As I have mentioned so frequently, neither humans nor horses are symmetrical. We are born left or right handed (hoofed) and become progressively more asymmetrical as we grow older. This isn’t a major problem if the horse is never going to be ridden but in order to carry a rider without undue strain, the horse needs to develop a strong back, be equally strong and supple on both sides and learn to carry more of his weight on his hind legs. Therefore the horse needs to be taught how to improve both its balance and straightness – its biomechanics. For most of us this is best done by working with our horse without the hindrance of a rider, initially with groundwork, then on the lunge and finally in-hand.
Each of these three segments consists of a series of gymnastic exercises for the horse in which it learns to stretch, contract and relax its muscles. The exercises will also help develop the horse’s balance and distribute the weight, initially equally over all four legs, and eventually more onto the hind legs. By working with the horse’s biomechanics (think Pilates for horses) we can help our horse stay fitter for longer. Just as we need to correctly work our bodies to remain fit and agile as we grow older, so do our horses.
The horse’s natural asymmetry can be divided into 5 key areas:
Lateral asymmetry: – All horses bend more easily to one side than the other. This means that on one side the muscles are more stretched and on the other (contracted) the muscles shorter.
Front & Back: – Horses naturally carry some 60% of their weight on their forehand. This isn’t a problem when they aren’t carrying a heavy load on their back and indeed is an absolutely perfect arrangement if you are just going to spend your life with your head on the ground.
Another area in which the front and back of the horse is asymmetrical is in width. Horses’ heads and shoulders are much narrower than their bottoms. So when a horse walks along an arena rail it will walk with the shoulders crooked in front of the hips, unless we ‘straighten’ our horse with shoulders fore.
Front Legs: – Just like us, your horse will be right or left hoofed. This will be the leg that your horse prefers to weight.
Hind Legs: – One hind leg is normally more ‘pushy’, the other will ‘carry’ better. The carrying hind leg will be more flexible and bend easier. This is the leg that can step under the point of weight. The hoof of the pushing hind leg is frequently turned out a little. The leg is often straighter and will step outside the horse’s point of weight.
Diagonal Imbalance: – When we link a right hoofed front leg with a pushing left hind (or visa versa) we get diagonal imbalance. Unless this is corrected we will have a horse that falls out on a circle to the left and in on a circle to the right (or visa versa).
Following a programme of groundwork exercises can help solve a lot of the horse’s natural asymmetries and can be easily added to your normal schedule. Obviously correcting years of crookedness takes time, but adding 5 to 10 minutes of equestrian Pilates to your daily programme will over a period of time make a huge difference. Apart from anything else it is fun, and if you reward your horse frequently and praise the slightest try your horse will have fun too.
Before you can start however you do need some basic equipment, a cavesson, a short lunge line and a schooling whip.
The Cavesson – the exercises cannot be done with either a standard head collar or a Parelli-style halter. This is basically because we use the centre ring to help achieve the right bend, although this might sound pernickety, this is of major importance. We need the horse to rotate his head at the ‘poll’ and have the jaw go under the atlas wings so we can achieve flexion throughout the horse’s entire spine. If we use a standard head collar or rope halter we rotate the head from the underside of the chin and not from the nose. It is worth trying this yourself so you can truly understand the difference. Gently take hold of your nose between the forefinger and thumb of your right hand and softly pull your head to the right. You will feel your whole head and neck make the turn. Now take hold of your chin between your fingers and thumb and gently pull your chin to the right. You will find your chin goes to the right but the top of your head will tilt in the opposite direction!
The cavesson has a long tradition in Europe. Riding masters such as Pluvinel and Francois Robichon de la Gueriniere used it in the daily work, and in southern Europe the cavesson is still used regularly. The thickly padded German lunging cavesson is very soft on the horse’s nose but the padding can mute the instructions. The French-style leather lunging cavesson with a jointed metal inlay in the noseband and 3 rings is ideal for this type of work. Cheap lunging cavessons made out of synthetic material are not to be recommended; they slip on the nose and mute the signals.
In addition to the cavesson you will also need a leading line (between 9 and 12 foot long). This can either be a leather rein (with clips) or a canvas lunge line cut to length. Finally you will need a schooling whip. Ideally you will want several of different lengths, but a 4 ft stick is ideal to start. These don’t have to be expensive, aficionados such as Manolo Mandez and Bent Branderup use bamboo or birch respectively. As far as the whip is concerned the most important thing to consider is that it should be viewed as an arm extension and not as a devise to meter out punishment.
Just as the basic for riding is the concept of yielding to pressure so too is the concept in groundwork. We start off teaching our horse to yield from pressure with the basic exercises: Forward Down at a halt and Lateral Bending at a halt. Both these exercises do more than just teach the horse to yield to pressure, done correctly we can use these exercises to check for tension (either mentally or physically), relax the back and lateral muscles and to keep track of any changes in the horse’s body.
Obviously forward movement originates from the horse’s hind legs, travelling through the body to the neck and head. Whilst in an ideal world it would be preferable to begin with the back end, for us humans, it is much easier to teach the front end!
FORWARD DOWN AT A HALT: – To start with we need to ask the horse to drop its head. Lowering the head is not just a physical movement for the horse it is also a mental commitment too. Nervous and frightened horses won’t lower their heads. So before we can get forward down, we need our horse to be relaxed in body and mind and to trust us. As Bent Branderup (Art of Academic Riding) said “you can be the horse’s friend without being its teacher, but you can never be its teacher without being its friend.”
Stand in front of your horse and check that the front legs are straight (vertical under the shoulders). Hold the lunge line near the cavesson with one hand and the rest of the lunge line (neatly folded) in the other.
Close your hand around the lunge line (which is clipped to the middle ring) and gently apply a little pressure downwards. The moment the horse yields – release and reward.
If the horse really struggles to lower its head, you can initially use a treat to encourage the lowering of the head.
The horse should wait with a lowered head until you end the exercise.
NEVER put a finger through a ring of the cavesson. Do not put your face to close to the horse.
If your horse resists the pressure and lifts its head rather than lowering it, you may have applied too much pressure or applied it too quickly.
You need to lower the head until the muscles of the lower neck are relaxed,
Remember to encourage and reward. Ignore unwanted behaviour.
LATERAL BENDING AT A HALT (Stelling & Bending)
Stelling is the placement of the lower jaw in relation to the Atlas wings, only when this has taken place can the spine truly create the bend from the first neck vertebra (atlas) to the hip. With the horse’s head in forward down position, you will be able to see the protuberances created by the Atlas wings. You need to look to see that the horse’s lower jaw has the freedom to move in front of them without crushing the parotid artery. With the correct rotation of the skull you can see the flab (on a fat horse) just below the mane flip to the inside. With the correct stelling the movement will travel through the horse’s spine and cause the inside hip to move forward.
Face the horse as above. Ask the horse for Forward Down then ask the horse for stelling to the left by taking your hand to the left gently. Ensure your hand is close to the cavesson’s central ring and closes and asks slowly. You need to lead gently from the centre of the nose.
Reward the slightest try.
If you just pull the horse will brace, causing blockages and tension – you may even see the outside hip move forward.
When you have done this to the left, repeat the exercise to the right.
Do not force the horse into stelling. Tension, poor muscle tone and natural asymmetry can make this a difficult exercise for the horse to do. Try to ensure the base of the neck stays in the middle of the chest between the two front legs. The weight needs to remain equally distributed between the two front legs.