Leisure and competition horses alike are all athletes; they all have a job to do requiring a certain level of fitness.

 It is our responsibility as owners and riders to ensure our horses are fit enough for the level of work we expect them to carry out, focusing on the musculoskeletal system as well as the cardiovascular system.  As we start 2021 with restrictions in place, we can set our sights to spending more time in the saddle.  Leisure and competition horses alike are all athletes; they all have a job to do requiring a certain level of fitness. It is our responsibility as owners and riders to ensure our horses are fit enough for the level of work we expect them to carry out, focusing on the musculoskeletal system as well as the cardiovascular system.  

The core consists of the spinal muscles, the abdominal muscles and the pelvic floor muscles. Collectively, these three muscle groups work to support the horse’s back and keep it straight and strong - this is important as the muscles must be correctly developed and conditioned to enable the horse to comfortably carry the rider and achieve the level of performance expected. By having a strong core, the horse can control the joints and therefore prevent the risk of stress related injuries to tendons, ligaments and the joints themselves.

Factors like age and conformation can play a part in core stability. For instance, older horses may have less core stability than a younger horse due to the ligaments connecting the bones together stretching with age, making it more difficult for the muscles to contract.  For example, a veteran horse with weak, unconditioned core muscles could eventually develop a swayed back. A horse with certain conformational faults such as a long back will need extra care taken to ensure the core muscles are kept strong to overcome the downward gravitational pull on the gut. It is therefore vital to focus on core strength when working on a fitness regime, keeping the horse as comfortable as possible, for as long as possible.

When engaged correctly, the horse uses core strength to transfer the weight into the hind quarters, driving the energy forwards from behind and lifting and lightening the forehand allowing for a softer feel into the contact and the rider’s hands.  

As well as regular sports/deep tissue massage and chiropractic therapies keeping the horse’s musculoskeletal system and biomechanics working how they should, pole work is a  fantastic way to help activate the core muscles, fitten the horse and flex the joints.  

Regular pole work improves rhythm, balance and suppleness and assists with the lengthening of the stride. 

Before commencing pole work, the horse must be fully warmed up to prevent any injury from occurring. This type of work is strenuous to unfit horses and ponies, so if you’re bringing them back in to work after a break, please start by only walking over the poles and gradually build up to trot before finally introducing canter poles over several weeks.  Each exercise must be carried out equally on both reins, to ensure an even buildup of muscles.
There are many exercises available using a various quantity of poles. Probably the most common set up would be to place three or more poles parallel to each other either on the floor or raised a few centimeters, spaced at approximate distances of 90cm for walk, 1.25m for trot and 3m for canter, although these measurements may need altering depending on the individual horse’s length of stride.  
By varying the exercises and using different layouts, we can provide mental stimulation for the horse, keeping them interested in their work and eager to perform well.

Scatter Poles

Tripod

Zig Zag Poles

 

Demo Rider is Lucy Richards and featured horses are eventers, Wicklow Into Orbit (chestnut) and KEC Joel (bay)

Article Written by
Catherine Stewart cert. ESMT (IAAT, IAAMB)
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