Thursday, December 19, 2019

What to do when your horse ties up

If your horse develops severe muscle cramping, call your veterinarian, then keep him still and comfortable until help arrives.

Bringing a horse back into condition after some time off must be done carefully: He needs to work up a sweat to gain fitness, but too much exertion increases the risk of several serious complications, including tying up.

Tying up, technically called exertional rhabdomyolysis, refers to severe cramping of the large muscles of the hindquarters, back and, sometimes, the shoulders during or after exercise. In some cases, damaged or dying muscle cells can release enough toxic debris into the bloodstream to stress the kidneys. Extreme cases may be fatal.

Repeated tying up occurs in horses with two specific disorders characterized by cellular dysfunctions in the muscles: polysaccharide storage myopathy (PSSM) and recurrent exertional rhabdomyolysis (RER). However, heat stress and/or electrolyte imbalances can cause virtually any horse who exerts himself to tie up under the right conditions. Here’s what to do.

  • Your horse comes to an abrupt halt with massive muscle cramping, usually over the hindquarters. Or if he stiffens up and moves forward only reluctantly, perhaps taking only short strides and stabbing his hind toes into the ground.
  • He sweats profusely, with less sweat over the affected muscles.
  • He has a pained, “colicky” look, with rapid breathing and a fast heart rate.
  • He develops muscle tremors.
  • His urine is discolored---from a reddish tinge to a dark, coffee-like hue.

  • Keep the horse still. Your horse cannot “walk off” these cramps, and forcing him to move may cause further injury to his muscles. Keep him standing right where he is until your veterinarian arrives. If you must move the horse for safety or to get treatment, bring a trailer to him and move him only the minimum number of steps.
  • Encourage him to stay calm. Keep a buddy with him or offer him small bites of hay. Stress can make this condition worse, so do what you can to make the environment soothing.
  • Offer water, possibly with electrolytes. Water with dissolved electrolytes may be helpful, if your horse will drink it. If he won’t, offer him plain water, too.
  • Warm up or cool down the affected muscles, according to the season. If it’s a hot summer day, sponge cool water over your horse. (Contrary to the old myth, splashing cold water on hot muscles will not cause further cramping.) In cold weather, place a blanket over your horse’s hindquarters to warm him up.
  • Watch for urination. The color of the urine will offer important diagnostic information for your veterinarian. If your horse urinates while you’re waiting for her to arrive, take note of the color or, better yet, catch some in a clean, empty container.
  • Monitor your horse for other complications. The metabolic imbalances associated with fatigue can lead to other issues as well. Synchronous diaphragmatic flutter, called “thumps,” is one possibility---look for a distinctive jerking, or tic, in your horse’s flank that matches the rhythm of his heartbeat. Hyperthermia (overheating) can develop when a horse can no longer cool himself by sweating---look for agitation, panting through the mouth, excessive sweating and skin that is noticeably hot to the touch. Dark mucous membranes and skin that does not snap back into place after being pinched are signs of serious dehydration. A horse who is exhausting his fluid reserves may develop anhidrosis, the loss of the ability to sweat. If you notice any of these other signs starting to develop, call your veterinarian with an update; she may decide your case is becoming critical.

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #464, May 2016. Republished here with permission.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

The Secret to Following Your Horse’s Motion

Liz Steacie shares advice to help riders find a better sitting trot. Plus, try her unmounted exercise to get a better feel.

Learning to sit the trot effectively and to appear relaxed and in harmony with the horse is perhaps one of the biggest challenges in the world of dressage. Many of today’s dressage horses have big, bouncy trots that can be daunting for even experienced riders with supple seats. It is, however, very important that every rider develop her ability to sit the trot in order to influence the horse effectively during the trot work. So think of sitting trot as proactive rather than reactive.

An open angle between the hip and thigh also will lead to the softly draped long leg that is advantageous in many ways. In this position, the rider is correctly balanced and properly aligned to ride the sitting trot. (Photo by Amy K. Dragoo)

The first step a rider must accomplish is the correct position in the saddle. You want a tall, correctly aligned body position, a supple waist and strong abdominal muscles. The upper body must be very straight and placed directly over the hips. A viewer should be able to draw a straight line from the rider’s ear through the shoulder and hip to the heel, and that line should be exactly perpendicular to the ground.

The pelvis should be centered in the deepest part of the saddle and balanced between the two seat bones and the pubic bone. (If too much weight is placed on the seat bones, the rider will be behind the motion and behind the vertical with her upper body; if too much weight is placed on the pubic bone, the rider will be perched on her crotch and tipped forward.) Sit as tall as possible. While lightly balanced on the seat bones and pubic bone. Your back should be close to flat and your head carried over nicely squared shoulders and a raised an open chest.

Once the seat is balanced, the rider needs to open the angle between the hip and thigh allowing the legs to drop down almost vertically from the hip. It is the open angle between the hip and thigh that will enable the rider to use her hips to influence the trot. This open angle also will lead to the softly draped long leg that is advantageous in many ways. In this position, the rider is correctly balanced and properly aligned to ride the sitting trot.

To ride the sitting trot, the rider must make her waist supple—not loose and floppy, but elastic and supple. The very slight pelvic motion involves pushing the pelvis down and toward the hands through relaxation of the waist and abdominal muscles. The timing of the motion is critical—the rider must straighten as the horse begins the stride and then push down and slightly forward just before the completion of the stride. In this way, you can “bounce” the next stride with your seat, just by allowing yourself to relax down into the saddle.

You can get the feeling of the pelvic motion while dismounted: Stand against a straight wall with your heels, hips and shoulders touching the wall, and your knees slightly bent. Place your hands over your tummy, just below your navel. Using your abdominal muscles, push your back toward the wall—this is the “straightening” phase of the sitting trot. Relax your abdominal muscles toward your hands and allow your back to fall away from the wall—this is the relaxing or “pushing down” phase of the sitting trot. At no time should you grind your seat bones into the saddle to try to sit more “into” the horse—this is uncomfortable for the horse and counter productive.

Once a rider has the timing and strength to follow the motion of the gait, she will be able to change the trot strides wit just a little more emphasis on the pelvic motion—straighter and taller for a shorter, bouncier stride and more down and forward for lengthening the stride. Influencing the trot involves “riding the stride,” rather than going with the motion. The rider must be balanced and poised in the saddle and able to anticipate the stride. When this is done correctly, she is very slightly ahead of the motion of the trot, and by being slightly ahead, has a good opportunity to influence the size and shape of the next stride. So, rather than following the motion of the trot, a rider can lead the motion of the trot, thereby staying in balance and harmony with the horse.

This article first appeared in the November 2004 issue of Dressage Today. It is republished here with permission. Liz Steacie placed second in the 1999 Canadian World Cup League Final. She is the FEI rider representative on Dressage Canada’s High Performance Committee. She and her husband, Adam, own and operate Porcupine Hill Dressage, a training and sales facility in Brockville, Ontario.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Sloane Coles: Balance Before the Flying Change

This top hunter/jumper rider teaches you how to set your horse up to produce reliable changes after jumps.

Imagine cantering your horse down to a diagonal fence on the left lead. He jumps the fence nicely, but instead of landing on his right lead, which would set you up perfectly for the upcoming right turn, he lands on his left lead. So you cue him to make a flying change and … nothing happens.

Did you give the wrong aids for the flying change? Actually, that’s the wrong question to ask in this situation. Producing reliable flying changes isn’t just about giving the right aids at the right time. And it’s not about practicing flying changes over and over again. In fact, the solution doesn’t require you to practice a single flying change. It’s all about the setup. Once you’ve learned to recognize the balance your horse needs to be in to pick up the lead you want, and correct that balance when necessary, flying changes will come easily—without you even having to think about your leads.

I’ll teach you these skills with three exercises. Don’t expect them to work instantly. It takes time to develop the feel for how your horse’s weight is balanced and how you might need to shift it. You’ll also discover that each horse’s ideal balance is slightly different. So give yourself time to get to know every mount you ride. The more you focus on these basics, the better your flying changes will be on course.

Understand the Mechanics

Many people learn how to pick up the canter and initiate a flying change by first bending the horse to the inside. Although this can be effective with well-trained horses, I find it more beneficial to teach horses and riders—especially if they’re green—to pick up the correct lead from a counter bend. Young horses and ex-racehorses, who usually don’t know how to bend well to the inside yet, find these transitions and changes mechanically easier if they’re bent to the outside.

Imagine your horse has a weight hanging from each corner of his body: right front, right hind, left front and left hind. To pick up a left-lead canter, he needs to lift the weight on the left front corner. This will allow him to strike out with his left foreleg. Anything you do to interfere with that weight shift—lean your upper body to the left, pull his head to the left, etc.—will make it harder for him to pick up that lead. That’s why the more desperately you push for a lead change, the more likely you are to not get it!

If your horse has a tendency to bulge his shoulder to the left, that, too, makes it more difficult for him to shift his weight correctly. To help him get out of his own way, you need to ask him to shift that weight back toward his outside (right, in this example) hind leg. Turning his head slightly to the outside and moving him from your inside (left) leg to your outside (right) rein will “open up” his inside foreleg, allowing him to pick up the lead. Easier said than done, I know. But the exercises below will help.

Find Your Balance First

First check that you are in the proper position and balance. To avoid interfering with your horse’s balance, you must have your weight down in your heels and be in control of your upper body. Resist the temptation to slap your shoulders down over the jump, look down for the lead in the air or pull on the inside rein. Maintaining your own balance actually takes quite a lot of strength, so I recommend committing to a personal fitness program in addition to your regular riding. Instead of lifting weights, focus on exercises that improve your balance and core strength, like Pilates.

With this core strength, you should be able to relax your body and ride with a loose, following arm. Concentrate on opening your hip angle over the fences and focus on the position of your hips—rather than your shoulders—in the air.

The following exercise will help you find your power position: the position you want to be in for just about everything other than galloping. This is the position you’ll need to be in later for your flying change setup.

Exercise 1: Halt in Balance

Why do it: This exercise will help you find the position you want to be in to ensure your horse is balanced for a flying-change setup. Practice this exercise from the walk first, traveling in a straight line:

• Prepare yourself for a halt transition by sliding your legs slightly forward and pushing your weight into your heels.

• At the same time, tighten your abdominal muscles and open your hip angle, leaning your upper body back just a bit. Imagine you’re preparing to step on the brake in a car. To prevent the car’s momentum from carrying your shoulders forward, you need to sit against it slightly.

• Maintain this position while applying your rein aids to ask for the halt. Keep your weight firmly in your heels to prevent your horse from pulling you forward, especially if he is a little strong in the bridle.

Practice this several times until you start to feel like you can produce the halt with less rein aid than you needed initially. Then try the exercise from the trot. Eventually, work your way up to doing it from the canter. The goal is to practice this power position so much that you can slip into it in a split second.

Starting in a right-lead canter, I check that my weight is in my heels and slide my lower legs a little forward. Then I sit down in the saddle, tighten my abs and open my hip angle, while squeezing my fingers on the reins to ask for the halt.

I maintain this strong position throughout the transition all the way to the halt. Then I reward Sammie by softening the rein contact. You need to practice this position so much that you can slip into it in a split second from walk, trot or canter.

Exercise 2: Walk to Canter on a Slight Angle

Next, let’s review the basic canter aids to help ensure that your horse is in the correct balance to pick up the lead you want, which later will make flying changes come easily. Every horse has a good side and a bad side, so practice this exercise on your horse’s easier lead first to be sure you both understand it. Then try it on his more challenging lead.

This exercise creates a mild angle in your horse’s body with his right hind leg tracking directly behind his left front leg. This shifts his weight back toward his outside (right) hind leg. Turning his head slightly to the outside and moving him from your inside (left) leg to your outside (right) rein will “open up” his inside foreleg, allowing him to pick up the left lead.

Why do it: Reviewing basic canter aids will help ensure that you and your horse are in the correct balance to pick up the lead you want, which later will make flying changes come easily.

Step 1

Tracking left, I stay about 2 meters off the rail, checking that Sammie is walking in an absolutely straight line. I shift my weight just enough so I feel my outside (right) seat bone on the saddle more than my inside (left) seat bone without leaning my upper body in either direction.

Step 2

Next, I slide my right leg back a little and tap it to move her haunches slightly to the inside and I squeeze my left leg at the girth to push her shoulders to the outside while using my right rein to keep her neck straight or turned a bit to the outside.

Step 3

When she responds to these aids by shifting the weight of her shoulders away from my inside leg, I relax my aids and continue walking with this slight angle.

Step 4

Then, to ask for the canter, I simply slide my outside leg back again and press it against her side, still keeping her neck straight with my outside hand.

Here’s how to pick up the left-lead canter:

• Start by walking down the long side of the arena, at least 2 meters off the rail, with your eyes focused up and ahead.

• To set up for the transition, shift your weight just enough so that you feel your outside (right) seat bone on the saddle more than your inside seat bone, without leaning your upper body in either direction. (Practice this slight weight shift on a firm chair at home first.)

• Slide your outside (right) leg back behind the girth and ask your horse to move his haunches slightly to the inside.

• At the same time, apply your inside (left) leg at the girth to push his shoulders toward the outside.

• Keeping a straight line from your elbow to your hand to the bit, use your outside rein to straighten his neck, bringing his nose a little to the outside.

This will create a mild angle in your horse’s body with his outside (right) hind leg tracking directly behind his inside (left) front leg (see diagram to the right). Be careful to keep him straight through his body, neither bending to the inside nor the outside. Meanwhile, continue walking in a straight line parallel to the rail.

You’ll know your horse is properly set up if you can almost see his outside (right) eye. You’ll also get a sense that his weight is shifted to the outside, opening up space for his inside foreleg to strike off in the canter. Think again of the four weights hanging from his four corners. The heaviest one should be on the outside (right) hind while the lightest is on the inside (left) front. If you don’t feel this balance, push him over more with your inside leg.

The next challenge is to maintain this balance throughout the transition to canter.

• Try to stay very balanced yourself and quiet in your body as you squeeze your outside leg behind the girth to ask for the canter.

• Allow him to canter for several strides before bringing him back to walk and repeating the exercise.

If he picks up the wrong lead, he’s likely throwing his weight onto the inside front leg during the transition. To correct this, prepare him with the slight angle and weight shift to the outside at the walk again, but this time:

• Keeping your eyes up, make a transition to trot. Use a firm inside leg to push his shoulders to the outside during the transition, so he can’t throw his weight to the inside.

• Maintain this balance as you return to walk.

• Repeat these walk–trot transitions several times until you feel like you can control his angle and balance throughout.

• Then try the canter transition again.

When you feel comfortable making walk–canter transitions on your horse’s good lead, repeat the exercise on his other lead. Be aware that you may need an even stronger inside leg to set up for this lead.

Exercise 3: Diagonal Jump, Halt and Circle

In these photos, I set Sammie up to make a flying change from her left lead to her right without actually executing the flying change. Here are the steps: A. Off the left lead, jump a small fence. B. Halt and rein back a few steps. C. Walk forward a few steps. D. Circle left slightly counter bent. E. Pick up the right-lead canter (see inset).

This exercise incorporates the skills you practiced in the first two exercises and teaches you and your horse to find the correct balance for making a flying change after a jump. The halt in the exercise will slow his momentum down after the jump, rock his weight off your hands and back onto his hind end and teach him not to anticipate the lead change. All you need is a simple vertical set on a diagonal at a height you’re comfortable jumping.

Why do it: This exercise incorporates the skills you practiced in the first two exercises and teaches you and your horse to find the correct balance for making a flying change after a jump.

Step 1

After jumping Sammie over a small jump on a diagonal on the left lead, I use the aids we practiced in Exercise 1—sliding my legs slightly forward, dropping my weight in my heels and leaning my shoulders back slightly—to bring her to a halt. Then I rein back several steps to encourage her to lighten the rein contact.

Step 2

Next, I walk forward and turn left, tapping my right leg against her side at the girth to push her shoulders left, while moving both hands left. Because this mare is so advanced, she responds by leg-yielding left. Whether or not your horse leg-yields is not important, so long as his weight moves off your (in this case) right leg.

Step 3

I continue using my right leg and rein to ask Sammie to make a full, small circle, returning to the track we were on when we landed from the jump.

Step 4

To prepare for the right-lead canter depart, I ask for a slight angle, just as we did in Exercise 2: using my new outside (left) leg to push her haunches in a bit, my new inside (right) leg to push her shoulders out slightly and my new outside (left) rein to keep her neck straight or turned slightly to the outside.

Step 5

Finally, I apply my outside (left) leg to ask for the right-lead canter and continue cantering straight on the diagonal track to the corner.

• Canter to the jump on your left lead (for a jump set on a left-lead diagonal, as in the diagram above) concentrating on riding your horse straight on your line and keeping your eyes focused up and ahead of you. Whatever you do, don’t think about what lead you want him to land on.

• After the jump, find the power position you practiced in Exercise 1—dropping your weight into your heels and leaning your shoulders back slightly—and then bring your horse to a halt, still on the straight line of your track.

• Then praise him, walk forward and make a left turn back to the rail.

• Repeat this two or three times until you feel your horse responding well to your downward transition aids and coming to a halt closer to the landing side of the jump.

• If he’s strong in the bridle, ask for a few steps of rein back after each halt. This will encourage him to stay softer in your hands.

• Canter to the jump on your left lead (for a jump set on a left-lead diagonal, as in the diagram above)

Next, add a small walk circle to the left after the halt. How you perform this circle is very important, because it’s going to teach your horse to shift his weight correctly in preparation for the new (right) lead, in the same way you set up for the transition in Exercise 2. Because the eventual goal is to make a flying change to the right lead, your old outside (right) aids now become your new inside aids. Think of how Western riders turn their horses by neck reining as you use these new aids to ask for the small circle to the left:

• Keeping your hands together, move them both to the left so that the right rein comes against your horse’s neck without crossing it. Use your right leg at the girth to push his shoulders around the circle. Feel more weight shifted onto your left seat bone and use your right rein to keep your horse’s neck straight or slightly counter bent (with his nose to the right).

As you complete the circle and return to the straight track you were following after the jump, use the aids you did in Exercise 2 to set his balance up for the right-lead canter:

• Go to your power position first. Then shift your weight slightly onto your outside (left) seat bone, slide your new outside (left) leg back behind the girth to move his haunches to the inside, push his shoulders left with your new (right) inside leg and straighten his neck and bring his nose a little to the outside (left) with your new outside (left) rein. Remember, eyes up!

This should position his body at a mild angle to the track, with his haunches marginally to the inside (right) and his head and neck pointing slightly to the outside. Again, check in with how his balance feels. You want to feel the most weight on his new outside (left) hind leg and the least on his new inside (right) front leg. If you feel this balance, go ahead and ask for a right-lead canter. If you don’t, turn left and repeat the exercise. With enough repetition, your horse will begin to shift his weight automatically in the correct way and will be properly set up for the new lead.

When you’ve mastered this exercise in this direction, try it the other way. Set up a single fence on the other diagonal and canter to it on your right lead, then land, halt and circle right. Proceed through the steps just as you did before, using your power position in the halts, your slight counter-bending aids on the circle and your newfound feel for your horse’s balance. As with Exercise 2, you’ll probably find that you need to use stronger inside-leg-to-outside-rein aids to correct your horse’s balance in one direction than the other.

With practice, you’ll eventually learn to evaluate and correct your horse’s balance immediately after landing from the jump. Then you can simply apply the aids you used in these exercises to set him up for the flying change, without making a downward transition or circle. Add your canter aid—a squeeze of your outside leg behind the girth—to execute it.

Depending on your horse, you may find that practicing the actual flying changes at home is counterproductive. Some horses—especially green or nervous ones—get excited or anxious when working on flying changes. It’s important to know your horse and do what’s right for him. Even if you don’t rehearse the actual flying change, I promise that if you take your time and practice these exercises enough at home, you will ace your flying changes in competition.


Sloane Coles grew up trail riding and foxhunting in The Plains, Virginia, where her father is a joint-Master of Foxhounds with the Orange County Hunt and her mother foxhunts and shows hunters as an amateur. Under the tutelage of John and Beezie Madden, Johnny and Kitty Barker and the trainers at Beacon Hill Show Stables and Heritage Farm, Coles enjoyed a successful Junior career, earning top placings in all of the national equitation finals, including a win in the 2006 North American Equitation Championship. She also won the 2006 Bates USA Equitation year-end rider award before turning professional. In 2010, she was named to the U.S. Equestrian Federation Developing Rider Show Jumping tour.

While attending Drew University, Coles trained with renowned jumper rider and trainer Mark Leone. After graduating in 2011 with a degree in sociology and business, she decided to expand her horsemanship education by working in Belgium in the sales barn of 1976 Olympic bronze medalist François Mathy (who discovered McLain Ward’s great Olympic partner Sapphire). After riding at least 10 horses a day there and learning all she could about the business side of show jumping, she moved back to The Plains and established Spring Ledge LLC, a sales and training facility for hunters, jumpers, foxhunters and eventers. In 2014, she was invited to the George H. Morris Gladstone Program for international riders. Meanwhile, she continued to compete successfully in the grand prix and hunter rings at major North American competitions.

Some of Coles' recent winning partners include Autumn Rhythm, with whom she won all three 2014 First-Year Green Hunter Stake classes at Indoors, 2017 $50,000 Grand Prix of Michigan winner Esprit and CSI**** veteran MTF Saint Simeon. She and the latest addition to her grand prix string, Chippendale’s Boy DZ, placed second in the $50,000 Flintfields Farm Grand Prix CSI** at the 2018 Great Lakes Equestrian Festival.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2019 issue of Practical Horseman and republished here with permission.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Encouraging findings about long-distance transport

New research shows that horses transported long distances with a commercial shipping company had low risk of associated health problems.

A large-scale study of horses transported long distances with a commercial shipping company found a low risk of associated health problems.

Previously, much of the data on equine travel risks was gathered using horses bound to slaughter facilities, which the researchers say is not applicable to horses transported for other reasons.

“You cannot transfer the findings from papers on the transport of slaughter horses to the transportation of sport horses because the vehicles are completely different,” explains Barbara Padalino, DVM, who conducted the study as part of her doctoral work under the supervision of Gary Muscatello, BVSc, PhD, at the University of Sydney. “Slaughter-bound horses usually don’t travel in single stalls. They are transported in higher density, and often these horses are not tamed and have no travel experience.”

To gather data more reflective of sport and pleasure horses, Padalino and fellow researchers reviewed the records of a commercial transportation company that regularly moves horses between the east and west coasts of Australia. Information was provided on all 1,650 horses the company transported along the same route from April 2013 to April 2015.

“The trip consisted of four stages,” says Padalino. “Sydney to Melbourne [10 hours], Melbourne to Adelaide [eight and a half hours], Adelaide to Kalgoorlie [24 hours] and Kalgoorlie to Perth [six hours]. After each stage, horses were given a 12-hour rest period. The total duration of travel was approximately 85 hours with approximately 49 hours in transit and 36 hours for rest stops.”

At the collection stable and rest points, horses were individually housed in walk-out rubber-lined stables and/or paddocks that were used only for horses in transit. Padalino adds that the transportation company was well-respected and well-run, following guidelines provided by the Australian code of livestock transportation.

The data showed that 97.2 percent of the horses arrived at their destination with no signs of disease or injury. Among the few horses who did have problems, the most common were respiratory illness (27 percent), gastrointestinal issues (27 percent), fever (19 percent) and injuries (15 percent). There were four transportation-related deaths, making the overall death rate .24 percent.

Horses were more likely to hurt themselves in the early hours of the trip. “Injuries are often associated with misbehaviors, such as refusing to load or kicking in the truck,” says Padalino. “It’s been reported that the first hour of a journey is always the most stressful for horses. During that time horses tend to move more, try to escape more and lose their balance more.”

In addition, the researchers found that horses transported in the spring were more likely to develop gastrointestinal or respiratory problems. This, they say, may reflect higher temperatures at a time when many horses still have winter coats, or challenges posed to their immune systems by hormonal fluctuations or increases in pollen or other allergens associated with the season.

Padalino says this low illness and injury rate is encouraging. “This percentage is actually really good, considering that we examined one of the longest journeys which horses can do worldwide in a very hot country. This figure tells us that safe transportation of horses is possible when done by experienced people.”

For trips of more than 20 hours, she recommends using a reputable shipping company, inspecting the transport vehicle and having a full veterinary exam performed ahead of time to identify any subclinical illnesses that the stress of transportation may exacerbate.

Reference: “Health problems and risk factors associated with long haul transport of horses in Australia,” Animals, December 2015

Thursday, October 24, 2019

How Studying Biomechanics Enhances Your Dressage Training

The study of biomechanics provides the basis for understanding multiple facets of dressage.

What sets apart the horse who has amazing expression in his work from others? If you were to ask an engineer or someone who studies movement, he or she would use biomechanics to analyze the question. Biomechanics is the study of the forces that affect movement of the body. It examines how muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments operate together for a horse to walk, passage or perform lateral movements.

Biomechanics is the study of the forces that affect movement of the body. It examines how muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments operate together for a horse to walk, passage or perform lateral movements. (Amy K. Dragoo)

Different anatomical structures work in synchrony. The bones are the support structure. They are rigid and provide a framework. The joints’ anatomy dictates their degree of mobility (range of motion). Ligaments are the connections between bones, frequently involving joints. They are strong and flexible, allowing for distinct movement of a joint while providing stability. The muscles serve to propel the horse and to stabilize. For every muscle that moves a joint in one direction, there is typically a countering muscle that can pull the joint in the other direction. When the opposing muscles work in unison, both firing in balance, they stabilize joints. This equilibrium keeps the legs rigid when weight- bearing, the back from breaking and the head elevated and in motion with the horse’s movement.

The study of biomechanics provides the basis for understanding multiple facets of dressage, such as how neck position affects the forehand, back and hindquarters. It explains why it takes time for young horses to develop the strength to travel uphill with self-carriage and with an extended forehand. It also reinforces the importance of proper rider core strength and position to support the horse. It is necessary in comprehending how injuries and resulting pain can prevent horses from progressing and performing.

Biomechanics explains how riding with the neck lowered affects the entire length of the horse. This position produces traction through the ligaments and muscles of the topline, of the neck and back, causing the back to flex, or round. It moves the center of gravity forward with more weight distributed to the forehand, thus strengthening the muscles suspending the thorax. With the back flexing, the workload of the abdominal muscles increases. The advantages of incorporating exercises in a lowered neck position include strengthening the areas mentioned above.

An understanding of biomechanics can facilitate riding and training. Research has shown that the muscles involved with suspending the thorax within the shoulder blades affect the horse’s ability to move in an uphill carriage with a protracted forehand stride. These “sling muscles” raise the withers within the shoulder blades as they become stronger. The sling muscles consist of the pectoral muscles in the chest area and the serratus ventralis muscles between the rib cage and the scapula. Strength and training of these muscles lifts the front. As the front end raises, the hind end can sit and accept more weight to propel the horse.

Working in an uphill carriage or with the neck lowered can have positive and negative effects on a horse’s body depending on the nature of his biomechanics. The constructive effects of work done correctly and progressively are strengthening of the target areas and the horse learning to carry himself. Training with the head lowered could potentially stress an existing front leg problem by shifting the center of balance forward. By the same token, it can be a helpful position in strengthening a horse with kissing spines (impinging dorsal spinous processes). An uphill position may not be obtainable for a horse with sacroiliac or hind-limb discomfort.

In the case of a horse who exhibits some kind of physical discomfort during training, a veterinarian frequently correlates his or her diagnosis of a specific area of soreness to what a rider is feeling or a sign the horse is showing. An example would be lower neck pain on the right preventing a horse from bending to the right or not picking up the right lead. Horses can have multiple areas of soreness. Biomechanics is key in understanding what problems are causing the signs the horse is exhibiting.

Biomechanics encompasses most aspects of riding and training. It is the science behind how a saddle interacts with the horse’s back, how a horse compensates for an unbalanced rider, what a rider feels with a lameness and more. It is not a necessity for a rider to comprehend all aspects of biomechanics of the horse, although it does enhance the understanding of training and riding.

Resources for Studying Biomechanics 

Biomechanics can be approached from a superficial level to an in-depth study. The Internet is always a source with both valid and less-than-reliable information. Dr. Hilary Clayton has been one of the greatest sources of research and literature pertaining to equine biomechanics. She appears online in videos and articles and has papers available on many biomechanics topics. For more comprehensive studies there are books on equine biomechanics. Biomechanics and Physical Training of the Horse by Jean-Marie Denoix is written for the rider/trainer with an overview of anatomy, biomechanics and analysis of specific riding exercises. The Dynamic Horse by Dr. Hilary Clayton thoroughly covers the science of biomechanics.

Scott Anderson, DVM, graduated from the Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine in 1984. He attended the Eastern School of Farriery and was a practicing farrier prior to becoming a veterinarian. He was one of the first veterinarians in the U.S. to become certified in equine acupuncture by the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. He is also certified in veterinary chiropractic medicine through the American Veterinary Chiropractic Association. Owner of Woodside Equine Clinic, he specializes in sports medicine and lameness and is based in Ashland, Virginia. Visit

This article first appeared in the August 2018 issue of Dressage Today and is re-published here with permission.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

How To Teach Your Horse to Bend

Trainer Jordan Linstedt offers advice on how you can make your horse more supple.

Q: My new horse has a lot of potential, but I’m having trouble teaching him to bend around corners and be more flexible. Any hints?


A: To bend well and be flexible, your horse must develop a great deal of strength in his back and hindquarters— in fact, in his entire body. To travel correctly around a turn or circle, your horse must bend his body through his rib cage, rather than simply turn his nose to the inside. It takes time to develop the balance and strength necessary to do this well, so be patient with your horse. Here are some tips to get you headed in the right direction:

Start by evaluating your rein contact. A good bend comes from your legs, not the reins. Ideally, you should use twice as much leg aid as you do hand. From the very beginning, you want to have a light, elastic connection to your horse’s mouth. As he grows stronger and uses his back and body more, he should trust your hands enough to move forward into a more solid contact, but it should never become heavy. I aim to feel no more than 1 to 2 pounds of pressure in each hand.

Your contact with a young and/ or learning horse also needs to be equal on both reins. Before you can ask him to bend properly, he must travel straight. And he can’t be straight if your contact is uneven. So concentrate on riding him forward into an even connection in both reins.

Also check that your position is centered and balanced, with your weight distributed evenly down through both legs. The better balanced you are, the better balanced and straight your horse will be. If your position tips too much to one side or the other, you’ll feel the opposite foot get lighter in the stirrup. To correct this, step down firmly into that stirrup iron.

When your balance and contact feel reliably consistent, try this spiral exercise:

Begin at the trot on a 20-meter circle. Shift your weight slightly onto your inside seat bone, still keeping the rest of your weight equally distributed through both legs and maintaining your even contact in both reins. With your inside leg at the girth and your outside leg just behind the girth, think of using your legs—more than your reins—to ride your horse’s rib cage to the outside of the circle.

Now gradually spiral in, taking several rotations to shrink the circle to a diameter of 10 to 15 meters, depending on what your horse can do comfortably. (Don’t reduce the size of the circle to a point where he loses momentum or seems to be struggling in any way.) As the circle gets smaller, your horse naturally will have to bend more. Be careful not to over-flex his nose to the inside—remember, the bend should be as much in his rib cage as in his neck. Also be sure to stay connected to him with your outside rein and outside leg.

When you reach the smaller circle, slowly spiral out again. Repeat this once or twice and then do the same thing in the other direction. If you continue to practice this exercise over time, you’ll begin to feel his body bend around your inside leg, with your outside rein and leg controlling the shape and size of the circle.

As your horse’s strength develops, use your diagonal aids to introduce a slight counter bend. Trotting again on a 20-meter circle, reverse your leg positions, moving your inside leg just behind the girth and your outside leg on the girth, and ask your horse to bend his body slightly to the outside for a few strides while staying on track on the circle. You can play with changing back and forth between the true bend and counter bend on diagonals, serpentines and along the rail. This will gradually improve his suppleness.

When your horse begins to produce a good bend and counter bend, if you know the aids for performing a leg-yield, use that as another suppling tool. As you trot across a diagonal, several strides before you reach the far corner turn slightly toward the new direction (for example, if you’re about to turn to the right, apply your right-bending aids) and ask for a few steps of leg-yield into the corner (in this example, moving away from your right leg). This will help to get your horse deeper into the corners while improving his balance and bend.

Throughout this training process, whether you’re a beginner or advanced- level rider, you’ll progress most quickly if you have an eye on the ground—a trainer or other experienced horse-person watching your work to confirm that you’re doing it correctly. With this support—and a great deal of patience—you can teach any horse to bend.

Rising eventing star Jordan Linstedt, 24, began riding at age 2, when her mother ponied her on trails. As a teenager, with guidance from Olympic eventer Todd Trewin, she brought several off-the-track racehorses up through the levels. 

When she was a senior in college, Jordan’s parents purchased a 17.3-hand imported Irish sport horse gelding, Tullibards Hawkwind, or Jack. Six years later, after working with several top trainers, including British Olympic gold medalist Leslie Law, Jordan and Jack completed their first four-star event at the 2012 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event with a steady, clear cross-country round. 

Jordan currently trains and teaches at her mother’s Saddle Rock Stables in Redmond, Washington. She also takes online classes at the University of Washington, where she is studying society, ethics and human behavior.

This article originally appeared in the June 2013 issue of Practical Horseman.

Thursday, September 19, 2019

7 Things you may not have known about DMSO

This odiferous compound has become a common treatment for a variety of inflammatory conditions. Here are a few interesting facts about DMSO's history and action.

Two decades ago, if you mentioned dimethyl sulfoxide (DMSO) around the barn you may have gotten puzzled looks in response. Back then, this industrial solvent turned anti- inflammatory therapy was relatively new to the horse world, and even if people had heard of it they viewed it as an unusual or even mysterious option.Since then, DMSO has gone mainstream. It is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for topical use on horses, but veterinarians regularly use the chemical “off-label” in other ways to treat a wide array of inflammatory conditions, from laminitis to neurological problems. When the DMSO’s distinctive garlicky smell wafts through the barn these days, people are more likely to nod knowingly than wonder what’s going on.

Nonetheless, DMSO is a little like aspirin---something that many people use without necessarily thinking too much about how it works. But learning more about DMSO may help you appreciate how it can be useful in maintaining your horse’s health and comfort. So here are seven things you might not know about DMSO.

1. The therapeutic properties of DMSO were discovered more or less by accident.

A byproduct of paper production, DMSO was first developed as an industrial solvent. As people worked with the chemical, they noticed that if they spilled a bit of DMSO on their hands a distinct garlicky taste would be on their tongue shortly thereafter. This intrigued chemists, who began researching how the liquid could so quickly pass through skin and mucosa, but the work was generally limited to exploring non-medical applications.

Then, in the 1960s, Stanley Jacob, MD, began investigating DMSO as a preservative for organs destined for transplants. Work done in his laboratory soon sparked a rush of research into DMSO’s possible medical uses.

By 1965, however, the FDA closed down clinical trials citing safety concerns. Since then, DMSO has been approved for some specific applications. In human medicine, these include use as an organ preservative and as treatment for a bladder disease called interstitial cystitis. In 1970 it was approved for topical use in horses and dogs.

2. DMSO’s anti-inflammatory properties come primarily from its antioxidant action.

DMSO is classified as a nonsteroi- -dal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), just like phenylbutazone (“bute”). Unlike bute, however, DMSO controls inflammation primarily by acting as an antioxidant.

You may be more familiar with anti-oxidant sources in nutrition, such as vitamin E or lycopene, but DMSO has a molecular structure that allows it to function in the same way. Specifically, DMSO binds with “free radicals,” which are oxygen compounds---leftovers from normal biochemical reactions---that damage or destroy healthy cells. These free radicals are often the byproduct of inflammation and, in turn, cause more swelling and inflammation as they accumulate. DMSO is a free radical scavenger that slows or halts this process.

When used to control inflammation in strains and other soft-tissue injuries, DMSO is usually applied topically. However, it may also be injected into a target area when an injury occurs in particularly dense tissue, such as a bowed tendon, or the site is difficult to reach. A veterinarian may administer DMSO orally or intravenously in the early stages of laminitis to try to slow or halt the inflammatory cascade.

3. DMSO draws fluid from tissues.

DMSO is a hygroscopic compound, meaning it attracts water. This property makes the compound especially versatile. For instance, it can reduce edema0 in swollen limbs and is often used as part of a “sweat” to combat stocking up. DMSO can also reduce swelling in the brain and spinal cord, which can be literally lifesaving in diseases like West0 Nile encephalitis. DMSO may be used to draw fluids out of the lungs in cases of acute pulmonary edema.

Because it pulls water from tissues, DMSO has a diuretic effect, meaning it makes a horse urinate more. This can help flush toxins from the body more quickly. With this action in mind, DMSO is often given intravenously in the treatment of cantharidin poisoning (blister beetle toxicity), to lessen the effect of the toxin on the kidneys and intestinal tract. After episodes of tying up, DMSO may help horses eliminate waste products of muscle breakdown through their urine more quickly. The diuretic action of DMSO, however, can make it unsafe for horses who are dehydrated or in shock. It can further dehydrate these animals or dangerously lower their blood pressure.

4. DMSO can carry other substances through the skin.

DMSO’s molecular structure allows many substances to dissolve completely within it. It also allows the chemical to transport these dissolved substances through cell membranes without damaging them, even if these sub- stances wouldn’t be able to pass through on their own.

For instance, treating rainrot or other skin infections can be difficult because the responsible organisms are buried deep under the skin or crusty, painful scabs. However, a mixture combining antibacterial medication with DMSO can pass through the skin and reach the affected area. For the same reason, DMSO is often added to antifungal medications for treatment of eye conditions and sometimes to steroids for targeted, topical anti-inflammatory treatment.

It’s important, of course, to avoid inadvertently mixing DMSO with potentially toxic substances. You wouldn’t want fly spray crossing into your horse’s bloodstream, for example, so take care to avoid applying DMSO to your horse if he has recently been sprayed. Likewise, avoid mixing DMSO with substances that could be toxic if ingested, such as organophosphates or mercury salt. Also be mindful that the effects of some drugs, such as corticosteroids and atropine, are intensified when mixed with DMSO, so doing so needs to be done with caution under a veterinarian’s direction.

5. DMSO may provide pain relief on its own.

Although it’s commonly mixed with compounds to provide pain relief, some studies suggest that DMSO alone has analgesic properties. Research shows that DMSO slows or blocks conduction of impulses along nerve cells, which in effect reduces pain from musculoskeletal injuries, postoperative incisions and other sources. Relief is only temporary ---lasting up to a few hours---because as the DMSO dissipates, normal nerve function returns. It can be combined with other pain-relieving drugs, however, to extend the analgesic action.

If it seems like DMSO has a variety of purported actions, that’s true. It’s nothing if not versatile. Some applications of DMSO combine all of these: For instance, it is often used in surgical colic cases to reduce the risk of tissue adhesions due to inflammation and poor circulation; some surgeons think that it may also provide some pain relief in the hours following surgery.

6. DMSO is a prohibited substance in some sports.

DMSO isn’t technically a medica- tion, but various competition organizations treat it as one when it comes to drug testing.

The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) classifies DMSO as a “controlled” prohibited substance, meaning that although it may have some therapeutic value, DMSO has the potential to affect a horse’s performance and its use is forbidden or limited. As of January 2018, the threshold of DMSO allowed by FEI was 15 micrograms per milliliter in urine or one microgram per milliliter in plasma. The Jockey Club allows 10 micrograms per milliliter of plasma. If you compete with your horse, check any governing association rules regarding DMSO use.

Also keep in mind that because DMSO can move other materials through the skin, combining it with other medications could result in a violation of thresholds for both. For instance, mixing DMSO with the topical NSAID Surpass (diclofenac) can cause an increase of the medication in the bloodstream, leading to a disqualifying test. The medication guidelines for the United States Equestrian Federation state, “Do not apply diclofenac cream in combination with any other topical preparations including DMSO, nitrofurazone, or liniments.”

7. DMSO use in horses hasn’t been studied extensively.

A search of a research database will turn up a good sampling of peer-reviewed papers on DMSO use in horses, but the compound has gotten far less scientific scrutiny than have medications developed specifically for therapeutic applications. Some studies about DMSO’s effects contradict each other, particularly in regard to its use for treating arthritis.

Scant information is available regarding dosing. Often veterinarians rely on their own experiences and those of their colleagues in deciding when and how to use DMSO. That is why it’s important to let your veterinarian lead the way when it comes to treating your horse with this compound.

Whether applied topically, orally, intravenously or by injection, DMSO requires careful handling. But its versatility means that if you haven’t used it so far, you probably will eventually. If you do, keep these basic facts in mind to make sure your horse benefits fully from this unusual preparation.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

5 Show-Ring Tips to Help You Ace Your Hunter Rounds

Are you gearing up for show season? Here are a few tips from some of our favorite experts to help you and your horse perform your best hunter rounds.

Tom Brennan and Buttoned Up looking confident and focused during their hunter round at the Upperville Horse Show. 
1. First Impressions Count

Judges look at the whole picture, says USEF 'R' judge Patrick Rhodes. “Is your horse turned out well? Are your boots polished? Does your coat fit? If the overall look and appearance is happy and balanced and the horse has a certain presence, I get excited to watch your round.”

What you do next sets the tone for the judge. Patrick likes to see a rider start the round efficiently and confidently with an “I got this!” attitude. “Pick up a nice gallop in a rhythm and pace that suits your horse, then go straight to the first jump,” advises Patrick. “Don’t tour the whole ring.”

2. Wow the Judge Right Away

When deciding how to pin hunter classes, judges ask themselves, “Which of these horses would I most like to ride?” With rounds lasting only 90 to 120 seconds, says hunter rider, trainer and 'R' judge Tom Brennan, there’s not much time to demonstrate that your horse is the answer to that question. From the moment you enter the ring to the moment you leave, your performance must exude ease and confidence. Communication between you and your horse should be nearly invisible. Nothing should distract the judge’s attention from his round. In fact, the best riders seem to melt into the scenery—all you notice is the horse. Exceptional hunter riders allow the horse’s expression to come through so every obstacle he meets is simple, forward and enjoyable to watch.

3. Ride Preventatively

Before you ride any course, try to anticipate potential trouble spots for your particular horse, says top hunter rider Keri Kampsen. If he’s the type who loses momentum, bulges out and drifts toward the in-gate, plan how you will ride past it. If it’s on the end of the ring or in a corner, make your lead change early, then shave a little off the turn. Carry your whip in your outside hand and raise it slightly so he can see it out of the corner of his eye. Turn his head away from the in-gate and give a cluck to encourage him to keep cantering past it.

A lot of mistakes occur because of poor track riding: cutting corners, overshooting turns, etc. The best remedy is to stay focused and ignore things that distract your horse. Once your eye is on a jump, don’t look away. If you keep riding to it with determination, he will eventually catch up to you.

As she passes the in-gate, Keri Kampsen keeps a slight inside bend and closes her outside leg to keep her horse, Autumn, focused and looking ahead to the next jump on course. 

4. Maintain Rhythm to Ace the Long Approach

It’s most hunter riders’ nightmare: the long approach to a single fence, says top hunter/jumper rider Nick Haness. This question can be found at the beginning, middle or, most often, at the end of hunter courses at every level. For the horse, the long approach can be tricky if it’s going into or away from the in-gate, encouraging him to rush toward home or be sluggish going away. But this course element is mostly a rider challenge. With so much time to think about how things are going, what you should be doing or not doing and how you will find the distance to the fence, it’s hard to resist the temptation to do something.

Most often, riders interfere with the horse too much. They change the rhythm, move forward or come back because they have a doubt about the distance. Or they over- or under-steer. All of these tendencies circulate back to the mental aspect of the game: It’s hard to sit tight when you have so much time to think. In most cases, giving in to such temptations backfires on you. An example is seeing a distance on approach, then changing your mind and moving up unnecessarily. This causes your horse to take that fast, extra step—a chip—which likely wouldn’t have happened if you had maintained the same canter even if the distance was a little bit off.

5. Control Your Pace

Having an inconsistent pace not only destroys the nice flow the judge is looking for, but it also interferes with your ability to find the distances to the jumps, says top hunter rider Kristy Herrera. If you approach each fence in a reliable working canter—the canter that hunter courses are generally set for—you’ll have three options for meeting the correct takeoff spot: maintaining your current pace, moving up or waiting. If you approach the jump either too slowly or too quickly, that narrows your options. For example, if you’re going too fast, you’ll arrive at the jump at the end of your horse’s stride—the biggest stride he can make comfortably—which means you’ll have only two options: Either you’ll arrive at the fence on a very long, flat distance or you’ll be forced to shorten his stride at the last minute and get to a too-deep takeoff spot.

Re-published with permission from Practical Horseman.

Thursday, August 29, 2019

How Do I Open Up My Horse’s Stride in Combinations?

Learn how you can help your short-strided horse make the distances when jumping combinations.

A reader asks: "My horse has a shorter-than-average stride and sometimes has trouble making the distances in big combinations. If I try to help him by going faster in the approach, he gets too flat and knocks rails down. He’s a wonderful jumper otherwise and I’d hate to give up on him. What can I do to help him with these big combinations?"

Top hunter/jumper trainer Scott Lenkart offers the answer:

This is a fairly common problem that is solvable in most cases. Horses tend to shorten their stride when they’re nervous—and they often get nervous when you ask them to speed up. So pushing your horse to go faster into big combinations is counterproductive. Instead, the key is to learn how to help him relax into his most comfortable pace. Once he’s relaxed, it’ll be easier to encourage him to stretch his stride out, bit by bit. This takes lots of practice at home.

One exercise that you might find helpful is a simple grid consisting of a small crossrail, followed by a ground pole 9 feet away, then a one-stride in-and-out four strides from the crossrail (about 55 feet). Initially, set the in-and-out at a comfortable distance—about 21½ to 22 feet—to make it feel very doable for your horse. (For horses with a slightly bigger stride, I’d open that distance up somewhat, to perhaps 23 feet.) By trotting into this exercise, you’ll remove any concern about finding the right distance to the jumps. The ground pole will encourage your horse to land cantering after the crossrail, and the set distance will bring you to a nice takeoff spot for the “A” element of the combination. This is very important, as one bad distance to the “in” of an in-and-out can make any horse worry.

Build the in-and-out as either an oxer to a vertical or a vertical to an oxer, whichever is more comfortable for you and your horse. Make both jumps fairly small at first and ramp the oxer (build the front rail lower than the back rail). Add a ground line in front of each jump to make it more inviting.

As you trot into the grid, focus your eyes beyond the “B” element of the in-and-out. Stay in a light, forward seat, with your hands in front of your body. To avoid causing your horse to knock down a rail on takeoff, wait for him to leave the ground and then follow with your hand and upper body. When you land from “A,” rock back into your two-point position to make sure your leg is underneath you and your eyes are looking ahead, then ride to “B” in the same light, forward position. If the initial distances feel too long or short, adjust them accordingly to make them as comfortable as possible for your horse.

When this is riding well, widen the oxer a little bit. Always widen the oxer before raising it—and never do both at the same time. Then gradually increase the heights of the in-and-out fences. Keep the “out” jump smaller than the “in” jump, so it’s less intimidating. As your horse’s confidence grows, gradually lengthen the distance in the four-stride line to about 60 feet and the distance in the combination to 24 feet, always keeping the jumps very inviting, so he never feels threatened. So long as he stays relaxed, he’ll begin stretching his stride automatically. When that’s going well, lower the jumps again and try the opposite configuration (for example, oxer-to-vertical if you started with vertical-to-oxer).

To transfer these new skills to competitions, be sure to minimize any stress that might make you—and, thus, your horse—nervous. Allow plenty of time to tack up and get to the ring so you’re not rushed. Warm up with lots of flatwork to loosen up, relax and stretch your horse, spending more time in whichever gait he finds most relaxing. Use ground lines to help him arrive at good distances. Build his confidence by working your way up to a slightly wider (but not higher) oxer than you might see in the ring. Then finish with a somewhat smaller vertical or rampy oxer—whichever seems to suit your horse best—with a ground line.

On course, approach combinations in a normal canter. Stay in your forward seat and ride just the way you did at home. Remember to be patient on takeoff, then follow your horse’s motion with your hand and upper body. If he feels a little sticky, encourage him with a cluck.

Keep in mind, inconsistent riding can make your horse nervous. If he knocks a rail down—either at home or at a show—don’t overreact. Just continue practicing and doing your homework. As he begins to trust you and relax, he’ll learn to stretch his stride in the combinations as needed.

Scott Lenkart and his wife, Courtney, own and operate South Haven Farm, in Bartonville, Texas. Focusing on hunters, jumpers and equitation, they coach a limited number of riders, bringing them along from the beginner level to top placings in the hunter and grand prix arenas. Scott served as the USHJA Zone 7 team’s chef d’équipe at the North American Young Rider Show Jumping Team Championships in 2015. He and Courtney also train and compete a select group of horses through the highest levels of the sport—Courtney in hunters and Scott in jumpers. To date, Scott has won more than 45 grand prix events. They also buy horses in the U.S. and overseas to develop and sell to suitable riders.

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Dressage Schooling Notebook: An Exercise of Circles

Improve your horse’s straightness and contact with this dressage training exercise from Gerhard Politz.


Walk or trot your horse on a 20-meter circle in the direction that he feels hollow—where he tries to avoid contact. At the centerline, ride a change of rein and do a 10-meter volte.


  • Straightens your horse.
  • Encourages your horse to stretch his body into the rein on his hollow side and, eventually, helps you get more equal contact on both reins.

How to Do It:

  1. You first need to determine which is your horse’s stiff side and which is his hollow side. On his hollow side, he will have a tendency to bring his haunches in and fall through his outside shoulder. Falling through the outside shoulder becomes more obvious when riding circles or lateral movements such as shoulder-in. As a result, the contact on the outside rein becomes stronger because your horse tries to avoid contact on his hollow side.
  2. Begin riding a 20-meter circle on your horse’s hollow side in an energetic walk, working trot or an impulsive collected trot, according to your horse’s capabilities and stage of training. Let’s assume your horse is hollow to the right. Ride a 20-meter circle to the right. You will feel that the contact on your inside, right rein is lighter than on the outside, left rein. The measure of difference in the contact is related to the severity of stiff-versus-hollow side
  3. When you reach the centerline, ride a 10-meter volte to the left, to the outside of the 20-meter circle. Use your inside, left rein to bend your horse quite obviously in the neck. When your horse releases the inside muscles of his neck, his neck becomes somewhat concave. When that happens, immediately lighten the contact on your inside rein and allow your horse to stretch into the outside rein. Your inside leg is at the girth and your outside leg is behind the girth to ensure the bend and to prevent your horse’s haunches from falling out. If you ride the circle in the middle of the arena, you can repeat the outside volte on the opposite side of the 20-meter circle, thus linking two voltes to the bigger circle.
  4. Repeat this exercise several times, and you will feel that your horse is increasingly ready to take contact on the outside rein in the volte. It is important, however, that you keep giving the inside rein on the volte whenever possible. Remember that this is the rein on which your horse wants to be heavy when you ride the 20-meter circle.

Tips for Success:
  • Begin at the walk to introduce and familiarize yourself with the exercise. Pay attention to the quality of the walk and the degree of “forward.” Do not allow your horse to walk “like a snail on vacation.”
  • Make sure you don’t wrench your horse with your hands around the circle and volte.

Variations of this exercise improve the straightness and strength of your horse’s hollow side, confirming him in that rein, and make him lighter on the opposite, heavier rein. Your horse will become suppler and more flexible, his collection will be enhanced and his shoulders will become free. Because of the loosening and suppling effects, these variations also help address problems arising from a “passagey” or “hovering” trot. In addition, your riding skills will improve considerably if you strive for meticulously correct execution of the movements.

  • To increase the gymnastic value of this exercise, incorporate lateral work. For example, begin with shoulder-in right on the 20-meter circle. On the centerline, change rein to a 15-meter circle riding haunches-in left. Make sure you often release the inside, left rein on the smaller circle just as you did previously in the volte so your horse takes a better contact on the outside rein. Then at the centerline change rein again to the 20-meter circle to shoulder-in right. Over time, the degree of difficulty can be enhanced by downsizing the 15-meter circle to a 10-meter volte.
  • Vary riding shoulder-in right and renvers on the 20-meter circle. Eventually go from renvers to a 15-meter circle or smaller outside circle in haunches-in.

Before you include lateral work on circles, it is advisable that you acquire good knowledge of riding lateral work on straight lines. It is very easy to misjudge and overdo the bend and angle of lateral movements when riding them on circles. This would throw the horse onto his shoulders and be totally contrary to the purpose of lateral work. Also, make sure you don’t overdo the angles in lateral work and don’t wrench your horse around with your hands since serious drawbacks will occur, such as the horse losing regularity of the gait, impulsion and possibility of collection.

A Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI)-level competitor and trainer, Gerhard Politz emigrated to the United States from Germany in 1987. He is a Reitlehrer Fn, a British Horse Society Instructor and a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medalist. In Germany, he studied with masters such as Egon von Neindorff and Willi Schultheis as well as Gen. Kurt Albrecht, former head of the Spanish Riding School. In 1992, Politz joined the editorial board of the USDF Instructor’s Manual. He works out of the Flintridge Riding Club in Pasadena, California.   

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Fit and Fun for life

Margie Engle: Fit and Fun for Life

How a legendary grand prix rider extends her jumpers’ careers without dampening their enthusiasm for the sport.

My number-one priority is always the horse. I’m constantly seeking new ways to extend my mounts’ careers without making them mentally or physically sour. I avoid overdrilling them not just to prevent unnecessary stress on their legs but also because I want them to look forward to their work with the freshest, happiest attitudes possible. I accompany my husband, Steve Engle, DVM, to veterinary conferences to keep up to date on the latest science and strategies for strengthening and conditioning horses while also reducing their risk of injury as much as possible. I also pay attention to methods that trainers use in other disciplines. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve learned:

1. Minimize the pounding. Over time, concussion may lead to injuries in horses’ feet, joints, tendons and ligaments. The bigger the jumps, the greater the concussion. So small jumps are best for schooling sessions.

2. Avoid excessive repetition. Just as repetitive motions can cause tendonitis in humans, they can lead to muscle fatigue in horses, which, in turn, causes physical structures to break down. This can be challenging in sports like jumping, where a certain amount of practice is necessary for both horses and riders to develop and refine their skills. If you don’t practice at all, you and your horse may not have the required strength and timing to perform to the best of your abilities without risking injuries. So it’s a fine line. Some practice is a must, but change things up before your horse gets sore or bored.

3. Target the entire body. Focusing too much on one body part eventually leads to compensation. For example, if you constantly ask your horse to land on one particular lead, his muscles on one side of his body may fatigue. To compensate, he’ll try to shift the load over to the other side of his body. This is how many lamenesses develop. The stronger your horse’s entire body is, the less risk he’ll have of getting injured. So choose exercises that work both sides of his body equally and also strengthen his stomach, back, neck, etc.

4. Use interval training and cross-training. Event riders are especially good at interval training. They know how to bring their horses’ heart rates up, maintain the intensity for several moments, then ease off to bring the rates back down again. Gradually increasing the number of these interval “sets” improves overall strength and fitness.

I also incorporate the gallop into my jumpers’ routine programs not just to improve their adjustability and get them comfortable at the gait but also to expand their lungs.

Dressage is excellent cross-training and a great way to improve rideability and responsiveness. All horses should be taught basic dressage. If you are able to progress to a more advanced level, the gradual incorporation of collection into your jumper’s routine will strengthen different muscles from the ones he is accustomed to using. When Olympic dressage rider Lisa Wilcox rides my horses, it’s like sending them to the gym: She makes them use their hind ends in brief repetitive sets, asking them to do the equine equivalent of human squats.

5. Work on different surfaces. Riding your horse on a variety of terrain—sand ring, grass ring, trails, hills and even firm surfaces—strengthens different structures in his body and gets him comfortable performing on diverse types of footing. It’s great for his mental health, too.

6. Repeat exercises in both directions whenever possible. Horses’ brains don’t work exactly like ours do. When you perform an exercise and then approach it from the reverse direction, for them it’s like seeing it for the first time. You’ll always get the most out of a lesson if you can do it both ways.

I design my schooling sessions with all of these principles in mind. Below are three of the exercises I use to keep my horses’ programs fresh and effective.

Exercise 1: Football Grid

Setup: Place four poles 3 to 3½ feet apart with a single, adjustable cavalletti support on one end of each pole, arranged so the cavalletti are angled in an alternating fashion. Start with the poles flat on the ground or at their lowest setting.

Step 1
I approach the poles in a collected trot. I normally begin this exercise at the sitting trot to have maximum control of the rhythm and pace, but I use a rising trot on Alter Ego, owned by Lea Allen, because he stays naturally animated in his hind end and is already familiar with the exercise.

Step 2
This is a good example of how the poles help to improve the connection between your leg and hand. By using too much hand and not enough leg, I’ve made it difficult for Alter to lengthen his stride. As a result, he steps into the exercise a little shallowly. His front hoof has landed close to the first pole rather than where I’d like it to be: halfway between the first and second poles.

Step 3
This time through the exercise we have the opposite problem: I’ve used too much leg and not enough hand (see the slight loop in my rein). As a result, Alter extends too much and tries to jump the cavalletti.

Step 4
Finally, we get the connection just right! He’s stepping almost perfectly between the poles, flexing his hocks and knees exceptionally well and stretching his head and neck forward and down, making good use of his back and topline muscles. I can really feel the animation and suspension in his steps here.

Step 5
When Alter feels ready, we rotate the cavalletti to the next height (8 inches), and when that goes well, we move them up to 10 inches. You can tell by the nice curve in his topline that he’s engaging his neck, back and hindquarter muscles to raise his legs higher over the poles, creating a more suspended gait.

Step 6
Finally, we rotate the cavalletti to their highest height (12 inches). Note how much he’s flexing his joints and using his topline. This is a great low-impact way to strengthen his muscles.

This exercise reminds me of the tires that football players run through to improve their agility and coordination. It strengthens a horse’s topline, engages his hind end, increases the suspension in his gaits, teaches him to regulate his pace and gives him a better awareness of where his feet are. At the same time, it improves straightness as well as the rider’s leg-to-hand connection with the horse.

To set up the grid, you can use any equipment that enables you to raise a cavalletti on just one side. I have boxes that I can roll over to create different heights (6 inches, 8 inches, 10 inches and 12 inches). Jump standards would work, too, if yours have holes that go as low as about 6 inches. Place three or four poles about 3 to 3½ feet apart—up to 4 feet apart for bigger horses—with a block or standard next to each pole.

For the first few passes through the grid, set both ends of each pole on the ground so they’re just normal trot poles. Approach them in an active, collected sitting trot. (Sitting trot is ideal because it provides the most control over your horse’s rhythm and impulsion and gives you the best feel of what he is doing underneath you. But rising trot is fine, too, if you’re not comfortable sitting the trot yet.) Wrap your legs down around your horse’s sides so you can feel his hind end and back working. Think of pushing his hind legs forward while creating more suspension in his steps, asking him to march up to the poles.

Trot straight through the center of the poles, then change direction, make a loop and ride back through them the other way. Change direction again, this time turning the opposite way after the poles (if you made the previous loop to the left, make this one to the right), so you end up riding a sort-of figure-eight pattern over them. Focus on riding a very accurate track: straight in the approach, over the poles and afterward, then making nice bending turns. Use the ends of the ring to maximize your straightness in each approach to the exercise.

If your horse is nervous or tries to rush through the poles, bring him down to the walk, remove a pole or two (from the beginning and/or end of the series so the remaining poles are still 3 to 3½ feet apart) and walk over the remaining poles very slowly and deliberately. This will teach him to step in between the poles. When he’s doing that well, go back to trot and approach the poles in a very quiet, controlled manner. After several successful repetitions, add the other pole(s) back in.

Once he is comfortable with the ground poles, raise the alternating ends of each pole so that one end rests on the ground and the other end is raised by the block or standard, set at its lowest height. For example, raise the first pole on the right side, the second on the left, and so on. Approach the grid in the same way, in your sitting trot if possible. Stay connected with your legs and hands so your horse understands he’s still supposed to step over the rails and not jump them.

Repeat this a few times in both directions, praising him each time he does it correctly and taking plenty of walk breaks. Then, if he seems really comfortable with the exercise, raise the pole ends to the next height. Don’t go above 8 inches in your first session. If he has a good first experience and is feeling confident and coordinated, you can start your next session where you left off and gradually increase the height and/or add more poles, if you like. Also, if you feel secure in the saddle, try the exercise a few times without stirrups.

As your horse gets the hang of the exercise, you should feel his energy clearly flowing from your legs into a nice connection in your hands. Each time you go through the poles, try to find a happy balance between your legs and hands. If he slows down and drops behind your leg, ask yourself if you were using too much hand. If he gets flat and fast, ask yourself if you were using too much leg and too little hand. You never want to be rough with either your hands or legs, but instead want to maintain a light connection with both, allowing for and supporting a nice steady rhythm.

You will also feel more spring in his back as he lifts his legs over the poles. This is the elevation and suspension you want to feel—and it’s just the impulsion and “spring-loading” we want for jumping. Once you have a nice connection over the poles, it’s OK to do them at the rising trot. Be sure to continue asking for collection and suspension in each repetition of the exercise.

Remember not to overdrill. Once your horse seems to understand the exercise, repeat it just a few more times before going on to something else. Then incorporate it into your flatwork, doing some lengthening and shortening of the stride, lateral work, canter transitions, etc., elsewhere in the ring in between passes over the poles.

Exercise 2: Double Bounce

Setup: Build three verticals with ground rails on both sides of each, 9 to 10 feet apart from one another.

Step 1
The first time we go through the exercise, we remove the rail from the third vertical, leaving its two ground rails side by side in place. We approach this single bounce in a collected but animated canter. As Alter locks his focus on the first fence, I wait for him to...

Step 2
… jump up to me. I stay quiet in the saddle, keeping my eyes up and my hands softly following his mouth, letting him figure out the exercise.

Step 3
In this moment, Alter is setting himself up for the next jump: His front feet have already touched down and pushed off again while his hind legs are just about to land from the first jump. By engaging his hindquarters, he compresses his body into this tight round shape.

Step 4
As he jumps the second vertical confidently, already focusing on the next ground poles, I stay out of his way, letting the jumps do the work instead of my hands.

Step 5
Now we build the third vertical. I approach the grid in the same canter and stay quiet as he bounces through the exercise. He’s starting to engage his hind end to land and push off immediately. You can tell by his expression that he’s paying attention. The curve in his neck and back and the muscle ripples along his belly show that this exercise is “gymnasticizing” his entire body.

Step 6
Now we make the grid more visually interesting by raising a cup on one side of each vertical (two holes higher than the lower side), so the jumps are angled in an alternating fashion similar to the football-grid exercise. I canter Alter to it in the same way and then leave him alone to do
his job.

Like the last exercise, this one is great for improving straightness and rhythm while rocking your horse back onto his hind end and making him quicker with his front end. It helps to center his arc correctly over the tops of the fences. It also teaches him to learn from his own mistakes and back himself up from the jumps to avoid going “past the distance” or getting too close to the jump on takeoff. Meanwhile, you can focus on your own position and balance.

Only do this exercise with an experienced horse who is already familiar with bounce jumps.

Set up three small crossrails 9 to 10 feet apart. Alternatively, you can make each jump a single rail, raised at one end and resting on the ground on the other end as you did in Exercise 1. If you and your horse are more experienced, make the jumps small verticals, no higher than 2½ feet. If he has a naturally bigger stride, increase the distances between the jumps to as much as 11 feet. Place a ground rail on each side of every jump. This will help your horse’s depth perception and prevent him from going past the distances.

Approach the bounces in a collected canter, being sure that your horse is in front of your leg. In this exercise, it’s better to be a little tight to the jumps than too forward. When you arrive at the first jump, leave him alone to focus on his job. The more you can stay out of his way, the better. Hold your two-point position throughout the exercise, allowing him to jump up and close your hip angle over each obstacle.

If he gets quick over the bounces, think of being almost a little behind the motion with your body, using your weight—not your hands—to gently slow him down.

Jump the bounces in both directions. When that’s going well, you can gradually add another jump or two.

If you have a young horse and want to trot instead of canter into the exercise, put a placement pole 7 to 8 feet from the first jump to help him arrive at a comfortable takeoff spot. Then set a second placement pole 9 to 10 feet after the last jump. With this setup, jump through the exercise in only one direction so the trot pole is at the beginning, not the end.

Exercise 3: In-and-Out

Setup: Place a vertical and square oxer 21 feet apart with ground rails on both sides of each jump. Add two perpendicular rails on the ground in between the jumps to help keep the horse straight (10 to 11 feet apart from one another initially).

Step 1
We approach the in-and-out at a working canter in the vertical-to-oxer direction first. In the air over the vertical, I follow Alter’s mouth with my hands while focusing my eyes on the oxer.

Step 2
After we land from the vertical, I close my leg and continue to use a soft following hand to encourage him to keep cantering forward. I try to stay out of his way, allowing him to focus on the jumps, not on what I’m doing. As a result, he sets himself up to …

Step 3
… produce a nice round effort over the oxer. Next, we’ll canter the oxer to the vertical.

Step 4
The distance rides tighter this direction, but without any interference from me, Alter studies the problem and sets himself up properly to create an excellent jump out over the vertical, lifting his knees well and powering off his hind end.

This final exercise will continue to emphasize straightness while helping you focus even more on body control and reminding your horse to collect and rock back onto his hindquarters on takeoff.

Set up a small vertical 21 to 22 feet from a small square oxer. Place ground rails on either side of both jumps. Add another pair of ground rails in the middle of the exercise, perpendicular to the jumps, to create a straight chute for your horse to canter through. Some horses spook at these poles when they first see them, so set them 10 to 11 feet apart initially.

Approach this in-and-out at a working canter, starting in the vertical-to-oxer direction. This should ride comfortably at this distance, although you may need to add leg after the vertical to be sure the apex of your horse’s next jumping effort is directly over the center of the oxer.

When your horse has jumped the in-and-out well in that direction, approach it from the other direction. The distance might feel a little tighter this way, so after you close your leg to help him across the oxer, stay quiet in the tack, allowing him to figure out the exercise. Let the jumps back him off. Help him more with your body control than with your hands—by opening your hip angle and sitting a little taller with your upper body.

Continue alternating directions through the exercise a few times to feel how differently you need to ride the vertical-to-oxer versus the oxer-to-vertical. Meanwhile, if your horse is having trouble staying straight, gradually roll the perpendicular ground rails closer together until they are about 8 or 9 feet apart. If he has a major drifting problem, angle these rails into a mild “V” shape, bringing the ends of the poles slightly closer together (but no closer than 3 feet) in front of the takeoff of the second jump. At this point, only jump the in-and-out in this direction—or ask a ground person to reconfigure the “V” each time so that the narrower end is always pointing toward the second jump.

If you’re a more advanced rider and this exercise is going well, practice it without stirrups and/or tie a knot in your reins and put your hands on your hips or out to the sides like airplane wings over the jumps. This will help you improve your independence from your hands and focus on your position and balance in the air.

Remember, your horse’s welfare should always come first. Keep your schooling sessions fun and interesting without ever overdoing it—so you both can look forward to next time!

About Margie Engle

Margie Engle has been one of the winningest jumper riders in the U.S. for more than three decades. As a child, she cleaned dog and cat kennels in exchange for riding lessons until she was deemed big enough to muck stalls and groom horses. She didn’t own her own horse until her late 20s. In the meantime, she learned every aspect of horsemanship, working her way to the top of the sport. To date, Margie has won more than 200 grands prix classes, six World Cup qualifiers, more than 20 Nations Cups and a record 10 American Grandprix Association Rider of the Year titles. She competed in the 2000 Olympics, won team silver at the 1999 Pan American Games, team gold and individual bronze at the 2003 Pan Am Games and team silver at the 2006 World Equestrian Games. Last year, she and 13-year-old Oldenburg stallion Royce anchored the winning team at the Nations Cup in British Columbia before topping the field in the $130,000 ATCO Nations Finale Grand Prix. Proving her ability to extend the longevity of her mounts, Margie currently has two 18-year-olds competing in FEI-level classes: Bockmanns Lazio, who has already scored multiple top-10 placings this year, and Indigo, who placed third in the $205,000 NetJets Grand Prix CSI**** at the Winter Equestrian Festival this February with double-clear rounds. Margie and her husband of 23 years, veterinarian Steve Engle, are based at Gladewinds Farm in Wellington, Florida.

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of Practical Horseman.