moved into an individual paddock adjacent to the others and seems to have picked up a bit. Well, she’s not falling asleep on the yard any more!

As horses spend so much of their time in the field it’s worth ensuring that the herd dynamics are right. It’s easy to see a dominant horse when you’re giving hay in the field or when they have a new patch of grass, but the small nudging and hassling of the bottom of the pack is easy to overlook. Take some time to observe the herd to see the subtle social dynamics which are occurring, which could have an impact on your horse’s health and well being. Then you can take appropriate measures to help ensure all the horses are able to rest sufficiently.

Riding the Outside Line

I don’t know much about Formula 1; I just ask the questions to show the necessary level of interest that makes a marriage work.

“Where’s F1 this weekend?”

“What time is qually (see, I even know the lingo)?”

“Who’s in poll?”

“Who won?”

And most importantly; “Who had the biggest crash?”

One thing I have picked up though, during the hours spent being shown each race-changing crash in slow-mo from numerous different angles, is driving lines. In racing, it’s usually the inside line.

It may sound like I’m rambling, but this does tie in with a tip I learned last week.

When we’re riding we turn our bodies in the direction of movement and look where we’re going. Invariably this means we end up looking over the horse’s inside ear. Especially when you factor in how much easier it is to turn your head than the rest of your upper body.

However, we’re supposed to ride with the outside aids, and bring the outside shoulder around any turns.

Given that we’re looking at the inside line is it any wonder we often lose the outside shoulder and slip the outside rein?

Next time you’re schooling, keep looking over your horse’s outside ear on any turns or circles. It takes some getting used to, but because you’re now focusing on the outside line of the turn you’ll find you maintain control over the outside shoulder, and don’t get too much neck bend from your horse, resulting in a straighter horse who is stepping under with the inside hind and taking their weight on it before propelling themselves forwards. Let me know how you get on!