Every Wednesday evening from April to August I run groundwork sessions at Brackenhill Stud. One my recent clients agreed for me to post a few photos from our initial session which I am very grateful for because they showed beautifully how small corrections, attention to detail and good evaluation of current training situation can help kick start the progress.
E.P.’s owner has put a tremendous effort over the last couple of years to bring the horse from what can only be described as skin & bone state to one where you can really see the horse’s potential.
I was asked to help with structuring the rehabilitative training and help add more ideas to the current work.
There were many aspects of the training that we discussed and we formulated a plan of work for the next few months but I wanted to share on here a small but very significant improvement we were able to achieve during just one session and that’s ALIGNMENT.
Good body alignment is a key to healthy posture and as a result to successful training. Most horses and all rehabilitative schooling clients I have worked with, struggle with that aspect of training and therefore no matter how good the content of the training is, the results might be disappointing.
On photos above you can see E.P. trotting on a circle to the right with no corrections to alignment from the owner who is long reining him from the middle of the circle (he’s wearing a proprioceptive band – a bandage – that attaches to the roller).
On photos below you can see E.P.’s posture being influenced by the owner using variety of postural corrections we have worked through for about 30 minutes beforehand. These corrections are based on small changes in horse’s preferred weight shifts, balance, suppleness and body awareness with no use of any schooling gadgets):
The subtle visual differences on these snapshots are great to see but what made it even better was E.P.’s quality of movement before and after the owner’s corrections. I believe that movement quality is of huge importance if the rehabilitation is to progress in the right direction.
Huge thank you to E.P.’s owner for letting me share photos from the session! All images copyright: Aspire Equestrian Riding Academy
This must be one of the easiest and most cost effective ways of transforming your plain jumps set into a proper colour and pattern challenge!
We’ve dressed several jumps with the Jumpstack and been using the covered bales for all sorts of jumping exercises both ridden and on the ground.
The covers for the bales made fantastic fillers, you just need a good tape to secure the openings as if your jumps are outdoors, the stickers that come with the covers won’t be strong enough to stay on.
The pole covers are great for transforming plain poles and do a super job used on raised poles as horses being vary of them, pick their feet up neatly.
We are looking into adding some yellow and green patterns now. It makes training interesting and helps the horses get used to variety of different jumping challenges. I find some fillers are more of a rider’s frighteners so it helps the riders to become accustomed to jumping more than simple poles.
The covered bales are also very handy for creating gymnastic set ups like small grids to work on technique – improving quality of the canter and rider’s position.
When used for groundwork, they provide a low level distraction for the horse habituating him/her to situations where they need to ignore slight worry and go forwards when asked.
There are many different reasons why leg-yielding is beneficial in any horse’s training programme and here is one of them: creating more even use of each hindleg.
I like to start it in-hand because the biggest benefit is when the rider can ask for leg-yield from the saddle with minimal aids. Strong use of legs contort the rider and often braces the horse’s back so the overall goodness of the exercise decreases.
The horse that learnt a movement in-hand, has a much easier job understanding the request from the saddle later and so the rider is able to act with more subtle aids.
The roles of the hind legs in the leg-yield
Inside hind leg: flexes, crosses over and under (engages) and creates push
Outside hind leg: carries weight, stabilises the weight
Performed in both directions and adjusted to the horse’s natural crookedness, it is a nice and relatively easy exercise to help the “pushing hind leg” develop more “carrying skills” and vice versa.
Also great exercise for riders to develop feel, coordination and body awareness (how it can communicate with the horse).
To see video of Ferris the ex-racehorse learning leg-yield on the wall see our Instagram HERE.
This subject is coming your way thanks to a little Twitter conversation I had last night on #EquineHour with Tail End Jewellery.
I like to think about the horse’s neck and head as if they were a barometer of what happens in the rest of the horse’s body. For this reason I generally prefer not to use any training devices that place the head and neck in a “desired” position.
Sometimes we will deal with the actual physical issues within the neck, head or poll but many a time these issues resolve or greatly improve once the body balance had been addressed.
It is common to try to immobilise the unsteady neck and head via stronger rein connection, variety of bits or perhaps with gadgets like draw reins. This might give the rider an illusion of stability or control but it is not a long term, wellness focused solution.
Body issues that can manifest themselves in neck stiffness or excessive movement of the the neck and head include misalignment (natural crookedness or rider caused crookedness), subtle and low grade lameness, back pain, hollow backed way of going as well as simple loses of balance in a young/green horse.
Before assuming the neck issue is The Issue, I personally prefer to address all the above possibilities. If I work with a rider who is also learning own balance and stability while remaining supple, the neck stiffness or contact issues are secondary to the rest of the body.
However, here is a suppling exercise to try on the ground – best with your instructor or a physiotherapist watching if you have any doubts as to whether you are doing it correctly. It might give you as a rider a better insight into the degree of tension your horse is really holding in the neck:
Poll flexion in-hand. Place one hand on the horse’s neck just behind the ears and the other on the nose just above the noseband. Both hands should be relaxed and never exerting any force on the horse. The “nose hand” acts in a slow, soft on-off manner to bring the nose towards you a little. Visualise all the structures around the atlas/axis joint loosening up as you softly bring the nose to the side. With your “neck hand” you can stroke the muscles you want relaxed adjusting the degree of pressure to what your horse perceives most relaxing. In the photo above, Mojo spotted something in the distance half-way through the release so although he is flexed at the poll he is also fixed in that position. The feel you are going for is one of release of all tension so pay close attention to yourself too…Any impatience or tension in you will affect the horse’s reactions. Horse’s eyes might close a little and ears go sideways a fraction too. Many horses find this exercise really relaxing once they realise there is no force in it. Done regularly and gently, it can help with habitual tension carried in the neck and poll due to issues further down the body. Repeat a few times on each side but bare in mind some horses can be protective about any parts of their body that feel a bit “off” so they can try to pull the head away or shake you off. Don’t force the issue, just repeat calmly a little bit each day.
The flexions in-hand can be developed into ones in-motion to help with alignment and relaxation on a circle as on photos below. If this is something you would like me to blog more about please let me know in the comments and I will add more on this next time.
Please consult your physiotherapist or a vet if in any doubt whether these exercises are suitable for your horse.
Teaching your horse shoulder in can have loads of benefits. All horses are ‘sided’ ( i.e. in very basic terms they have a rein that they find it easier to bend/balance on.) and shoulder in is a basic lateral exercise that can help your horse improve straightness. This has a myriad of benefits and books have been written about it! Shoulder in is also a great gymnastic exercise to help your horse become more flexible, strengthen his hindquarters (as it is a bit like a weight lifting exercise targeting each hind leg) and develop balance.
One of the best ways to describe shoulder in is to imagine your horse walking along the side of the arena with the wall or rail on one side. It will look like your horse’s shoulders are coming away from the wall at a small angle and the inside hind leg steps deeper underneath the body. To help visualise this, many people recommend thinking of the horse taking the first step of a 10-metre circle and carrying on straight along the wall holding this shape.
If you are standing in front of a horse performing shoulder in you will see the horse’s hooves moving on three tracks: The inside front foot is on one track, the outside front and inside hind on the middle track and the outside hind on the other.
One of my goals this year is to teach Gilly more lateral work in-hand for all the above benefits, and so in a recent in-hand session I started working on the basics with him. My equipment was a lunge cavesson and lead rope and a schooling whip.
We started off by working on improving his walk to halt transition. I walked in front of him backwards and gradually slowed down, lifted his head gently asked him to transfer his weight onto the hind legs as he halted. Starting with a simple exercise like this seemed to help him focus his attention and ease us into the rest of the session.
The next exercise we practiced before moving on to teaching shoulder-in was turn on the forehand. It helped Gilly understand that he needs to do something with the hind leg I touch him on with the whip which provided a building block for shoulder-in aids later.
I started attempting shoulder in by walking along the rail of the arena holding Gilly’s head straight and then putting my hand on his shoulder. This focused my attention on angle my body forms with the line of Gilly’s travel. I then asked him to bring his front end off the track a little using my “cavesson hand” (the hand I held lead rope with) and tried to assume correct angle myself while pointing the whip towards Gilly’s inside hind leg which he needed to engage more underneath his body.
One of the things I noticed as a novice to in-hand work, is that I find it quite difficult to know when the horse is correctly performing shoulder-in.
If you are lucky enough to have a mirror in your arena, start practicing walking towards the mirror and look for the ‘three tracks’. If you don’t, then it can really help having someone else who knows lateral work to watch and help you adjust.
You could also ask them to do it with your horse and video them – a reference can really help with things like where to position your body in relation to the horse to communicate what you want.
I’m going to keep practicing this as I think it will take a while to develop my feel for when Gilly is doing it right. But in the short term, one of the benefits in the saddle is that when Gilly falls in and out on circles a bit of shoulder in feel can encourage him to correct his bend and redistribute his weight so he is more balanced.
Polework is becoming increasingly popular probably because it brings together elements of directed focus and fun.
Here is one of my favourite exercises that helps horse and rider develop better bend and suppleness.
you’ll need minimum of 6 poles
set them up in a shape of an “S” letter
the distances in the middle of the poles are set at about 1m
The How To:
this exercise is done at a walk with you walking alongside your horse’s shoulder. During the change of bend, this gives the rider a good test of timing because you’ll need to continuously monitor the balance through your horse’s shoulders. On one of the turns you will be turning from outside in like you would when riding (rather than pull on inside rein to rescue turns) which again increases appreciation of how much outside shoulder movement is needed for a good turn.
start at either end walking slowly and with attention to accurate line through the middle of the poles
over the middle pole you’ll need to change direction and that is also the most beneficial and most testing step for your horse. He/she will need to accept your influence without speeding up, tripping over the poles, slowing down or losing balance and falling out/in.
You can do this exercise whilst riding too but I would really recommend giving it a go on the ground first. Rider’s perception of balance always increases via in-hand work/groundwork and that in turn develops “riding feel” in the saddle.
If your horse is young or particularly crooked or not used to working with you on the ground, you can start with this intro exercise.
walk with your horse on a 20m circle and try to notice how he/she likes to walk in both direction
notice how he/she distributes weight through their body, which foreleg/shoulder tends to carry more weight, which hindleg tends to push stronger than the other
notice which way they carry the neck, is it outwards/inwards and when
notice where is the horse tending to “lean” on you – is it through their ribcage, shoulders, maybe they just try to turn at you
Time: about 20 minutes or so
As you make these observations you will start having more of a picture of your horse’s balance and way of going on both reins.
You want to build this exercise up until you can walk with your horse by your side and be able to “shape” him/her by gentle touches where you feel they brace/fall in/tense up. The horse will learn your touch (i.e. your aids, your body language) is there to help them not to fight you (tension is just another form of fight).
It’s a super exercise that can transform the way your horse perceives your aids so it’s worth trying even with more experienced horses.
In Leo Aspire Journey series, Leo and I will share with you our weekly work with photos of any groundwork set ups we do, why we do them and how they work. Leo will share his top tips too 😉
Today’s set up: raised circle poles (I use them at walk to encourage core muscles to work, joints to flex more as well as to focus on the rhythm and bend). I like to stand on a block to see the whole spine of the horse as it lets me observe the quality of the bend through the whole body.
I need to work on stretching Leo’s intercostal muscles (muscles between the ribs) on the left side and this exercise does quite a good job as it makes me pay attention to each step and to how he organises his balance through the middle of his body.
The poles at the background are set for trot at about 1m40 distance in between and I use them to again increase his core engagement, flexion of the front and back legs (stifles, pelvis, hocks).
On photo above you see Leo dropping his neck forward and down. I generally encourage this neck carriage but think it’s important to constantly observe how supple he remains in this posture for it to be of benefit. To test this I can ask for a little flexion at the poll via the lunge line attached to the cavesson. If his reaction is to softly flex as I ask him, I continue, but if he responds by bracing against the flexion or pulling me outwards, I go back to short neck and poll suppling exercises which I will write about another time.
Today’s content of the early morning groundwork for Leo is 30 min pole work & 10 min trot & canter work on gradient in the field.
I focus on lateral flexibility in the first part of the session. The three poles just behind Leo are set at random distances and we full pass/side pass in walk over them. He finds it tricky and I change between turn on the forehand and side pass as the first movement is a good introduction to the second.
In side pass/full pass there’s no forward movement like in a leg-yield or half pass, the horse simply moves fully sideways. Adding poles increases difficulty but I do it very slowly, letting Leo take it all in and stop often.
It’s a good exercise for improving proprioception, handler’s skills at maintaining balance and horse’s dexterity. Great suppling exercise too.
After 15 min of the lateral work I move him onto the second exercise. I set a rectangle out of 4 poles with 5th one across. We walk over the corners, then in and out and through in fairly slow walk paying attention to footwork, bend through the whole body and shoulder control.
After 10 min I put him on a circle around the rectangle which gives us 6-8m diameter depending how far from corners I guide him. I jog him for one circle, then walk 3-5 steps, back to jog. I find that the slower the pace in trot, the more weaknesses and strengths can be spotted that can go amiss when horse is driven forward into active tempo. In a slow jog everything happens in slow motion, you can really see which hindleg works harder, which one less so, which foreleg bares more weight, how each hip moves, which one tends to drop more, how back muscles move etc etc
The arena work done, we move into the field for working trot and canter work. It’s sunny but very chilly which keeps the ground firm enough for this work.
Leo’s Top Tips for fellow equines
to avoid whole body bend when she stands in the middle on that block, keep turning slightly in facing her to check if she would give you a treat (never underestimate the cute factor)
another tip to avoid the bend, especially on the side you don’t want to be bending, you can walk a little quarters out whilst barging your shoulders inwards a fraction. Just arch the neck, you might get away with murder as long as you arch your neck. Or you might not, depending on your human.
drop a tiny more weight onto your outside shoulder but not all in one go, do it so slight that she finds it hard t notice so you can get away with less bend on some quarters of that circle thing
lift your legs extravagantly – all humans love it and forget about everything else
arch your neck from time to time, again, humans love it and even if that’s all you do you might get a treat
over the trot poles, give a mighty push from both hind legs, takes you over them faster and if human isn’t observant you can get away with less belly muscles work!
keep checking for treats as often as you can, they are there, you just need to be persistent
to avoid side passing, keep going back or forward, you can also jack-knife your body and test their skills in keeping you aligned. Plenty of scope for ideas here to be honest, you can also scatter the poles, I don’t like touching them but know plenty folks that don’t care so give it a good bash.