In hand exercises and how they can help

The NICE guidelines for osteoarthritis, the leading cause of stiffness in humans and horses, include appropriate exercise. Exercise is recommended by doctors to tackle a whole range of health conditions in humans, and the same principles can be applied to our horses. We know that general exercise, even if only for 20 minutes a day can have impressive results on our health and the same is true of our horses.

In an ideal world, all horses would have access to grazing and the freedom to move around. Failing this, we try to go some way to replicate this natural process to maintain the health of our horses. Whether your horse is young or old, in full health or in rehabilitation, a series of simple exercises can do wonders for his general health.

Just as we know that our own core strength is vitally important to maintain health and performance, so the same applies to our horses.  Stubbs and Clayton (2008) state “One of the best ways to both prevent and to treat back pain in horses is through the regular use of core training exercises”1.

Dr Narelle Stubbs and Dr Hilary Clayton devoted years of research to building a series of exercises to improve core musculature in horses. The exercises shown in the book and DVD “Activate Your Horse’s Core” have been proven in field trials, as quoted in the Equine Veterinary Journal: “Research has shown that regular performance of dynamic mobilization exercises over a period of three months stimulated hypertrophy (enlargement) of the muscles that stabilize the horse’s back.”2

But it is not simply their work that has been examined under research. Other studies have taken place at leading centres of science and research showing that using the correct exercises can greatly benefit your horse. “Exercises to increase Multifidus cross sectional area (CSA) have been shown to reduce the amount and reoccurrence of back pain in humans. Similarly, dynamic mobilisation exercises have led to an increase in multifidus cross sectional area in horses on box rest.”3

Here the study has focused on horses on box rest.  This is important, as bringing horses back into after work after injury can be a daunting and difficult process, and one that can be improved if you can maintain some level of strength and flexibility during the box rest. A further study discusses the effect of exercises on asymmetries in horses. As asymmetry can contribute to further problems at a later date, exercises to balance out the difference between the left and the right hand side can only be a good thing. “Between the initial evaluation and final evaluation m. multifidus cross sectional area increased significantly at all six spinal levels on both right and left sides. Asymmetries in m. multifidus cross sectional area between the right and left sides decreased between the initial and final evaluations.”4

And finally, research suggesting that mobilisation can improve the quality of your horse’s paces: “Gymnastic exercises performed three times per week improved stride quality at walk.”5 So wherever you are with your horse, you can safely say that simple mobilisation exercises will benefit your horse.

References:

  1. Stubbs, N. and Clayton, H. (2008). Activate your horse’s core. Mason MI: Sport Horse Publications.
  2. Stubbs, Narelle & Kaiser, LeeAnn & Hauptman, J & Clayton, Hilary. (2011). Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of multifidus. Equine veterinary journal. 43. 522-9. 10.1111/j.2042-3306.2010.00322.x.
  3. Tabor, G. (2017). The effect of dynamic mobilisation exercises on the equine multifidus muscle and thoracic profile. [online] Pearl.plymouth.ac.uk. Available at: https://pearl.plymouth.ac.uk/handle/10026.1/3320
  4. Stubbs NC, e. (2017). Dynamic mobilisation exercises increase cross sectional area of musculus multifidus. – PubMed – NCBI. [online] Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21496085
  5. de Oliveira, K., Soutello, R., da Fonseca, R., Costa, C., de L. Meirelles, P., Fachiolli, D. and Clayton, H. (2017). Gymnastic Training and Dynamic Mobilization Exercises Improve Stride Quality and Increase Epaxial Muscle Size in Therapy Horses.

 

Off horse exercises!

By Amy Craske

A good part of the work I do is as a riding instructor, both at a local riding school and freelancing with people’s own horses. I’m training with Mary Wanless and Ride With Your Mind to become a rider biomechanics coach, so I do focus a fair bit on people’s position and how the horse is responding to it. If you ever get a chance to have a that kind of lesson, I highly recommend it. If you have, I’m sure you will have been surprised at the huge difference making small changes to your position can make to your horse’s way of going. The thing is, often riding in a more balanced and effective position is hard work – it requires you to use muscles that just don’t get used very much on a daily basis! Sitting in an office chair, or whatever your daily job entails, rarely requires you to keep your balance on a moving object! And this is without even thinking about undoing any bad riding habits your body may have gotten into.

 

Adding to the problem of fitness is the fact that many of us are slightly divorced from what is going on with our bodies; our proprioception is not very good. If you haven’t heard the term before, lift your hand up and touch your ear. Did you need to be able to see your ear to be able to touch it accurately? That’s because you are using your proprioception. Unfortunately, most people have more difficulty working out what their lower leg is doing than finding their ear! Given all this, I’m often asked what people can do out of lessons to keep the good work going. Obviously the ideal would be to ride lots more! But with how busy most of us are this is difficult, and if you are going to a riding school may require remortgaging!! Lots of different riding methods have their own exercises to help with specific issues, I know RWYM. But for a general work out which will TONE your muscles, give you greater control and proprioception I personally think Pilates, Yoga or Feldenkrais are brilliant. They both, with a good instructor, also have an element of helping you control your breathing, practice mindfulness and get better at centring yourself, all of which are enormously useful skills around horses. So, do you have any other recommendations?