One of the things I talk about at my clinics is how important awareness of our body’s posture is for both us and our horses. Whilst most people accept that their proprioceptive system may need some help, somehow it is much harder to realize that our horse may also need help in improving his awareness of his body and his alignment.
The main aim in improving our (and horse’s) posture is not just about looking good; it is about the body being in the best position it can be for our physical well being. This is because when we (or our horse) are in neutral or correct alignment our joints (or our horse’s) are in a position/state whereby there is minimal strain and misalignment.
Our first step in improving the horse’s posture, body awareness, coordination, and balance, is to teach the horse to distribute his weight more evenly, place his feet differently and to possibly use different muscle configurations than he has before. In other words do a Pilates workout with our horse.
To start with it is easier to teach our horse from the ground as this way your weight doesn’t influence your horse. Equally it is easier to see exactly where your horse is placing his feet and what is happening in his body. By working on the horse’s body alignment, positioning of feet and asymmetry we can improve his balance, and reduce posture-related pain. You can do this work on-line or in-hand.
You can train the horse’s body awareness through certain exercises by asking him to perform slow and large movements. Slow movements allow the horse to think while he is doing them, so he is aware of what he is doing rather than just letting his legs move mindlessly. All new movements are unfamiliar and strange to the horse at first. He therefore needs time to understand what it is you want him to do and how to do the movement without falling down or tripping over. You may well have to stop and give him a chance to process the last step or two before asking him to move on to next one. Remember too, the importance of positive reward, reward the slightest try lavishly and your horse will try harder and harder.
Large motor skill type movements are easier for both humans and horses. It therefore makes sense to start with large, slow movements and only get faster (and smaller) gradually.
I like using 90 degree turns on the forehand and on the haunches in both directions as well as a few steps of full pass in each direction to start getting the horse to think about his feet and weight distribution. We have no right to expect our horse to be able to move his hips or his shoulders one hoof breadth to the left or to the right in the trot and canter under saddle in order to become straighter if he isn’t able to do a turn on the forehand or a turn on the haunches without the weight of a rider!.
Before we start to do any of these movements , or I ask you to read any further, I think I should explain a little more about what is meant by the terminology “ sidestepping against the direction of travel” or “in the direction of travel” and why these movements are so beneficial to the horse.
When a horse side steps against the direction of travel, the horse is slightly turned away from the direction of movement (as in shoulder-in) and the movement helps bring the inside hind leg forward and underneath the horse. In a side step in the direction of travel the horse bends toward the line of movement (as in half-pass) and the movement helps flex the inside hind leg so it carries more weight. It is important to note here that the term ‘inside’ refers to the inward curved side of the horse and not the arena. By teaching the horse to first of all step forward and under and then flex his hind legs we teach out horse how to shift his weight from his front legs toward the hind legs, which in turn will enable the horse to use his back more effectively under the saddle and find better balance.
In the turn on the forehand the hind legs move on a circle around the front legs. This draws the horse’s attention to his hind legs as to perform the movement the inside hind leg needs to cross in front of the outside one. In order for this to happen the outside leg needs to flex at the joints and take weight. The turn on the forehand in motion also mobilizes the hips as it supples the adductor and abductor muscles of the hind legs, and the oblique abdominal muscles. It is important that your horse ’thinks’ forwards as a common mistake is that the horse will try to evade the weight on his outside back leg by moving backwards. This movement is normally performed with the bend against the direction of travel.
In the turn on the haunches the front legs move in a circle around the hind legs. This draws the horse’s attention to his front legs. For the exercise to work well the inside hind leg needs to accept the weight and flex in its joints and the horse bends in the direction of travel. To do the exercise correctly (in the Classical or English manner) the inside leg should maintain the movement of the gait and the horse should not pivot on the inside hind as in Western Riding and many of the Natural Horsemanship programmes as this looses the biomechanical advantages of the exercise. To help prevent this it is beneficial to start with a Turn on the Haunches in Motion (Passade). The turn on the haunches mobilizes the shoulders of the horse as it supples the pectoral and shoulder muscles.
In the full pass the front and hind legs should move sideways simultaneously in equally large strides. So, the horse has to focus on both ends of his body at the same time and coordinate them with each other. You can bend your horse in the direction of travel or against it, although many horses find movements against the direction of travel easier to start with. The exercise only works properly gymnastically if the hind leg that’s located in the direction of travel accepts the weight and flexes its joints, so that the other hind leg is able to cross in front of it. The full pass also supples the hip and shoulder muscles. Common faults include over bending at the base of the neck and falling out over the outside shoulder, drifting out with the haunches or generally losing the line of travel.
The 90 degree turns in both directions require the horse to yield to the aids on one side of his body without ignoring and running over the aids on the other side. Instead, it should be possible for those aids to stop the horse and send him back in the opposite direction. This requires the horse to transfer weight from one side of his body to the other, which many horses find difficult at first. The same thing applies to the full pass, if you ask your horse to move 3-4 steps to the right and then the same to the left.
These three elementary movements form the seeds of all the lateral movements. You can combine these three elementary movements in any way you can think of, which creates many interesting exercises that improve the horse’s balance, coordination, and body awareness. And once you can perform these movements easily on the ground, you can try them mounted.