Start your ride with this exercise to work your horse’s key postural muscles correctly.
Set your horse up for a successful workout at the beginning of a ride by activating his deep postural muscles, the small tissues with a rich supply of nerves that store what we call “muscle memory.” These structures stabilize his spine, joints and body alignment, allowing his legs to move him freely forward.
Much like with humans, the core muscles are not automatically triggered just by moving around. They need to be specifically recruited by targeted exercises. A progressive warm-up period that asks the horse to organize his body without tension or speed does a remarkable job and will allow you to establish and reinforce positive patterns that soon become habits during each session.
I call this exercise “controlled wandering” because you ride it just like it sounds: during your initial five minutes of riding, allow the horse to meander in the walk on long reins while riding him through all kinds of patterns and turns.
Try not to ride the routines you normally practice during your regular schooling, like circles and diagonal lines. Instead, it’s more effective to ride turns and wavy lines that feel unpredictable to the horse.
Your figures do not need to be specific or perfect. Remember: this all should feel like wandering, but with slightly more direction or purpose. Let the horse’s neck stretch completely down and out, steering him around with your seat and weight.
If you have access to ground poles lying around your arena, ride over them in any random order. Play around with riding different sized angles of turns—big, wide ones followed by tighter, sharper ones, or square 90-degree turns followed by a smooth, curvy serpentine.
Why It Works
This simple exercise works for two main reasons. First, keeping the horse in a fully relaxed state during these maneuvers works the horse’s postural system without the “wrong” muscles getting in the way.
Secondly, riding gentle turns and loops requires the horse to fire up the stabilizing muscles in his core and pelvis. When these muscles are activated, they will continue to play their role well during faster, more active movement.
This kind of practice stays ahead of poor habits. It promotes a more effective and purposeful—but not stressful or hurried—warmup for the horse. After several moments of controlled wandering, begin the more active phase of your warmup, trotting and cantering to increase temperature and fire up locomotion muscles.
JEC ARISTOTLE BALLOU is the author of 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider and Equine Fitness. She resides in Santa Cruz, Calif. www.jecballou.com
This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!