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Core and balance for your horse

Unfortunately, the current situation has made it impossible for some of us to ride our horses as often as we are used to, or some might not even be allowed to ride at all.

However, as every cloud has a silver lining, there are ways to use this time to improve!

Through a few little exercises you can improve your horse’s performance and even make him better resistant against injuries in the future.

In the usual busy-ness of our lives we often don’t make the time to do these extra little things, but adding these exercises to your routine could make a big difference in how your horse feels and performs.

Let’s get started!

Core exercises

Corestability and strength have become an indispensable part of training for the human athlete and in rehabilitation after injuries. It turns out they could be just as important for our equine athletes!

The m. multifidi plays an important role in stabilising the spine and decreasing the small movements in between vertebra. This might not mean much to you, but these small movements could cause pathologies like osteoarthritis along the line! The multifidi muscle plays an important part in a healthy moving spine. (Holms, 2006) On top of this, is a decreased size and inactivity of this muscle associated with backpain in humans, and there is some evidence that this could be translated to horses as well. After an incident like this, just moving again will not activate the muscle spontaneously, but it will just ask the surrounding muscles to take over, which will lead to overactivity and pain of these muscles.

BUT THERE IS GOOD NEWS! Just as humans do, horses react quite well to rehabilitation exercises targeting this muscle, which can aid in preventing the pain coming back! (de Oliviera, 2015)

Of course, the multifidi muscle is not the only one that makes up “the core”! The abdominals, gluteals and the muscles connecting the forelimb to the chest cannot be forgotten either. When we look at our horse, we see a rather long back, supported on each end by the fore- and hindlimbs. This makes the part in the middle, the thoracolumbar spine, susceptible to influence of gravity, pushing the spine down, in a hollow shape. To prevent this, the three muscle groups mentioned above have to work to counteract this force. If they don’t do that, the spine will extend, and the dorsal spinous processes will come closer together (not a good thing!). When a rider sits on his horse, it is right at this vulnerable point that we increase the weight pushing the spine down and into extension! To prevent this, we want to make our horse’s core as strong as possible. Here I will explain a few exercises you can do to train these muscles without having to ride. There are more exercises that you can do, so if you can’t get enough, don’t hesitate to contact me.

If you want to do ridden exercises, pole work is a good idea!

Carrot stretches or baited stretches

For these exercises you will need some kind of treat, preferably a carrot or a larger treat, or a licking stone might help as well. Try and do 5 repetitions of this exercise, as often as you can during the week. The goal is to get up to 15 seconds of holding 1 position, but try and build this up for your horse, starting at 5, going on to 10,… .

A) Flexion: take your carrot and bring it towards the chest of your horse, asking him to follow it, and hold. Aim between the chest and the knees of your horse.

B) Low flexion: now bring your carrot lower, between the knees and the fetlocks, and hold.

C) To the girth: do the same as above but sideways. For this movement, it is important to do it slowly, making sure he does not rotate his head. He should keep his ears straight above his mouth. Do this to the left and to the right.

D) To the hind fetlock: now ask your horse for a big stretch towards his hindlegs. This will not only flex his neck but also his spine, asking extra activation of his entire body! Don’t worry if he doesn’t get that far, it is just the general direction we are aiming for. Rotation in his neck/poll is allowed for this one.

Balance and stability

In almost every sports discipline, balance and stability are a key component in training to improve performance and decrease injury risk. By optimising these mechanisms, we can generate more power without compensating in other regions of our body. So why shouldn’t we train this in our horses? With these exercises you can train this in your horse without having to ride him!

They are harder than they look, so start small and build up as your horse progresses. Try and do this 5-10 times each time you train, and make sure you do not use too much force! If your horse is getting good at this, you can do 2 or 3 rounds of these.

A) Lets start small! Make sure your horse is standing square and then gently push him sideways at his shoulder. Do the same at the front of his chest, pushing him back very gently. The goal is not to make him move (then you have used too much force!) but to make him work to keep his balance. Try and look at his muscles, can you see their contraction?

B) The second one is similar to the previous one, only now we hold his tail and use this to challenge is balance. Gently pull sideways and backwards by grabbing his tail at the base and exerting a bit of force. Just like before, do not use too much force, we don’t want him to move! Always be safe and do not do this exercise if it can endager your personal health and safety.

Are you ready for the next level…?

C) Start with your horse standing square again. Lift up one of his limbs (you will want to do all 4 so it doesn’t matter where you start), and if this goes well, give him a gentle sideways nudge like you did in exercise A. Be careful and do this softly, you want your horse to feel safe and not cause him to fall! Imagine standing on one leg yourself if someone gives you a push…

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