Preparing your horse for work under saddle
In hand work, in hand work, in hand work.
Do you think Usain Bolt trains sprint work every day, for weeks on end, to achieve the amazing records on the track that he has? No. He says there really isn’t a typical ‘training’ session he does. Instead he varies from track work (focusing not only on the technical aspects of the sprint, but also endurance) to gym work with a focus on developing overall strength and power.
So why do we expect our horses to do the same type of work, four to five days a week? This is a sure way to develop a fatigued, bored horse with behavioural and physical issues arising as this process continues.
Variety is key to developing a strong, supple, and mentally happy horse. One way to mix up your horses training routine (with a bunch of other amazing benefits) is in hand work.
As all of my clients know I love in hand work, and recommend a huge variety of exercises for them to do on a regular basis. However, I regularly get questioned why bother? Why can’t these exercises just be done under saddle straight away?
Firstly, in hand work is a fantastic way to observe how your horse is moving and feeling on that particular day. Are they not quite stepping through with their left hind the same as the right? Are they tense and bracing their back, or soft, supple and swinging? Are they shortening and curling the neck, or is it ‘telescoping’ out with the gullet open? With these observations you will begin to learn what your horse looks like at the walk, trot and canter and can start to connect the dots of what you have been feeling under saddle.
Did you know that the horses back range of motion is higher at the walk than at other gaits? Whereas at the trot, back range of motion is reduced due to the spinal and core muscles being engaged to provide stability during movement. Have a look next time you work your horse in hand.
Secondly, it is a great way to gradually build strength, correct proprioception (Proprioception is the bodies’ way of tracking and controlling the different parts of the body) deficits as well as postural problems without the interference of a rider. As ridden work is gradually incorporated (depending on individual horses’ situation) the horse is stronger and more willing to work in its new found posture.
Lastly, it provides a bit of variety in your horses training regime 🙂
So, to give you an idea of how I used in hand work to prepare Ronan to under saddle work again, the first week consisted of three sessions consisting of:
- Longe reining, working on shapes and transitions (walk/halt/rein back)
- Hill work*
- Pole work at the walk with specific focus on working on correct foot placement (proprioception).
*Please note that Ronan is kept in a large, hilly paddocks and is very good at self-exercising (haha!). Before commencing any hill work with your horse please contact your preferred equine health care professional or myself to discuss how to appropriately incorporate hill work into your horses work regime.
The following two weeks consisted of the same plan, however I mixed up the pole layouts, added short bursts of trot and gradually lengthened the sessions. The third week I began to introduce canter transitions to the sessions as well.
The below video shows a short snippet of Week Threes in hand session. Notice over the first pole exercise how I am not rushing him through the exercise, but allowing him to think about where he is placing his feet. By adding in the halt, I am further challenging his proprioceptive awareness, as well as encouraging him to engage his core and lift through his thoracic sling.
This session was also the first time I had re-introduced raised poles, at the trot you can see how this set up makes him flex through his hock, stifle and hip joints more, but his back movement is reduced in comparison to the movement achieved at the walk over the poles.