Yesterday, Julie Weisz described the importance of posture in developing the horse as an athlete. Today, she’s walking us through two stationary exercises everyone can do at home to help!
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When I look at a horse, I see clay that can be molded in some extent to the shape that will lead to that athlete’s greatest abilities. I view myself not only as a trainer in the sense that I am training the horse what to do and how to respond to certain aids, but as the horse’s personal fitness trainer. While we cannot change a horse’s basic bone structure or the length and shape of the bones in their skeleton, we can affect the development of muscles and the horse’s basic posture. Ligaments can be shortened or lengthened. Muscles can be strengthened or allowed to atrophy.
The bodyworker can remove some of the impediments preventing a horse from achieving good posture. A balanced trim can relieve resistance to the horse’s most balanced way of traveling. After the horse has been set up for balanced development, it is then in the hands of the “personal trainer” to develop the muscles in a more balanced way. By training the horse to stretch, supple, and strengthen properly and over a period of time that allows for healthy development, the horse’s posture can change. Just like us, we must work slowly toward the flexibility required to stretch down and touch our toes or perform a split. Someone who has never lifted weights before cannot suddenly deadlift 500 lbs overnight. Progress must be achieved slowly and carefully.
There are certain exercises that can be performed while the horse is stationary to improve their posture. The first is called a belly lift. By scratching underneath the horse’s belly near the girth area, we can encourage the horse to lift their backs. This exercise engages the horse’s core, equivalent to our abdominal muscles, and stretches the ligaments in the back. The stronger the horse’s abdominal muscles and back, the more easily they can carry the weight of the rider while performing increasingly difficult performance maneuvers, regardless of sport.
If the horse is nonresponsive to just the scratching of fingernails, I will sometimes use a brush instead. I use a round or flat human hair brushes with plastic bristles.
The belly lift is equivalent to the cat portion of the cat and cow pose used in yoga for people. The exercise for humans serves the same purpose as it does for horses — relieving tension in the spine to help alleviate back pain and mitigate back problems.
The shape of the pelvis and femur is part of a horse’s conformation. The position of the pelvis is determined by the horse’s posture — the length, tightness, and strength of the attachments and ligaments.
The tilt of the pelvis can determine the horse’s “driving” force. A balanced pelvis allows for correct and easy compression of the fetlock, hock, and stifle. The more correct the position, the more correct impulsion a horse can have while minimizing wear and tear on the joints in the hind legs.
One way to determine the tilt of your horse’s pelvis is to examine the triangle that is created by the ilium and the femur. If you draw lines between the point of the hip, the point of the buttocks, and the stifle, you will create a triangle. The shape and rotation of this triangle can greatly impact the impulsion of the horse.
In the picture above, we observe a relatively steep slope from the point of the hip to the point of the buttocks. This horse naturally has a posterior tilt to the pelvis, meaning that the pelvis is tilted back.
There is a pressure point directly above the point of the hip on either side of the horse that can cause the horse to perform an anterior tilt of the pelvis — tilting the pelvis forward.
By applying pressure or scratching this pressure point on one side or both sides simultaneously, the horse will tilt the pelvis forward. From the picture above, you can see the dramatic change in the position of the horse’s pelvis by applying pressure on one side only to this pressure point. The position pictured is what should be encouraged with this horse in order to improve posture and impulsion from the hind end.
This horse pictured above has more of a natural anterior or forward tilt to the pelvis. Although it is closer to the average angulation we would like to see, the drop between the sacroiliac joint (highest point of the croup) and the withers indicates weakness through the back and abdominal muscles. By asking the horse to perform a posterior tilt of the pelvis, we can improve this position.
The pressure points for the posterior pelvic tilt are on either side of the dock of the horse’s tail. By applying pressure to this point or scratching this area, we can encourage the horse to tilt their pelvis posteriorly.
These basic exercises using equine pressure points can help a horse achieve better posture when repeated on a regular basis. It is similar to yoga for horses. The more we encourage our horses to achieve better posture, the more comfortable and capable our equine athletes will be.
Author Julie Weisz utilizes the Balanced Equine Training program which, similar to physical therapy, focuses on the anatomy of horse and rider to develop more sound and balanced athletes. Julie’s training business, Elpis Enterprises, is located in Fallbrook, CA, where she uses her anatomical understanding and dressage fundamentals to help horses and riders in a variety of disciplines.