Does your horse find doing things on one rein a lot easier than on the other? Or perhaps you’ve noticed ‘something’ as you round a corner or bend? Maybe even as you ask for a lateral movement?
It feel like, rather than responding how you want him to, he bulges to the wrong side or against you?
Horses, just like humans, become stiff in certain areas of their bodies for many reasons. When we say the word ‘stiff’, we are referring to a lack of suppleness in that area. A certain looseness and ease that is missing when performing a particular movement or exercise.
In this episode of the Daily Strides Podcast I discuss stiffness in your horse. Stiffness is a lack of suppleness; which is essential to your horses correct development.
What is Suppleness?
Suppleness is basically a measure of how loose, flexible or pliable your horse is through his body. A lot of horses, just like us, need to loosen out quite a bit before they can use their body to the fullness of its potential. This is why a good, well planned and then ridden warm up is vitally important to set the tone for the quality of work that will happen in the schooling session.
Your horse needs to work through any stiffness if he is to be able to fully use his body to perform any tasks you require.
Very often stiffness shows up in bad behaviour. An unwillingness to do what is asked. It can also be reason for loss of balance or rhythm.
A lack of suppleness is tightness or tension in an area when asked to stretch, lengthen or even, in more pronounced cases, move in general.
Working With Your Horse – Not Against
Confirmation can play a large part in how your horse uses his body and it is important to realise this when working with your horse.
Work to his strengths rather than focusing on his weaknesses.
You will never change a short neck, however you can learn how to work with it! Keep in mind that all horses can be improved upon with time and consistent, correct, sympathetic exercises which help loosen up any areas that they are experiencing a lack of flexibility in.
Types of Suppleness in Your Horse
When supplying our horses, we must think both longitudinally and latitudinally, so as our horse can fully perform his job to the best of his ability
Longitudinal suppling is from tail to head over the topline of your horse. It helps to loosen out the back as well as the joints in the legs and can be done with stretching long and low, raising the back, and basic transitions up and down between the gaits.
Latitudinal suppling is sideways movements. Asking your horse to cross one back leg, or one front leg, in front of the other and so on. This helps to loosen the shoulders, and hips as well as the leg joints and, to some degree back as well.
Latitudinal suppling exercises can also help to loosen up the poll and neck areas of your horse through sideways flexion.
Noticing Where Your Horse is Stiff
Very often knowing where to begin will become evident when you pay close attention to how your horse performs the same movement or exercise on both reins. Is the movement and way of going equal on both sides? Or is there any bracing or loss of balance and rhythm on one side over the other?
Stiffness is far more common than most riders realize. In fact, a lot of issues that are often put down to a lack of discipline or attentiveness or just being downright naughty is actually the result of a horse being stiff. Being stiff will cause the horse to be unable to really perform the movement in the first place
So we have already mentioned that your horse may show resistance if stiff. Or he may be unable or unwilling to bend and flex if any stiffness is present. There may also be a shorter range of motion in that area.
So whether it be through the muscles, or joints, stiffness will feel like your horse is ‘resisting’ you. It becomes even more evident if you ask him to ‘use’ himself and move out of what your horse perceives as his comfort zone.
Identifying the Stiffness & the Cause…
Unfortunately with many riders, the initial reaction is to use the reins, particularly the inside rein, to ‘fix’ the problem. They do this by essentially forcing the horse into the desired shape… This will inevitably lead to more stiffness in other areas as the horse tries to compensate. It also can often cause your horse to ‘bulge’ even more!
So once we have identified any stiffness, and before we begin working particular exercises into warm-ups and schooling sessions, it is important to find the cause of the problem so you can remove it if possible
- Have the tack, particularly the saddle, checked by a qualified saddler
- Make sure that you are not sitting lopsided or crooked in the saddle
- Assess yourself for stiffness – I highly recommend Yoga – which you may be transferring to your horse
- Rule out any physical problems such as joints, hooves, teeth, back etc
And once you are sure that there is nothing external or internal adding to the problem, you can then begin working towards loosening your horse out by formulating a long-term plan or program to help him
Working with a Stiff Horse
Take things right back to basics and back to the beginning. Notice when any resistance or stiffness shows up as you perform simple movements. This is important both during both your warm up and when schooling. Take note of which side is the stiffness more pronounced and what type of movement it is more evident; lateral or longitudinal.
More than anything, keep in mind that consistency is king and time will play a huge part in working through any hardness or stiffness that your horse is experiencing. Consistency in how you ask and how you respond. This means asking the correct way and then expecting a certain result. Remember to reward any move in the right direction, no matter how small.
If you have ever experienced any stiffness in your own body, you will know that while you can do a lot in one day, generally the problem will resurface again the next day, and will require just as much attention and patience to loosen out again
Also keep in mind that if the stiffness is due to age, a past injury or wear and tear, you may have to find ways to work around it rather than thinking of ‘fixing’ it
Where to Begin Loosening Your Horse
Start by aiming to loosen your horse along his back and topline. Transitions up and down between halt, walk and trot to help longitudinal supplying. Later lengthening and shortening within the gait itself will also help to eradicate any excess tension or stiffness that is lurking there.
You can then begin adding some sideways, or latitudinal, suppling into your warm up or schooling sessions. Bending your horse left and right, both while keep your horse straight – such as on a circle or center line – or while moving sideways such as shoulder in or haunches in will help him. Also the slight flexion required for leg yielding works well to help him begin moving more freely through his body.
Working Through Any Stiffness – The ‘Right’ Way
Whatever you decide to do, it is really important that you take time, and lots of it! Don’t just drill your horse for hours and hours constantly stretching the ‘stiff’ area. Rather than loosening your horse up, this will most likely cause an injury or end up creating another problem elsewhere as your horse tries to compensate for the discomfort you are causing him.
Rather work a few small but correct steps in throughout the overall session and then, as he begins to loosen up over the coming weeks, increase the difficulty for him – step by step and inch by inch. If you feel you are forcing him into an uncomfortable or difficult position, you are pushing too far.
Slowly and consistently riding correct exercises is what will work best in the long run to help your horse either work out or manage any stiff areas in his body.
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