No matter what type of riding you do, you may at times feel your horse could benefit from developing more strength in one area of his body. This could be because his training has emphasized certain movements more than others, because the horse has had an injury that weakened one part of his body, or because you are planning to compete at a higher level or in a different sport. Dr. Renaud Léguillette, Calgary chair of Sports Equine Medicine from the University of Calgary, pointed out that the evidence base for most of these exercises is limited. “We have exercises that people use, but not much research,” he explained. “In practice, I do recommend them, but I don’t have research on the outcomes.”
That said, here are some exercises he suggests that focus on different parts of the body.
FRONT END EXERCISES
An excellent way to strengthen your horse’s front end is to ride downhill. If your horse is recovering from an injury or is otherwise not very strong, begin with a gradual downhill slope with firm footing. When you are confident that he can handle that comfortably, move to a steeper slope.
For more advanced strengthening, Dr. Léguillette suggested that a steeper slope with a sandy surface provides more challenge because it requires more effort for your horse. If you don’t live in an area with natural sand dunes, you may be able to spread a thick layer of sand on a downhill path on your property.
Live in a flat area with no hills to ride? Look for drainage ditches by the side of a quiet road, or consider building your own ramps or mounds of sand on your property. Building your own also allows you to adjust the slope as your horse’s strength improves.
Be aware of your own position and balance as you ride downhill. Your upper body should form a straight line with the horse’s front legs, so the steeper the angle of the hill, the more you need to lean back. It’s important to stay centred and balanced to support the horse in maintaining his own balance, and to keep the reins loose enough that the horse can adjust his balance by moving his head and neck as needed.
Stretching Moves of the Head and Neck
Here’s one with good research behind it: Dr. Léguillette said this 2011 study done by N.C. Stubbs, L.J. Kaiser, J. Hauptman and H.M. Clayton demonstrated the value of exercising specific areas while unmounted. All you need is a carrot or other treat to capture your steed’s interest.
The horses in this study were eight Arabians used for novice level riding lessons. During the three months of the study, the horses were not exercised other than daily turnout in a small dry lot. The horses were trained to follow a piece of carrot with their noses, and using this technique each horse performed a series of exercises. They did seven movements, each repeated 10 times, and then the whole series was repeated five times. These movement patterns were conducted five days a week over the three months.
Ultrasounds were done at the beginning of the study and repeated throughout. For all eight horses, an increase in the size of certain muscles (multifidus muscles, important in stabilizing the spine) was seen in the ultrasound. This showed that these unmounted exercises could effectively increase the muscle development in a targeted area.
To do these exercises, you may want to work with another person who can help hold the horse. Your goal is to have your horse keep his feet still while he stretches and moves his neck and head. At first, he may simply grab for the carrot or may move his whole body in order to reach it. If you have a partner helping you, he or she can help by blocking the horse’s movement as you attempt to have him follow the piece of carrot with his nose. Keep some small treats in your pocket so you can reward the horse when he responds correctly by following the carrot without moving his feet.
If your horse is recovering from an injury, you will want to start with gentle movements, then gradually extend how far you ask the horse to move. You may also want to start with fewer repetitions.
The seven movements used in the study were:
1. The horse moves his head so that his muzzle touches his chest, between his front legs.
2. The horse moves his head so that his muzzle is between his front legs at the level of his knees.
3. The horse moves his head between his front legs so that his muzzle is several inches behind his legs.
4. The horse stretches his head and neck straight forward, as far as possible.
5. The horse moves his head to one side so that his muzzle is near the top of his foreleg.
6. The horse moves his head to one side so his muzzle is near the spot where his hind leg meets his belly.
7. The horse moves his head to one side so his muzzle is near the hock of his hind leg.
HIND END EXERCISES
When a horse backs up, his hind legs are more under his body than normal and carry more of the weight of horse and rider, so this can be a very good strengthening exercise, said Dr. Léguillette.
For a horse that is recovering from an injury, you may want to start by doing this unmounted. Stand slightly to the side of the horse and ask him to back up, either by having him follow a target, pressing against his chest with your hand while applying pressure on the lead rope, or by tapping the horse’s chest with a crop.
Backing with a rider requires more strength. If your horse is reluctant to do more than a step or two, try alternating – back a few steps, go forward a few steps, then back again. Watch to see if he tends to swing in one direction or the other, which may indicate he has some pain or weakness on one side.
When he is backing well and comfortably, you could try backing through an L-shaped course defined by cavaletti or poles. Back through in one direction, then turn the horse around to back to the beginning again, which will work both sides. This will help not just with muscle development, but also with coordination.
Just as riding downhill helps to strengthen the front legs and chest muscles, so riding uphill can strengthen the horse’s hind end, said Dr. Léguillette. In order to go up a slope, at any speed, the horse must bring his hind legs further under his body and use them to push forwards and upwards, building strength in those muscles. “The back legs provide propulsion, so strengthening them is what most people focus on,” he added.
Again, your position as a rider is important in making this work. You want to be in a stable, but forward position. On steeper hills, you may need to be completely out of the saddle with all your weight in the stirrups so that you are aligned with the horse’s centre of gravity and not impeding the movement of his hind legs.
Some horses are inclined to do crow-hops or try to speed up when going uphill, which can be a problem if the horse is recovering from an injury. If this happens, some slow circles on level ground may calm him down and you can approach the hill again. Remember, though, that attempts to speed up or jump when going uphill can also be a sign that the horse is experiencing pain. You may want to try a less-steep hill and see if the horse is calmer and more comfortable.
Dr. Léguillette pointed out that the back and belly work together on a horse. Any exercise that strengthens one will also help the other. However, here are some that focus more on the belly as well as proprioception, which is about how the horse controls his own movements.
Set up a course of poles and low cavalletti, but make them random or irregular – some close together, some far apart, some flat on the ground and some raised (either cavalletti or using blocks or whatever you have to raise the pole above the ground). Dr. Léguillette recommended that the poles should all be lower than 18 inches for most horses, 24 inches if your horse is very tall.
The trickier the spacing, the more challenging this will be, so start with a course that has just a few challenging segments. Dr. Léguillette usually starts horses on a lunge line for this exercise, but it can be done mounted as well.
Riding or lunging your horse over this course will force him to pay close attention to adjusting and re-adjusting his stride and placing his feet correctly, creating a natural tension in his belly muscles as he does so.
Begin this exercise at a slow walk; as your horse gets stronger in later sessions you can increase the speed and do it at trot. Vary the course each time you do it so that it remains a mental and physical challenge.
Poles in a Circle
If your horse has mastered the irregular cavalletti, you may be able to boost his strength further by creating a circular course. Dr. Léguillette suggested one way to do this is to choose a spot to be the middle of your circle and set a box or barrel there. The box can then support one end of the poles and you can arrange the poles at varying distances from each other. You could also include some additional poles flat on the ground.
When you ride this course, your horse not only has to adjust his stride to the spacing between poles, but has to maintain the curve of the circle. Begin by riding the outer edge of the poles, then gradually move closer to the centre: as you move in, the poles become closer together and higher, making additional demands on your horse.
“This improves flexion of the back, awareness of where his legs and feet are, and strengthens the muscles as well,” said Dr. Léguillette.
A horse that is collected has his hind legs further under his body and his back more rounded; this requires the horse to engage the muscles in his back and strengthens them, explained Dr. Léguillette. Even if you normally compete in events that do not require collection, or don’t compete at all, riding your horse this way during training sessions can build muscle and Dr. Léguillette feels it is important for all horses and riders.
Dressage and eventing riders will be familiar with collection. If you don’t typically ask your horse to collect himself, you will want to start gradually. It’s often easiest to begin at a walk, but for some horses it is easier while trotting. Your goal is to use your legs to encourage the horse to move forward energetically while at the same time using your reins to contain that energy and motion. You should feel the horse’s back rounding under you and his hind legs stepping further under him, with more power than usual. Don’t ask for too much at first or expect him to continue moving while collected for too long if he is unfamiliar with being ridden this way.
Hoof Pick Pressure
Dr. Hillary Clayton, a professor in the McPhail Equine Performance Center, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, at Michigan State University and author of Activate Your Horse’s Core has a video on Youtube showing another back exercise using a rather surprising piece of equipment: a hoof pick. To try this with your horse, stand beside his hind leg, while someone else holds him or he stands quietly ground tied. Take the blunt end of the hoof pick and press it against the horse’s skin by the croup and move it toward the base of his tail. As you increase the pressure, the horse should round his back in response by tucking in his pelvis away from the pressure. Repeat on the other side.
Be careful as you do this, as some horses may kick out or walk forward, especially if you increase the pressure too quickly or if they are sore in their pelvis. Watch the video here.
The Rider’s Role
“Sometimes people get so focused on the horse doing the exercises that they are not paying attention to their own position and balance,” said Dr. Léguillette. “For these to be helpful, the horse needs to have the correct movement of his back, head and limbs. It won’t work if the rider’s position is not good, because the horse will be compensating for that or trying to avoid pain.”
And if your horse is recovering from an injury or needing help because of weakness in one area or another, Dr. Léguillette would encourage you to seek out professional help. “These exercises are not cure-alls and there may be problems with both horse and rider that a professional can identify and help solve.”
Every horse is unique, so as you work through these exercises with your horse you’ll want to adjust them to meet his needs. Start at a low enough level that he will be successful. If he’s had an injury, you may need to be alert for signs of pain and stress as you increase the difficulty or intensity of some of these exercises.