Fitness and confidence: Is your horse fit enough — are you?

Is your horse fit enough -- are you?

Here’s an interesting question – how many of us, when our horse changes his behaviour, stop and ask ourselves: Is he in pain?  Is he in discomfort?  When a horse dips it’s back, or refuses the saddle we know to look into saddle fit; when a horse is hopping lame we check the feet – but how many of us think about the physical side of things with a horse who is spooky? Nappy? Stubborn?  Lazy?

One friend of mine was told her horse was not “willing” to work through properly – -and was evading using herself “properly”.  Her trainer recommended using a pessoa.  And did.  A few weeks later the horse was unable to move without stumbling and tripping.  It turned out that the lack of willingness was the first sign that her horse was actually UNABLE to work through properly (remember the blog article where I say even a won’t is usually some form of can’t)  In fact after a LOT of investigation she discovered that the horse had a fractured pedal bone which was causing her great pain and many compensatory problems – any one of which would have made it impossible for her to “work through”.

By assuming the issue was behavioural and the horse just needed to be “shown” how to move properly – ie forced into the position using a gadget – the trainer was assuming the horse was FIT enough to do what was asked – and, more interestingly, was assuming that the horse was CHOOSING not to do it.

When you take the mindset that the horse, once your relationship is established, has no reason to NOT want to do what you are asking, then both these assumptions become invalid – leading to the question that we must all ask before we embark on any programme aimed at behavioural change – we need to make sure our horse is actually CAPABLE of doing what we are asking her to do – and, in fact, to sustain the relationship we need to make sure we are only ASKING her to do what she is capable of doing – and therefore never set our horse up to “fail” to do their best for us.

In another case, a friend had an inkling something was not quite right with her horse – and to give her full credit, she asked for advice: her horse was not as forwards as she used to be, and was refusing to turn and do certain moves.  On questioning, it turned out the horse was reluctant to do any move that required weight being put on a single leg – the obvious thought would be that she was lame, however my friend said she was moving evenly.  I went to see her – and was able to see (thanks to my equine podiatry and equine touch courses) that she WAS moving evenly – she was in fact, lame on all four feet!  When I looked at her feet, she had such bad white line disease that just walking caused her discomfort.  A period of intensive foot soaking (using Clean trax) and foot care meant that she recovered quite quickly – and along with her physical recovery came the recovery of her previous positive, cooperative, willing to learn attitude.

This realisation that a “can’t” could be physical is particularly important when we start asking more of our horses – and start asking them to work in specific ways and carry themselves differently.

Here’s the thing – try walking up a hill:  if you walk up it normally, you will lean forwards, pull yourself up – and your quadriceps will ache a bit.  This is how most animals, including humans – -walk.  We lean forwards and then allow our legs to swing from the joints – it’s a very energy efficient way of moving and saves out muscled energy for if we need to run.  Our quads ache because we are pushing backwards, using them.

Now let’s think about how we often ask our HORSES to walk:  weight off the forehand, hindquarters engaged and imagine that.  If WE walk up a hill like that we would lift our shoulders back above our hips (no leaning forwards), tip our pelvis into the elvis pelvis angle, and then slowly and thoughtfully, staying balanced (so if someone called STOP! At any instant we could stop, even with a foot in mid air – and be TOTALLY balanced) lift our legs using our muscles, not our joints – and walk up the hill….How long is it before you start aching? You are using completely different muscles – your glute/buttocks will soon start aching and it is HARD work.

If we think about our horses – most of the day they are in the stable, or field – with no interference from us.  They just go the easiest way possible, falling forwards, pulling themselves along.  We tend to only see that engagement of the hind quarters and lifting of the shoulders when they are excited in play or spookiness, otherwise it’s efficiency first and saving energy with that “weight on the forehand” position:  60/40 weight distribution at walk.

Then we get on them say “Come on, put your weight back, walk THIS way” – and we wonder why they resist?

First, they will be resisting simply because they are so USED to falling forwards!  Their WEIGHT will fall forwards as per their habit and so they will feel heavy in our hand – not giving us the lightness we want.

Secondly, even though they might not be wanting to fall forwards, and be really really TRYING to keep their weight back and use the muscles needed to be light in front – they might simply not be ABLE to – and again, they will feel heavy in our hand as they keep falling out of lightness and back onto their forehand.

And this heaviness is NOTHING to do with the bit, it’s NOTHING to do with behavioural issues.  The horse is not being “lazy” or “naughty” or “disobedient” or “heavy” – the horse is simply being honest and telling you “right now, THIS is what I can offer you”.

Recently someone got in touch with me about their cob being heavy and leaning on the bit.  Especially when they were cantering.  She knew it wasn’t necessary but had no idea why her horse was so heavy and wouldn’t lighten up, whatever bit she used.  In fact, when she went to a more severe bit, her cob started ducking his head to avoid it, which made it impossible to do anything.

When I went to see her horse she showed me her online warmup.  And you know what?  Her horse couldn’t even TROT a circle around her without leaning on the halter.  To Canter online, he had to turn his head out, away from her, lean on the halter and “crowhop” or “minibuck” into the canter, and couldn’t STAY in canter unless he could use the rope and halter to lean on.

How interesting – this horse couldn’t even balance HIMSELF at trot and canter, let alone balance himself AND a rider.

With some insight, knowledge and practice, the owner was able to teach her horse to balance himself online – and started asking him to do that for a stride or two, then a bit more, then a bit more – after a few weeks he had the muscles to balance himself on the circle at trot and canter without leaning, for a couple of circles.  We used frequent breaks and rewards so he knew what we were asking, and we ALLOWED him to choose when he needed to stop and take a break….as long as he was TRYING we let him set the pace.  Once he was able to balance himself, then we were able to start thinking about asking him to balance with a rider.

So even though this horse wasn’t in pain, or discomfort, his apparent behavioural issues of being stubborn defiant etc – were actually just him not being ABLE to do what was being asked.

It’s interesting – the one part of the human body that is larger than the horse’s equivalent is the brain – and yet it’s the one part we find so hard to use when working with our equine partners.

So there’s the first question for you – is your horse FIT enough to do what you are asking?


Secondly – are YOU fit enough to be confident?

Since I have already typed 1300 words and this risks becoming a novella rather than a blog post – I will keep this short.  You do not have to be an Olympic athlete to be good for your horse, or be confident around your horse.  However, there ARE some attributes that athletes have – and this includes the paralympic champions:

They are able to manage their MENTAL and EMOTIONAL fitness – and develop strategies to support their levels of physical ability.

So in closing, a thought for you is – are you SURE your horse is FIT enough to do what you are asking?

And a question for you:

– what are the aspects of mental and emotional fitness that you think are key for your confidence with your horse?

Yours, in confidence



3 thoughts on “Fitness and confidence: Is your horse fit enough — are you?

  1. Great Blog! I always enjoy your blogs. This is so true. I am presently going through a “fitness” issue with my horse. I knew a month ago something wasn’t quite right with my mare. A couple of my “horsey” friends and my daughter’s trainer said, “Oh, she’s just stiff, she’ll work out of it.” Or, “she’s just being an ornery mare” She would kick out or mini-buck whenever I asked for a canter on a circle and was resistant to going forward. Sometimes it felt like her right hip would fall out from under me and she was leaning on my left leg unusually hard. My gut said something was wrong. Upon vet inspection she has a loose stifle. So, we had to go back to “fitness square one”. Lots of walking up and down hills. Now, we are able to do some trot work without problems, again. I sometimes find myself frustrated because I want to be doing more, but that would be bad for her. And I have to remember how patient she was with me when I was coming back from a back injury a year ago. As far as my fitness goes, I am doing exercises to keep my core strong and lots of walking, so I can be balanced in the saddle for her. Mentally, I have to work on getting over my nervousness to canter (which developed as a result of her kicking out/mini-bucking). I have a hard time trusting my own judgement about when to move on and when we’re not ready yet. I have what others descibe as an overly-cautious nature.
    Thanks for blogging – I’ll keep reading.

  2. Oh another really good blog post! Looking forward to the new book once it comes out on Kindle!
    I think the thing that stuck with me most in this article was the question at the end:
    “– what are the aspects of mental and emotional fitness that you think are key for your confidence with your horse?”
    Just because I felt like I had worked really hard this year and actually was becoming less confident over time.
    Things that helped me:
    – Cross train (ridden). My dressage RI and I have very similar views but since we are both so focused on protecting our horses from rider error I felt almost frozen and so inadequate.
    So I got off the lunge line and into a Western saddle. The Western RI has more of a ‘just ride and worry about the details later’ attitude and I think it’s just what I needed this year. Cross training also fills in the gaps for me nicely (being able to feel and absorb the movement of sitting trot on a Western horse versus big strides Dressage horse, etc.)
    – Just Ride. Different horses. I started riding my husband’s horse and while she scares HIM a bit, she turned out to be a real confidence giver for ME. During the most trying times with my green mare, Minnie, I made sure to always ride Bixby first that day to get into that calm and confident state of mind before I ever even saddled Minnie up.
    – Cross train (other sports). Some martial arts forms have a lot to offer equestrians in regards to following the movement, core stability and yes even learning how to fall. I’ve started Aikido.

    • The cross-training, both in the saddle and other sports, is an awesome thing! You are so lucky to have 2 different horses to ride! I’ve actually been thinking I should find someplace to take western lessons to diversify my own learning and skill set.

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