Back in January I was pretty obsessed with getting on the fitness train with Murray hardcore, and I had a whole plan to do it. Unfortunately, life got in the way (swollen knee, lame, out of town, horse fell down, horse got chiro), and Murray and I haven’t really done much conditioning to date. I guess we did do some hills, which was quite good for us. To try to make up for that, I’ve been doing extra long warm-ups and cool-downs (at least 10 minutes of walking, closer to 20 if I can manage it), and a long trot set before our last conditioning ride.
I mentioned back in week one that it’s important to know your horse’s unevenness, and both Ballou and other equine fitness authors talk about the importance of working the weaker side correctly. My intuition, as a hoomin, is to just work the weaker side more. I’m right handed and a pianist, so when I wanted to gain strength and dexterity in my left hand I just did Hanon scales and exercises with my left hand until it was ready to fall off. Then I did them some more. But this doesn’t work with horses. Such muscle fatigue, depending on the person you talk to, just causes more compensating with the stronger side, stiffness on the weak side, and possibly even injury.
You can’t ignore the weak side, you just can’t approach it the way I’d approach my weaker side (work it hard, work it often, don’t let up until you get the results you want). According to Ballou, the best way to approach it is with a combination of conditioning and stretching exercises. Stretching encompasses everything from shoulder in and lateral work to stationary stretches done from the ground.
How do I approach this with Murray? First is to know his weakness, and know it well. (Know thine enemy!) Murray is weak through his right side. He struggles to bend right, but not because he is stiff through the left. Kid can stretch both directions on the ground very well. He struggles to bend right because his right hind is weak, and engaging it is a) hard, b) challenging, c) not intuitive, d) all of the above.
These are the exercises I can do every day (aka no need to trailer to some hills) with Murray to help strengthen his right hind, though I do them in both directions. I’ve obviously not been great at it lately, but I’m planning on incorporating at least two of these into every ride from here on out. For all of these, I used Equine Fitness, my dressage trainer, or our equine masseuse to guide my way.
First position/shoulder fore/shoulder in — I try to ride around in first position all the time but I struggle with it — Murray doesn’t naturally follow my shoulders when we’re tracking right (because he doesn’t want to stay off my inside leg). Shoulder fore and shoulder in both encourage your horse to step under with the inside hind, and stretch and engage their lumbar muscles as well! (Image from Sustainable Dressage, one of my fave websites!)
Faux turn on the forehand — Murray can’t do a real turn on the forehand because he cheats. Instead, I hold him in hand and turn him in a small circle asking him to step over strongly with his inside hind.
Canter departs — Murray’s weakness really shows in his left canter depart (the outside hind takes the brunt of the force in canter departs). For a horse like Murray who is in good enough shape to practice these, canter departs really help strengthen the outside hind. They are always something I can work on — especially if I ever want that elusive lead change — but I must be careful not to drill because someone gets cranky when I do that.
Canter transitions within the gait — Cantering, which is already pretty fun, also stretches out the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, of both hind legs but especially the outside hind. My masseuse suggested that I ask Murray to do a little collected canter, medium, collected, extended, medium during our canter sets to get those muscles limbered up and moving.
Toe touch stretches — Straight out of Ballou’s book, I like these stretches because they move his leg in all different directions. You take your horse’s hoof and stretch it straight back as far as you can, directly to the side (think perpendicular to the direction of their body), and forward, all keeping the toe close to the ground. You hold each of these positions for ten seconds, and repeat at least once. Move slowly, especially in the beginning. I’ve found Murray really appreciates these now, though he was fairly resistant in the beginning.
What are your favourite exercises and stretches for the hind end? I want to learn more!