Conditioning Horses: Stability Before Strength
For most horses, it is in the area of strength that they can — and need to — make the most gains. Evolution has given horses remarkable aerobic adaptations. Generally speaking, they make rapid gains from cardiovascular exercise and their bodies handle aerobic demands efficiently. Their musculoskeletal system, however, lacks the same adaptability. Most often when a horse cannot perform a particular task, it is due to insufficient muscular strength, coordination, or motor/sensory nerve recruitment.
So, does this mean you should spend a lot of time trying to increase your horse’s strength? Yes, but with a caveat: You cannot build strength until you have stability in the system. If the nerve signals and joints and postural muscles are deficient in their effort, there is no point trying to build up the locomotion muscles for stronger outputs. The reason for this is because any strength you add to those muscles will be compromised unless they have full cooperation from the other systems. Most frequently it will be tense or asymmetrical from trying to stabilize and propel a body that is wobbly and disorganized underneath.
We must always prioritize stability ahead of strength. A stable body is one that can become stronger. The core is supported and aligned, while the limbs and locomotion muscles can deliver their full power. The horse’s body can organize itself, make adjustments to balance, move without tension, and relax the back. In this state, the horse is able to gain the necessary strength in his locomotion muscles.
There are a few ways to address and improve your horse’s stability. It does not need to be a complicated task; it just needs to be consistent. I find the easiest way to do it is to add three to five calisthenics exercises to your session each day. Calisthenics are routines that target fine motor control, placing the horse’s body in various alignments during a state of relaxation in order to create fuller range of motion, new proprioceptive changes, and recruitment of postural muscles. You can find ideas for routines in my book 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses.
In just five minutes a day, you can work through three to five calisthenics either at the beginning or end of your session. This five minute session is as important as the gait transitions, trot extensions, and other gymnastic routines during your actual workout.
Alternatively, you can designate a particular day or two each week to only performing calisthenics exercises. By choosing five to ten exercises, you can put your horse through a 30-minute postural workout. If you wish to lengthen the session, you can add several minutes of brisk walking, either in-hand or under saddle, to both ends of your session.
Again, whether you choose to make it a daily staple or a twice-per-week regime, all that matters is that you remain consistent with your efforts to increase your horse’s stability. Without stability you cannot have strength. And without strength neither the horse nor you will fully enjoy your rides.