equine fitness project: week whatever & a weak hind end

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 Improve your piano technique with Hanon exercisesknow 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.

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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!

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12 thoughts on “equine fitness project: week whatever & a weak hind end

  1. So this is good timing. Estella has had a bum leg for months now, and hopefully with injections it will now improve. Which means I really need to even out her body. It is her left hind that bothers her, but she is the worst to the right. Naturally I would think that left hind problems mean strengthen to the left when it is the inside hind, but then I worry that her left side will get better and the right will get even worse. Hmmm what to do what to do.

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    • Worse to the right canter or trot? Honestly, in both gaits the outside leg can take quite a bit of force.

      A great exercise that I started with when Murray luxated his patella last year, but haven’t mentioned here, is stepping over shit (technical term). Pick something kinda biggish that your horse can easily step over, and walk them back and forth over it at a slow walk. Try to alternate which hind goes over it first. It really forces your horse to pick up and articulate every joint in the leg. I started with piles of poles, moved up to a log we have in our arena as a jump, and have even gone over little Xs (the risk here is that Murray will jump it because that is easier). I did that at least 10x every other day or so for weeks!

      And I know Estella isn’t a pro under saddle yet, but a lot of these can be done in hand! Shoulder in and turn on the forehand I do in hand. It requires a bit more coordination on the human part but it works!

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      • Definitely worse at the trot. She would rather canter but often cross canters so still bad at the canter to the right too lol. the way her stall is set up she has to step up over a 2X12 to get to half of it so she definitely does that a lot, but I will incorporate that into our daily sessions too! We also do lots of turn on the forward and sideways in hand which I think will help too. Hopefully with the injections she’ll feel better and I can push her a little harder eventually, too! Thanks for the suggestions 🙂

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  2. I have been dedicating some time to practicing canter departs, but I’m totally adding some canter transitions within the gait. I’ve been working on that with trotting, but cantering is so much more fun.

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    • I think so toooo!! Ballou likes cantering because it moves the pelvis in a different way (a rocking motion instead of a steady stabilized pelvis), and my masseuse likes it because it stretches out all the hind end muscles in a natural way. Just more reason to canter!!

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  3. yep this is super relevant to my interests haha. ever since you started writing about Murray’s fitness plan i’ve definitely been thinking more about it. i want to do more in-hand work (like turns on forehand) – but have really found backing to be helpful. next step is to try it on a hill (probably in-hand first haha)

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