Conditioning and Prehabilitation for Horse Owners.

Just as building your core muscles can help improve your riding and muscle control, it also reduces back pain and is also true for your horse. Making sure that your horse is fit enough for the work that is being asked of it is generally well known among horse owners and riders. Improving your horses fitness , termed conditioning, is important to carry out when increasing your horses’ workload. However, within therapy circles, both animal and human, are the concepts of rehabilitation and prehabilitation which takes the concept of conditioning further and includes exercises to improve core strength and allow the athlete to work and compete with a reduced risk of getting injured in the first place.
Conditioning plans for gradually introducing increased amounts of work for the horse concentrate on conditioning the cardio vascular system, the benefits of this are increasing lung capacity, reducing recovery times post exercise and building muscle mass. Gradually increasing the work a horse receives gives the body time to respond to an increasing work load and will prevent over use or strain injuries and prevent conditions such as tying up. The musculoskeletal system will also get conditioned, the major locomotor muscles will get stronger, which will reduce the likelihood of injury if, for instance, going over varied terrain.

horse-802043_1920The term prehabilitation means going through the process of rehabilitation to help prevent injury from occurring in the first place. The main result of prehabilitation for horses is to strengthen the core muscles. If the core muscles are properly strengthened and conditioned the horse is better set up to avoid injury. Increased core strength will help the horse deal better with being ridden, helping them to carry the rider with ease and prevent back pain, it can help prevent a horse from breaking down early with conditions such as arthritis and non-specific back pain or reluctance to work. A horse with a well-conditioned, strong core will be able to avoid doing the splits when slipping or will be able to “save itself” from a fall if, for instance, slipping or hitting a jump cross country or out hacking, if it has a strong core.
Rehabilitation is the process that owners, trainers and therapists use to bring a horse back from injury. First the horse receives proper veterinary care for the initial injury and supportive care to help the best chance of the injury healing, which is followed by a conditioning program to bring the horse back into working fitness.
Detailed here are a few simple exercises and small changes to your daily management routine that can have a big impact on the working life of your horse, this comes under the umbrella of prehabilitation.

Grooming for massage.
In days gone by people would make a hay whisp and use this to beat against the horses’ large muscle groups, look in any old horse management book and you will see instructions on how to make these. A more effective (and modern) way to achieve similar results is to use a rubber curry comb. Every horse owner should have a rubber curry comb in their grooming kit. They can remove dried mud from hocks, knees and fetlocks without hurting the horse or pulling the hair, and it helps to get the coat out when shedding, especially useful if your horse is too sensitive to use a striping comb. It also works to give your horse an all over body massage and is extremely effective to use between physical therapy treatments to help extend the benefits of the treatment and prevent small muscle knots from forming. Use it in big circles, pressing into your horses muscles on the neck, lower shoulder and back. Use a zig zag pattern over the hind quarters and outer thigh. Because the rubber curry comb is soft it won’t hurt if you go over a bony area, but it is best to avoid these areas.

Enjoying a massage with the curry comb
Enjoying a massage with the curry comb

Use this routine as part of your daily grooming, it will help increase circulation to the skin and help give a lovely shiny coat, your horse will really love it and it is an easy way for horse owners to give an effective massage. It is really useful if your horse wears a rug at this time of year to help keep the skin in tip top condition, preventing dry scurfy skin and helping to relieve any itches your horse may have under the rug. If your horse is really sensitive and doesn’t like being groomed much start off with a light pressure for the first week or so and gradually increase the pressure you use, you will be surprised that they may actually start to enjoy being groomed.

Carrot stretches and stationary reflex stretches.
Carrot stretches have been proven to mobilise the spine, reduce pain and increase tone in the deep postural muscles of the back, the very deep muscles that control the posture and stabilisation of the spine. See photos for carrot stretch postures.

Starting carrot stretches stand with your back to their shoulder and ask to bend round you this helps the horse keep their feet still.
Starting carrot stretches stand with your back to their shoulder and ask to bend round you this helps the horse keep their feet still.
Nose to chest
Nose to chest
Stretching down and to the side
Stretching down and to the side
Nose to fetlocks
Nose to fetlocks

Other carrot stretches include bringing the nose round the side to the shoulder, then the ribs, then when the horse is more advanced you can bring the nose round as far as the hip.  Advancing the ‘nose to fetlock’ exercise you would bring the treat further and further between the legs so the horse is able to strech its head right between and behind

Nose to knees
Nose to knees

its front legs.

Reflex stretches take a bit of practice, but they help to fire the nerves involved in contraction of the core muscles, helping to wake these muscles up and stretch the lumbar spine. Often physical therapists will use reflex stretches at the end of a treatment to stretch certain muscles and cause the core muscles to fire, aiding in changes that occur in the body after a treatment and helping to lengthen the effectiveness of the treatment. Practiced regularly they can really benefit the horse’s core muscles.

Simple reflex stretch.
If it is safe to do so, stand behind your horse with him standing square, press firmly with your fingers about mid-way across the gluteal muscles (see photo for details) and run your fingers back towards you passing either side of the hamstrings and pressing in firmly as the muscles curve in above the hind leg. This will encourage your horse to arch its back and tuck the pelvis under, stretching the lower back and firing the core muscles. Be careful not to put too much pressure on when pressing in at the top of the leg at first, as this may cause your horse to kick, go light to start with and try again if there is no response. The response is often small if the muscles of the hind quarters are tight or the horse is stiff through the lower back so don’t overdo this.

Starting position for the reflex stretch.
Starting position for the reflex stretch.

For more information on this Hillary Clayton and Narelle Stubbs have released a book and DVD explaining these exercises and more, it is available from the British Equine Veterinary Association online bookshop, entitled Activate Your Horses Core, it is a useful tool for all horse owners.

Simple Groundwork.
Working your horse from the ground is a great way to prepare for ridden work and enables you to watch how they move. Research has found that groundwork exercises help your horse to feel more relaxed once you get in the saddle. The first simple exercise is leading your horse in a small circle.
As long as you can lead your horse safely in hand then this exercise is great, it helps to encourage the horse to take more weight on the inside hindleg and to step under themselves correctly, in turn, this will encourage them to lift their backs and strengthen the core muscles. I have used this in the rehabilitation of lots of horses and really helps them before more demanding exercises are used, it is a great prehabilitation exercise.
You don’t need any fancy equipment and works just as well in a headcollar, or a bridle can be worn. First ask the horse to SLOWLY walk around you in a circle, if your horse needs a bit of help at first then make the circle bigger and walk next to him, if your horse can walk in a small circle slightly away from and ahead of you then all the better. Watch the inside hind leg and gently adjust the head towards the inside or outside of the circle very slightly by shortening or lengthening the rope to get the inside hind leg to step up towards the middle of the belly.

Fox's head is too high, but his hind leg is stepping the correct position.
Fox’s head is too high, but his hind leg is stepping the correct position.

As long as the horses back and neck are not restricted then they will be able to lower the head naturally and walk with their neck horizontal to the shoulder. This exercise helps to strengthen the hind leg and stretch the back. The horse should be walking slowly, but in a regular rhythm on a 5 or 10 meter circle. Only do a half to a whole circle to start with and build up to 10 circles over the course of a few weeks. At first, be sure to stop when your horse steps correctly, even if it’s just the one step, and give him praise and a rest so that he knows what you are aiming, then try again. Make sure you do this in both directions, you may find at first that your horse seems to bend to the outside of the circle in one direction, ignore this as the exercise will correct it, just focus on the inside hind leg and make sure it steps towards the middle of the belly. Practice this everyday if you can, before or after you ride, it only takes a few minutes and gives big rewards in the long run. This exercise forms the basis of therapeutic lunging, ensuring the horse moves correctly on a circle without the need for restrictive gadgets.

Fox has a good body position here, bending round me on the circle, without overbending through the neck.
Fox has a good body position here, bending round me on the circle, without overbending through the neck.

As the horse progresses and can hold the exercise on a 5 meter circle for 10 laps, stepping correctly with each step then the circle can be made bigger by a couple of meters at a time, if the horse starts to “lose form”, then make the circle smaller again and continue the exercise, eventually the horse will be able to move on a 20 or 25 meter circle, stepping correctly towards the middle of the belly, with the head held low and the body curving to follow the arc of the circle. Therapeutically, I would wait until the horse is able to do this in walk before asking for trot on a larger circle.
Backing up.
Backing up SLOWLY will encourage your horse to round his back and tuck the pelvis under as he steps back, it also helps the horse to carry weight on the hind legs, helping to strengthen them, especially the gluteal and quadriceps muscles. Start this exercise in hand before moving onto doing it whilst ridden.
Standing in front of and to the side of your horse use gentle pressure on the headcollar to ask the horse to step back, do not apply too much pressure or the horse will lift his head and hollow his back which is the opposite of what you want to achieve. Make sure the steps are slow and in a straight line. If your horse is a bit weak on one side he will tend to step back in a curve towards the stronger side, try standing on the same side of his head as the direction he tried to veer to, this often helps the horse to move back in a straighter line. Take a step then stop, ask the horse to step forward, pause, then ask again. Eventually your horse will be able to back for a few steps in a straight line.

Stepping back with the head low, encouraging the pelvis to tuck and the back to lift.
Stepping back with the head low, encouraging the pelvis to tuck and the back to lift.

If you are using positive reinforcement, move your target back towards your horses’ chest, when he steps back and touches the target reward him and continue to build the exercise.
This is excellent at helping to stretch the lower back and take weight on the hind quarters as the pelvis tucks and the back rounds. Once your horse can do several steps with ease in a straight line try backing up a slight incline, this will increase the stretch, then up a hill once your horse can back up the incline with ease. Think about how people move when they practice Tai Chi, the slower and more purposeful the movement the better at strengthening the muscles.

This article was first published in Everything Horse UK January 2015.

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