Help, my horse needs more exercise!

In winter, many horses seem to have excess energy. With the summer paddocks closed, they may also get less movement in their stalls or winter enclosures. When we then take them out to the arena, we may be faced with a level of energy that is difficult to handle. Other horses, on the other hand, have grown such a dense winter coat and have switched to energy conserving winter mode, that they don’t want to move an inch away from the hay pile.

In both cases, we may be facing a dilemma. We would like to give the horse some exercise but may not be able to handle them. One is too energetic to let him loose safely or handle him and the other just doesn’t accept the invitation.

Ideally, a change in the stable set up could solve the problem so the horses get enough turn out, both the foot mover and the energy conserver, but we all know that that’s not always possible. So what other options do we have?

A good solution is to work them in a restricted space (with good footing) and at low speed. This means stay at a walk, use circles and mats. For example, going from mat to mat around a circle of cones slows down the overly energetic horse without shutting him down and speeds up the energy conserver without chasing her around. 

Working your horse at a walk has many benefits: the slow movement allows the horse to bend the joints and adjust the balance and it gives the trainer the time to think and respond to her horse. At the lower speed you can work on details more easily. 

“Please understand and inwardly digest the fact that classical training starts with work at the walk!”

~ Anja Beran

Gymnastically, the walk is extremely useful. François Baucher said: “The walk is the mother of all gaits”. In her book ‘Classical Dressage with Anja Beran: Foundations for a successful horse and rider partnership’, Anja Beran describes the walk as the most sensitive gait. Training problems that can be disguised in higher gaits, will show in the walk. Yet, it is ideal for suppling, mobilising and releasing tension and important to prepare high level exercises such as piaffe. A good quality walk can release tension, the horse begins to use his muscles, carries himself and begins to collect.

Staying at the walk is time well spent and you will see the benefits when you are ready to move on.

For example, Asfaloth does not have a good natural trot. I can only hope to get a relaxed and balanced working trot after a good preparation in walk. He is not able to maintain it for long, so we go back to walk before the quality deteriorates and prepare again.

How can the walk alone provide enough physical activity?

As a matter of fact, the walk provides many opportunities: transitions between walk and halt or within the walk and lateral movements give you many options and combinations to work with from the ground and in the saddle. Doing these exercises in a good quality will build muscles and improve balance and coordination. 

Lateral movements in a slow, cadenced walk flex the joints, they bring the hind legs under the body which makes them carry more weight. Transitions from walk to halt and rein back bend the joints and transfer more weight to the hind legs. When you combine these, e.g. shoulder-in, halt and rein back, the horse has flexed and added weight on the hind legs as if it “squatted”. That’s quite an exercise! Students of Alexandra Kurland will recognise the similarity of this sequence to ‘Hip-Shoulder-Shoulder’, an advanced lesson from her ‘Click-That-Teaches’ program.

Compare that with a working trot on a straight line, where the horse doesn’t need to flex his hind legs but straightens the joints to push forward. That movement is actually less tiring. Think of running versus squatting. This is also why you can get a good trot transition after the “squatting” as the horse has coiled its spring and can release the energy forward – but that’s another discussion.

Best indicator for the validity of this statement is my mare Graya. She is not a foot mover, she prefers standing. Yet, she prefers trotting to walk-halt transitions or rein back. My theory is that she would rather stretch her hind legs and propel forward than flexing and put weight on them. It’s not the speed that determines the level of activity. Squatting is harder than running

If you have difficulties imagining what you could do at the walk, watch Mestre Nuno Oliveira

“In walk or trot, what is needed is to feel energy in the slowness of the gait.”

~ ~ Nuno Oliveira

What’s wrong with letting my horse run on the lunge to give him the opportunity to move?

There is nothing wrong with trotting or cantering in a controlled manner. What we don’t want to practice is a movement that is harmful to our horses or unsafe for them or us. A horse running at high speed may be damaging his joints or tendons, especially just coming out of the box and not warmed up properly. On top of that the horse learns and practices – and gets better at – a behaviour that is damaging to his health and potentially dangerous for the handler. And if he pulls on the lunge and escapes you have a much bigger problem at your hands.

You don’t want to practice behaviours that you don’t want to see more often.

Alexandra Kurland wrote a wonderful article in her blog explaining why this is important.

Metaphors matter: the myelin metaphor

There is no need for this practice. You can teach lunging as any other behaviour in a calm and thoughtful manner and that is a good behaviour to build but think twice before using it to “steam off” energy.

So what can you do?

You may be thinking that this is all good but you do not have the skills yet do do all this beautiful lateral work to exercise your horse in walk. Lateral work is a lot of fun but you can already do many beneficial and fun things using the six foundation lessons of the Click-That-Teaches program. 

For example, let’s look at a simple targeting lesson. You hold up a target in front of your horse, he touches it, click, you deliver the treat dynamically so that your horse needs to take a few steps back. In order to get the treat, he needs to shift the weight backwards over his hind feet. If the targeting and feeding is fluent you can present the target forward so that he takes a few steps forward to touch it, click, feed backwards and he takes a few steps rein back to get the treat. In other words, he has done an upward transition (halt-walk), a downward transition (walk-halt) and rein back. That’s the beginning of the path towards piaffe. 

You can practice a similar pattern using “Grown-ups are talking please don’t interrupt” and dynamic food delivery 

When your horse has learnt “Standing on a mat”, has good mat manners and is eager to get to the mat, a whole new world of opportunities opens up.

In the runway lesson, you get to do lots of balance shifts that are in themselves perfect lessons to improve balance, and the mat gives you the transitions. In the runway towards the mat, you practice forward, halt, rein back, side step, then you do a transition forward to the mat. The mat cues a down transition to halt and as soon as you are done on the mat, you get an upward transition from halt to walk. That’s a lot of transitions which are all very good exercises and on top of that, your horse doesn’t even realise that he is exercising.

It is very useful to have these fine tuned movements. In riding, it makes a huge difference if your horse can carry out these small shifts under saddle. And you will appreciate having spent this time practicing them on the ground. And you can practice them in a small area, which helps.

Alexandra Kurland described this approach in one of her blog articles related to Daniel Coyle’s book ‘The Talent Code’. The Brazilian soccer players practiced on tiny soccer fields and thereby increasing ball contact by 600% and developing outstanding skills.

Read the article here

A few winters ago, we couldn’t use the arena because of unusual heavy snowfall. So I had only a very tiny space in our winter paddock to play with the horses. I used it to practice tiny weight shifts at liberty. That was all we did for a week or two. After the snow disappeared I have not revisited this exercise because there were other things I wanted to do but Graya remembers this lesson very well.

Three years later, when we moved to our current barn, it was this exercise that she chose when we worked for the first time at liberty in the new outdoor school.

So go, play with your horses! If you are ready for trot and canter by all means go ahead, but if you or your horse, need to stay a little longer at the walk, then that’s what you should do and you will get the benefits of this extra time as you progress further.