Thursday, August 6, 2015

Balance in the Canter

By Lisa Pierson

Lisa Pierson explains how to balance your horse in the canter with exercises to improve engagement.

How Can I Balance My Horse in the Canter?

A few weeks ago my horse fell down with me when cantering through a corner. Ever since then, I’m afraid of cantering through corners. My horse, a 13-year-old Hanoverian, didn’t bolt, he just lost traction with his hind legs in the canter. He is 18 hands and has a huge stride. I’m a First Level rider, but he is trained to the FEI levels. How can I avoid this problem in the future? How can I get my horse sure-footed in the canter? Our indoor arena measures 20 by 60 meters.
Sam Cochran 
Petaluma, California

Lisa Pierson

It is a very scary and dangerous situation when a horse falls down. The first thing to consider is whether your horse is sound and strong enough to do his job, pain-free and without neurological problems. Neurological problems can affect your horse’s coordination, and pain and stiffness can make him reluctant to use his joints to bend and balance or load a sore limb. Back pain, neck pain as well as vision problems are all important to rule out. A veterinarian should evaluate your horse.

Most of our schoolmasters are older and may need extra care for their older bodies. They may also need extra time for loosening up. Fatigue also can make a horse struggle to balance himself. It is also important to consider the footing you work your horse on; slippery, wet, shifting or uneven footing can be very risky.

If your horse is able to longe, observe him on the longe line without tack. Watch him in the canter. Does he lose his balance? Does he have difficulty maintaining the canter? Is one direction worse than the other? Is he different with tack on when longeing? Ill-fitting tack can make a horse stiff or sore in his topline, inhibiting his ability or willingness to balance through his core.

Occasionally horses do lose their balance—tripping or misstepping, even falling down. The bigger, more powerful movers can be more difficult to keep in balance. The rider needs to be able to manage the amount of pushing power these horses have through the strength of their own position (core) and by using half halts to engage and collect the horse from behind. When the push from the horse’s hind legs is stiff and the hocks are out behind, this pushes the horse more on the forehand, downhill. You can usually feel this in your contact—very strong and heavy on your hands.

In the canter it can be even more difficult to keep a horse in balance because it is hard to keep the hindquarters level and not tilting (due to the inside hind leading ahead of the outside hind), twisting the hips up and out behind and causing loss of traction. Overflexing the neck can also cause the horse to lose traction much like turning the steering wheel of a car too sharply can cause the car to fishtail.

It’s best to use the Training Scale to problem-solve:

Rhythm: Does your horse lose rhythm or tempo in corners and on smaller circles by scrambling, stalling or rushing?

Suppleness and Relaxation: Does your horse stiffen or brace through his body or have tension through corners and circles?

Contact: Is your horse heavy on the forehand, leaning on your hands for balance instead of carrying himself?

Impulsion: The release (thrust) of energy should be stored by the engagement of the hind legs, not downhill speed.

Straightness: Is your horse able to bend through a corner or circle and stay level, with his hind legs on the same track as his shoulders (in alignment even while bending) or is he crooked, jackknifing and falling out through his shoulder or hind end?

Collection: Is your horse able to bring his hindquarters under his center of gravity to balance for a corner in the canter?

To properly ride your horse through corners, you need to half halt as you approach the corner, roughly 6 meters, or 20 feet, before the approaching arena wall, and you need to establish true bending that engages your horse’s inside hind leg to balance him for your turns, circles and corners.

Before turning, weight your inside seat bone by pushing your inside hip forward and lowering your inside knee, not collapsing your inside hip. This begins bending your horse’s body for the corner, with the inside leg at the girth to bring his inside hind leg farther forward.

The horse should be flexed slightly to the inside with the inside rein (you should be able to see his inside eye, but he should not be flexed past his inside shoulder). The outside rein prevents the horse’s outside shoulder from falling out but still allows him to flex to the inside. The rider’s outside leg, slightly behind the girth, keeps the hindquarters from swinging out. Remember that the horse’s hind feet must track in the path of the front feet, so the amount of bend you ask for cannot disturb this alignment.

Think of your corners as a quarter of a circle, however small you can accurately ride without losing the proper bend and alignment—20 meters, 15, 10 or 6. A shallower corner is safer until you can reliably ride smaller circles while maintaining steady bend, alignment and balance.

To build your confidence, you need to be able to engage your horse’s hind end to control his balance. Your position must be strong enough so that you hold your horse together through your leg and seat, not from your hands. The bigger the movement of your horse, the harder this can be to do.

The following exercises will improve engagement:

  • Ride transitions before your corners, teaching the horse to listen to your aids for coming back, then engage to go forward through the corner. 
  • Try riding a step or two of turn on the forehand at the walk before each corner to engage your horse’s inside hind leg for bending into corners.
  • Add an extra step or two in each corner in your canter to collect your horse. 
  • Maintain the tempo and rhythm in your canter while adding extra steps between letters or markers.
  • Ride transitions in shoulder-in. They are a great exercise for engaging your horse and maintaining the bend while collecting him.

Keep track of the tempo and rhythm when you are preparing your horse for a corner; slowing down becomes leaning, speeding up becomes downhill running. Neither of these accomplish better balance, although slowing down is safer.

Lisa Pierson is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level, a USDF “L” Education Program graduate and a USDF bronze and silver medalist. An FEI-level trainer and competitor, she is based in New York State.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in an article of  Dressage TodayIt is reprinted here by permission.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Protect Your Horse From Heat Stress

Safeguard your horse from this potentially serious summertime health threat.

The carefree days of summer can quickly turn worrisome when elevated air temperature and high humidity begin to take a toll on a horse’s health. Heat stress can occur when a hot horse isn’t able to sufficiently cool himself by sweating. The condition affects equine athletes as well as more sedentary individuals. A horse standing in the close confines of a trailer or poorly ventilated barn can overheat. Here’s what you need to know to safeguard your horse from this potentially serious summertime health threat.

The Cause

A horse’s muscles generate significant heat, especially when he’s active. Sweating is the mechanism his body uses to dissipate the heat. But soaring temperatures and high levels of humidity (see below) make it more difficult for the sweating process to have its usual cooling effect. As a result, a horse may become dehydrated, lose vital electrolytes or simply overheat.

The Signs

A horse suffering heat stress is likely to be

  • lethargic and weak
  • lack his normal desire to move forward
  • breathe rapidly—faster than 60 breaths per minute with nostrils flared
  • have a respiratory rate higher than his heart rate
  • show little or no interest in food or water
  • have a rectal temperature of 102 to 103 F.

Heat stress can lead to muscle cramping, reduced gastrointestinal function and even colic. Unchecked, the condition can quickly progress to heat stroke—a failure of the body mechanisms that normally regulate temperature, resulting in decreased blood pressure, narrowing of the blood vessels and reduced heart function. It’s possible for the temperature of a horse with heat stroke to rise above 106 F, which leads to damage of the kidneys, liver, central nervous system, lungs and heart. The horse may collapse in shock.

What to Do

Immediately move a horse showing signs of heat stress into a shady spot. Offer him free-choice water, both plain and with electrolytes. Either hose or sponge him with cool to cold water (ice water is OK if it’s available), especially where large veins are close to the skin: Look for the jugular vein on the neck and the saphenous vein on the inside of each hind leg. It is very important to scrape any excess water from his skin. Even a light coating will act as an insulator to retain body heat.

Call your veterinarian if your horse’s temperature rises above 104 F and does not decrease with cool-water baths and rest. He may be suffering heat stroke and need intravenous fluids and electrolyte replacement as well as an examination to determine if he is colicking or tying up. Do not administer medications such as bute or Banamine® while he is dehydrated because kidney damage can occur.

Once a heat-stressed horse’s vital signs have returned to normal and he’s cool to the touch between his front legs, hand-walk him for about 15 minutes to help prevent his muscles from cramping. Then return him to a shady place—maybe a well-ventilated stall or a paddock with plenty of trees—and check him over the next few hours, watching for signs of colic or muscle cramps. If none develop, he can probably return to light exercise, such as walking, the next day.

Weather Watch

“Heat index” is a term commonly included in weather forecasts during the warmer months of the year. It is a measure developed by the National Weather Service to express the discomfort felt as a result of the combined effect of air temperature and relative humidity (see chart). Here’s how to use it to gauge the effect that activity may have on your horse: If the heat index is

  • less than 90 F: Your horse likely will be able to work normally and cool himself sufficiently as long as he’s adequately fit for what you’re asking him to do.
  • 90–100 F: Proceed with caution. Overheating is possible with prolonged activity and exposure.
  • 101–129 F: The risk of heat stress is high. Ride during the cooler part of the day, take frequent breaks and skip high-stress activities.
  • above 129 F: This is the danger zone. The risk of heat stroke is high. Cancel your plans or postpone them to a cooler part of the day.

Sharon J. Spier, DVM, PhD, was Treating Veterinarian in charge of internal medicine at five Olympic Games from 1988 to 2008 and numerous Pan American Games. She is a professor at the University of California at Davis, where her specialty is equine medicine.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Practical Horseman in December 2014. It is reprinted here by permission.