Preface to the series: I am currently involved in training of 11 “project” horses belonging to a “breeder/dealer”. Together with another Aspire Equestrian instructor, Magda, we would like to share the training journey of some of them. This series will take form of video diaries and reflections on the horses’ progress. The goal is not to criticise any training methods or breeding choices but to document a no-gadgets, sympathetic yet purposeful training work we prefer. A way that is based on understanding the “why?” not just the “how to?”. This is also the kind of horse training we teach to all our riders. The main character in this series is a 5 year old, ex-racehorse mare – Estima.
Put your legs up and join the journey – comments, views, observations always welcome.
PART 1: Meet Estima
Five years old Estima has done very little since her racing days. At least very little as far as correct training goes.
She is very stiff all-round with strong one-sidedness (at first she didn’t even tolerate much handling on her right side at all which is slowly improving), her posture is poor with forehand heavy way of going (dropped withers/shoulders, raised neck, tense back). Very poor lateral & longitudinal flexibility, weak loins; her initial reaction to any instructions was to stress (tensing up, head tossing, rising neck) and worry.
On first meeting Estima was in a poor condition too having had unsuitable diet, very little movement (due to weather and lack of turnout) and her hoofcare was non-existent. The latter deserves a whole new part so we will come back to it at some point.
It took a couple of months of grooming and hand walking to build some relationship with the mare and to build her up her enough for some gentle work to start. In fact, none of the horses looked ready to be filmed…or shown anywhere.
Huge benefit of working with less-than-perfect horses is that you get an all-round training education whether you want it or not. You can’t ignore any symptoms of discomfort in a horse because they are so strong and all-consuming.
An athletic horse with a good posture and/or one that naturally moves with light(er) forehand (like many Iberian horses for example) are relatively “easy” to work with in all sorts of training gadgets. Thoroughbreds & horses bred for speed (and warmbloods/other crosses with decent amount of TB blood) are generally built on the forehand – if you ever saw a PRE or a Lusitano horse galloping with a TB type horse you can appreciate how an “up & forward” and “down & forward” way of going differs and influences speed and acceleration. The problems that can arise from fixing the horse’s neck and/or body in training are similar in both cases but a weak horse with poor posture is immediately more readable because his/her discomfort is much more obvious.
The methods we prefer to use to achieve long lasting results are based on in-hand work (otherwise also known as groundwork) and lunging aimed at improvement of self-carriage and way of going (not as a means to “take the steam off” the horse). We will share this work with you and hope you follow Estima’s training journey 🙂
Three weeks into training
Easier Left Rein
Difficult Right Rein
You can see well on the second video that on the left rein where she is relatively comfortable (in relation to her work to the right), she is able to step under her body (under her “belly button”) with the inside hind leg i.e she is supporting her body weight on the curved line of travel. She is also able to position her ribcage to the outside which visually makes her body concave on the inside and convex on the outside (she is moving more or less on the shape of the circle) . Here is a still frame illustrating the movement:
To compare the right rein issue you can analyse the posture of her & another of the 11 horses.
The look “from the back” as of Estima above is very clear but you can see this effect also as you stand to the side. The grey gelding is also strongly dominant on one side with the same tendencies in motion as Estima. The frame shows him in trot on his difficult right rein – as with the mare, his right inside hind leg is far from his “belly button”, he is using it to push his body strongly forwards (as with Estima, his right hind leg is his pushing leg). His right shoulder falls in, rib cage is pushed inwards with his neck and head pointing to the outside – his whole body is convex to the inside and concave on the outside. Such way of moving makes it uncomfortable for him to be trotting in the circle to the right as he is not supporting his own weight well.
It is also always interesting to notice how lateral flexibility immediately influences longitudinal flexion…(notice Estima’s back and neck on each rein). Crooked horse will never move under the saddle with relaxed back and neck. If you ever noticed your horse struggling to work “on the bit” or stretch or circle when you ride on his difficult rein you might want to follow Estima’s journey and try some exercises in-hand with your horse to help him/her.
Work Plan with Estima
Before the mare gets ridden again we will aim at improving her straightness – in other words decreasing her one-sidedness. When she is able to move better (from posture point of view) by herself, only then she will be ridden (then she will learn to carry herself in the same way under the weight of the rider).
In practice it means that through in-hand work and lunge work she will be taught to use her left hind leg for pushing not only for carrying/supporting her body and her right hind leg – for supporting/carrying/stepping under not only for pushing. It will not only make her much nicer to ride (more “even”) but also keep her sounder…
She will learn better lateral flexibility, lateral poll flexion and improve her overall posture (i.e. be able to move with her ribcage in the centre of her chest instead of leaning her body to the right). It’s true that you can’t change conformation but you can change posture 🙂
What will she do in the next months
Estima will mostly work in-hand with some “hacking”:
– shoulder fore
– leg yield on circles and diagonal lines
– passive stretching (physio)
– pole work in hand
– long reining or walking in nearby terrain (up the hill to help her develop stronger abdominal muscles)
– lunging focused on relaxation and better biomechanics
Example of a difference good training makes in posture in an uphill built horse
Just so it doesn’t seem like all posture work is only for downhill built, poorly conformed beasts or untrained ex-racehorses here are some photos of one of Aspire clients and her beautiful PRE gelding. She worked very hard to improve this little gem’s way of going and the photos below show the before and after exactly 1 year apart.
If you would like to see any specific elements of Estima’s training on videos, just leave a comment. We will try to film as much updates as possible in the coming months.