We all know the feeling. You’re finally in a consistent training program, both you and your horse are making progress and then… your horse comes up lame. We’ve all been there and know the immense frustration and confusion that comes with it.
So, what can you do to prevent this from happening? First, accept that not every injury is within your control, but you can ride in a way that promotes soundness. It’s all about understanding how we made our horses stronger and more impervious to injury.
We sat down with sports medicine veterinarian, Dr. Jill Copenhagen, as she filmed her Equestrian Masterclass segment to find out three of the top ways for riding for soundness.
Walking Is The Most Underrated Soundness Exercise
A lot of times when we think of getting our horses fit, we think of extensive flat sessions, lunging, or jumping and pole work. While challenging your horse is crucial to any equine athlete’s success, it is also important to remember that in order to achieve maximum fitness for your horse, intense training is not your only option. Walking (with energy and purpose) is so important when conditioning your horse because it promotes muscle build and cardiovascular fitness. This is optimal for your horse’s physical and mental health (because who cares if your horse is sound if he’s a nervous wreck all the time or burned out from his job?).
“Mentally for our horses, it's nice for them to have a bit of a break. To be able to go for a trail ride or have a change of scenery, not only is this good for them mentally, but also physically,” explains Dr. Jill.
A 40-minute walk on varying surfaces (sand, grass, etc.) a few times a week can drastically improve your horse’s overall fitness level, soundness and mental well-being. Consistently training on a perfectly manicured surface can make it hard for your horse to adapt when faced with varied footing. Anytime their bodies are challenged by uneven footing, their soft tissue structures (like their suspensory ligaments, for example) will undergo different strains. Combined with additional stress at competition, this can be a recipe for injury. It’s important to slowly introduce varied footing at home.
Crosstraining Is For Athletes
Like human athletes, cross training is key when striving for peak performance. Marathon runners don’t just run - many of them lift weights and do yoga as well. The same can apply to your horse.
Examples of cross-training you can work into your schedule:
- raised cavaletti
- low gymnastic jumping work (even for dressage horses in some cases!)
- flatwork on hills/incline
- trail rides
- lateral work outside of the ring
- short bursts of gallop work
Your Horse’s Core Needs Strength, Too.
Focusing on exercises that improve core strength in your horse is key. This is something we talk about frequently for ourselves, but we forget that the principle is similar for horses. When a horse has a stronger core, there is less tension and less stress on the lower libs, decreasing the chance of injury.
Think of it this way: don’t you think the horse who constantly canters with his head up and a hollow back, core disengaged, is harder on himself than the horse that works in a round shape with a lifted core and back?
A really effective core-strengthener is the long and low, stretchy trot. This simple exercise encourages them to raise and stretch their back and open up their low back/sacroiliac region. This exercise is great for horses with back pain or kissing spine, however, it is not optimal for horses with forehand lameness.
The next exercise is backing up. Having your horse practice backing up is great for building strength and stability of the core, forcing them to push their body backwards while coordinating their feet in diagonal pairs in rhythm. This exercise can be very challenging for some, but it’s important to keep at it to ensure maximum success for your horse. Want a challenge? Try it while going up a hill! You may want to do this from the ground first and do just a few steps at a time.
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