Whether you are a competitive rider or just do it for fun, this post is for you! All horse owners have one thing in common: they want their horse to be healthy. With this aim in mind, we need to consider exercise as an essential factor, just like the diet and hoof care. The quality and quantity of exercise you horse gets will impact its musculoskeletal system of course, but also all the other systems in its body (digestive, cardiovascular, endocrine, etc.). That includes hoof health as well. Finally, exercise has a great impact on your horse's mental health. Let's keep in mind that in their natural state, horse travel up to 25 miles a day: they are designed for movement!
Below are a few suggestions to help you keep things interesting for you and your horse while improving their physical and mental health. They work for all levels of riding and can be adapted to your horse's fitness level and abilities.
No need to be a jumper! Cavaletti can be done at walk, trot or canter. They are fun for both horse and rider. For the rider, the focus will be on maintaining their balance as well as the horse's rhythm and straightness; the horse will do the rest of the work. Cavaletti improve suppleness, engagement, core strength and self-carriage. Gymnastics lines have the same benefits, with an increased focus on strength.
Horsephysio is an excellent source of exercises, with patterns and videos. Reiner Klimke's book ''Cavaletti'' is also a great resource. Remember to check the distance between the poles, and if it feels too hard/too easy for your horse, adjust them. It can be a good idea to have someone on the ground to help with that.
It's a great alternative when you don't have the time or the energy to ride. It is very efficient in early detection of unsoundness as well as prevention of injuries when it is used prior to riding. In this situation, it allows the horse to warm its muscles up without the weight of a rider. It also gets the cardiovascular system going while avoiding the tensions that could arise from the weight of a rider.
Horses can be lunged on the flat (with or without training aids), over poles, cavaletti and small fences, and outside on sloping ground (no training aids in that case as the horse will need its neck for balance). These situations are particularly good for younger horses or horses getting back to work as they will strengthen muscles and improve endurance without the extra load of a rider.
I prefer long-lining to lungeing. One of the reasons is that thanks to the two reins, we have both lateral and longitudinal control. This enables us to work on the same exercises as ridder, with one added advantage: we can focus entirely on the horse (not on our seat or position). Learning how to long-line a horse is also more intuitive. ''Long-reining: the Saumur Method'' by Philip Karl is an excellent resource.
Tip: if your horse performs an exercise perfectly on the long lines but poorly under saddle, there might be an issue with your saddle or your riding. As a result, it is a great way to trouble shoot and address rider issues.
Long-lining allows us to see the horse from a variety of angles while performing a wide range of exercises. This enables us to detect and address any irregularity or asymmetry. It is ideal to introduce more difficult exercises, such as lateral work and collection, as the horse doesn't have to handle the weight of the rider.
You will notice that horses are often more relaxed and better engaged on the long-lines than they are under saddle - don't take it personally, it's the beauty of it!
Trail rides and conditioning in the fields are extremely beneficial to the horse's mental well-being. They are also excellent for proprioception and ligament strengthening as the terrain can be uneven. Hills are fantastic to improve strength, balance and stamina.
Protect your horse's hooves if they are sensitive on rocky terrain. If you never take your horse outside of the arena and are afraid of its reaction, walk him on the trails (in hand) to start with. It will be reassuring if another horse (calm and used to the trails) is there with you. If everything goes well, the next time you can try doing the same thing in the saddle. Keep in mind that any of these exercises are only beneficial if they are a positive experience for the horse (in other words, stress-free).
Hosing your horse's legs with cold water after intense exercise helps them recuperate and prevents stiffness due to slight inflammation. If there is any heat or swelling after work, apply cold (hose with cold water or cold gel pack) for 10-15 minutes and monitor for a few days. If the issue gets worse, contact your veterinarian.
Horses recover better when they are allowed to walk after exercise. It is best if they get turned out after their ride (as opposed to the stall), and as much as possible during the day. This will help prevent stiffness and stocking up by allowing proper circulation.
Access to clean fresh water is essential to recuperation. In some cases, electrolytes might need to be supplemented, especially if your horse sweated a lot. 1 tbsp of sea salt is a good start, but it is best to consult professionals for advice regarding your specific situation.
Stretch your horse after work as shown to you by your chiropractor, osteopath or massage therapist. I will not tell you how to stretch your horse here because each case is unique and it can do more harm than good, especially when it is done improperly.
Caution: stretching cold muscles (before work) does not improve the range of motion and increases the risk of injury.
There are also some specific exercises that can be done to improve fitness. ''Equine Fitness'' by J. A. Ballou is an excellent resource, with exercise routines and long-term plans.
PLEASE get proper help and training before you attempt anything new, and always put your safety first, as well as your horse's physical and mental well-being. They will not benefit from exercise if they are completely stressed out or very sore afterwards.
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