Ex­er­cise as ther­apy

EQUUS - - Contents - By Jec Aris­to­tle Bal­lou

The au­thor of 55 Cor­rec­tive Ex­er­cises for Horses shows how you can im­prove your horse’s pos­ture and move­ment through tar­geted cross-train­ing work­outs.

Skilled riding is of­ten all it takes to im­prove a horse’s ath­leti­cism, per­for­mance and over­all well-be­ing. But just as of­ten, even good dres­sage­based train­ing pro­grams fail to fully root out the habits and pat­terns that pre­vent many horses from reach­ing op­ti­mal move­ment and cor­rect­ness of their gaits. Any­thing from a poorly fit­ting sad­dle to in­con­sis­tent ex­er­cise sched­ules to an in­jury or stress, or past pos­tural im­bal­ances can cre­ate com­pro­mises. These quickly be­come deeper im­ped­i­ments to a horse’s move­ment me­chan­ics that per­sist even with good, reg­u­lar riding sched­ules.

The body’s way of tak­ing care of it­self dur­ing phys­i­cal im­bal­ances is to put up de­fenses. These de­fenses take the form of mus­cu­lar spasms, ad­he­sions, tight­ened mus­cles, re­stricted joint mo­tions and sig­nals to and from the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem to move dif­fer­ently.

The au­thor of 55 Cor­rec­tive Ex­er­cises for Horses shows how you can im­prove your horse’s pos­ture and move­ment through tar­geted cross-train­ing work­outs.

Cur­ing these de­fenses is not as sim­ple as giv­ing the horse a pe­riod of rest, though that can seem like a sen­si­ble so­lu­tion. Ad­he­sions and spasms, for in­stance, do not go away on their own af­ter ag­gra­vat­ing sources have been elim­i­nated. Clear­ing them out re­quires out­side ma­nip­u­la­tion as well as cor­rect sig­nals from the body. Putting a horse out in the field for a few months with the hope that ev­ery­thing will clear up rarely fixes the un­der­ly­ing prob­lems.

Ther­a­pies like chi­ro­prac­tic care and mas­sage are gen­er­ally suc­cess­ful in re­leas­ing ar­eas of im­mo­bil­ity so the horse is able to move op­ti­mally. They free up ar­eas of ten­sion and com­pro­mised mo­bil­ity that the body will not re­lease by it­self. How­ever, they only set the stage; they do not by them­selves cre­ate healthy move­ment. For that, the horse must be taken through ex­er­cises that ha­bit­u­ate cor­rect new pat­terns. Phys­i­cal mo­tions are gov­erned by an un­der­ly­ing wir­ing that will still store faulty sig­nals un­til these sig­nals are re­pro­grammed.

This is where cor­rec­tive ex­er­cises come in.


The real value of cor­rec­tive ex­er­cises far ex­ceeds cur­ing bal­ance and gait dys­func­tion. In­deed, their ne­ces­sity for sup­port­ing equine ath­letes at the top of their per­for­mance can­not be over­stated. With­out joint and pos­tural sta­bil­ity, for in­stance, an ath­lete can­not de­velop strength and power cor­rectly.

Dur­ing reg­u­lar riding and train­ing, nu­mer­ous fac­tors make it dif­fi­cult to tar­get ar­eas of the body that store the mech­a­nisms for sta­bil­ity and sym­me­try the way cor­rec­tive ex­er­cises do. These ma­neu­vers ac­cess mus­cle fibers re­spon­si­ble for fine-tuned, well-co­or­di­nated move­ments while ed­u­cat­ing and strength­en­ing the neu­ro­mus­cu­lar sys­tem be­yond the adap­ta­tions gained from gym­nas­tic work. For this rea­son, ther­a­pists some­times re­fer to them as Pi­lates or yoga for horses. This is an ac­cu­rate way to view them.

If you reg­u­larly train good pat­terns in the horse’s body map, he can keep per­form­ing with ease for a long, sound life. This sim­ple prac­tice also al­lows you to con­sider al­ter­na­tives to joint in­jec­tions, buck­ets of sup­ple­ments, end­less chi­ro­prac­tic ap­point­ments, ca­reer-end­ing phys­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions and a sur­pris­ing num­ber of be­hav­ioral prob­lems.


A body-wide cloth of fi­brous col­la­gen called fas­cia en­velops mus­cles, nerves, veins and or­gans in­di­vid­u­ally, and it also con­nects them all to­gether to form a net­work. This gauze-like web of tis­sue de­ter­mines, in large mea­sure, how a body is able to move. When this tis­sue be­comes dis­or­ga­nized, strained or dehydrated, its abil­ity to glide across sur­round­ing tis­sues is im­paired. Even­tu­ally, this leads to a di­min­ished range of mo­tion in mus­cles and joints. The fas­cia adapts to this re­stricted pat­tern and spreads it through­out the horse’s en­tire sys­tem. Thus be­gins a cycle of restrictio­n beget­ting more restrictio­n.

Com­mon rea­sons for fas­cia tis­sue los­ing its glide or pli­a­bil­ity in­clude: lo­cal­ized strain, a poorly fit­ting sad­dle, in­jury or in­flam­ma­tion, repet­i­tive move­ments, and emo­tional stress. Good mus­cle func­tion de­pends on pli­a­bil­ity of the fas­cia, not just for force ef­fort but also for sen­sory in­put. The sen­sory nerves that com­mu­ni­cate in­for­ma­tion back and forth be­tween mus­cles and the cen­tral ner­vous sys­tem reside in fas­cia. If and when the fas­cia is al­tered, these sig­nals about joint po­si­tion and mus­cle co­or­di­na­tion fal­ter.

A hy­drated and well-trained fas­cia net­work plays an enor­mous role in fit­ness. Its sig­nif­i­cance re­minds us to not think about train­ing mus­cles in­di­vid­u­ally, be­cause in re­al­ity that is not pos­si­ble. Through fas­cia, the horse’s sys­tem is in­ter­con­nected. It is anal­o­gous to a T-shirt hang­ing from a branch. If one part of the T-shirt snags, it will pull on and dis­turb the align­ment of threads far­ther away from the ac­tual snag. The phys­i­cal shape of the T-shirt will change and con­tinue to lose form over time.

Ex­er­cises that fo­cus too repet­i­tively on the same range or plane of mo­tion

If you reg­u­larly train good pat­terns in the horse’s body map, he can keep per­form­ing with ease for a long, sound life.

can cause the fas­cia to be­come ex­ces­sively sticky and thick, lim­it­ing tis­sue glide. On the other hand, ex­er­cises that stim­u­late pro­pri­o­cep­tive adap­ta­tions like ground poles, var­ied sur­faces and alternatin­g forces of ef­fort help im­prove fas­cia (see “What Is Pro­pri­o­cep­tion?” page 70). This trans­lates to bal­ance and sta­bil­ity in the body. Ther­a­pists call this op­ti­mum state a sys­tem-wide en­gage­ment of the ner­vous and mus­cu­lar sys­tems.


School­ing horses over ground poles, whether in hand or from the sad­dle, can cure nu­mer­ous gait ir­reg­u­lar­i­ties or move­ment com­pro­mised by ten­sion, crooked­ness and weak mus­cle pat­terns. Be­cause they re­quire the horse to take des­ig­nated stride lengths in se­quence, they in­stall good, clear rhythms in all gaits. As the horse moves over poles, he learns to push equally from both hind legs, cor­rect­ing im­bal­ances in the ef­fort of his hind limbs. Pole work con­trib­utes to straight­ness and sym­me­try through his core and mo­bi­lizes the spinal joints.

The pos­tural ad­just­ments needed for cross­ing poles re­cruits the horse’s in­ter­con­nected ab­dom­i­nal mus­cle group, tho­racic sling and gluteal chain. School­ing dif­fer­ent ar­range­ments of poles helps re-pat­tern ex­ist­ing habits within each gait, and leads to the creation of new sig­nals from the ner­vous sys­tem. 6s V \ZnZrVl rulZ! walk­ing over

raised poles im­proves core sta­bil­ity, joint flex­ion and in­ter­ver­te­bral joint spac­ing. It as­sists horses re­cov­er­ing from sacroil­iac pain, back in­jury or dis­rupted mus­cle use from stiff­ness.

Walk­ing over poles con­trib­utes to the horse’s loose­ness and range of mo­tion.

Trot­ting over poles plays more of a strength­en­ing role. It de­vel­ops strength in the larger back mus­cles that af­fect limb move­ment plus utiliza­tion of quadri­ceps, pelvic sta­bil­ity and stronger spinal sta­bi­liz­ing mus­cles. As these mus­cles are re­cruited, it can lead to a re­lease of stored ten­sion from the ex­ten­sor mus­cle chain, which is a com­mon cul­prit of horses that tend to be chron­i­cally hol­low in their toplines.

Can­ter­ing over poles tones the tho­racic sling, loosens the shoulders as the body rocks be­tween fore­hand and hindquar­ters, and lifts the back. It can greatly im­prove flex­ion and ex­ten­sion of the back, which al­lows it to lift and carry the rider bet­ter. It is be­lieved to

de­liver the most mo­bi­liza­tion of the lum­bosacral joint, which en­ables the horse to en­gage his hind limbs.

Set­ting up ground poles can seem like an ar­du­ous task, which leads many rid­ers to avoid it. But with some cre­ativ­ity, you can make it much eas­ier. First of all, to pro­mote your own con­sis­tency us­ing poles, I rec­om­mend buy­ing six to eight poles that are easy to move around and set up. This way you are far more likely to use them. If you try in­stead to use heavy or ex­ces­sively long poles, you are far less likely to use them reg­u­larly. Un­less you jump on a reg­u­lar ba­sis, I sug­gest us­ing some­thing else be­sides jump poles. You do not need any­thing fancy, but just some­thing that is easy enough to use that you will do so con­sis­tently.

One of my fa­vorite op­tions is to use four-inch by four-inch red­wood or cedar posts that are flat on one side---eas­ily found in the land­scape sec­tion of your lo­cal hard­ware store. I like them be­cause they are sturdy but light­weight. They lie flat with­out rolling around and are easy to set up. In my trav­els, I have seen rid­ers us­ing other types of light­weight poles or cre­ative vari­a­tions. To sum­ma­rize: Do not forgo ground pole work be­cause you think you might not have the ideal sup­plies. Look around and use what you have handy.

About the au­thor: Jec Aris­to­tle Bal­lou has spent her life study­ing clas­si­cal dres­sage. She has trained and com­peted through the FEI lev­els in dres­sage but has also com­peted in long-dis­tance trail riding, ride & tie, breed shows and al­most ev­ery­thing in be­tween. A pro­po­nent of the in­ter­dis­ci­pli­nary study, she serves as an ad­viser to the Western Dres­sage As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica. In ad­di­tion to her most re­cent book, Bal­lou is the au­thor of 101 Dres­sage Ex­er­cises for Horse and Rider and Equine Fit­ness.

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