Any sport we do with our horses is an athletic activity, and, just like humans, horses aren’t all born athletically equivalent. Some are stronger, faster, quicker, more coordinated and more agile than others. Just as with us, it depends on how they’re built.
While conformation is often an important consideration in a horse’s potential for a certain discipline, it doesn’t mean a horse can’t be trained to compete in a discipline for which he’s not ideally physically suited. Arabians and Thoroughbreds can do dressage — even to Grand Prix — and thousands of Quarter Horses and draft-crosses compete in eventing.
The trick to training these horses is to teach them to use the attributes their conformation gives them in new or different ways. And the way to do that is through flat work and through gymnastic jumping exercises, each of which builds muscles in new ways to develop suppleness.
If you or your horse don’t jump or don’t like to jump, you can create a wide variety of gymnastic exercise using just rails. You’ll still achieve many of the benefits while staying close to the ground.
Exercises and drills are the foundation of every athletic endeavor. Football players, baseball players, basketball players and runners all practice the specific skills they need to excel at their sports by using a wide range of drills or exercises to improve their on-field performances.
These drills usually focus on one or a few aspects or situations, seeking to remove other competitive distractions to focus on improving a certain aspect of a player’s game, like passing, blocking, fielding a ground ball, shooting foul shots or sprinting. Gymnastic jumping exercises can produce the same effect for you and your horse. By allowing you to focus your attention on basic but critical elements like strength, balance and coordination, your performance on course will only improve.
What Gymnastics Can Do
The two most important benefits of practicing gymnastic exercises regularly involve your horse — developing strength and developing coordination and agility. But they’re by no means the only benefits.
Gymnastic exercises help to develop strength in horses’ hindquarters and backs, and even in their shoulders. Think of them as the equivalent of you going to the gym to lift weights or to do yoga or Pilates.
Gymnastic exercises also teach horses how to move their legs and their feet, sometimes in new ways and often more quickly. They teach horses how to think about where their feet are, to ”see” their entire bodies.
A third benefit is that they encourage flexibility in the horse’s muscular and skeletal system. They require horses to use their muscles differently than when they’re doing dressage, reining work or trail riding. Consequently, gymnastics address the negative effects of overuse syndrome.
Overuse syndrome is a common, and debilitating, issue for many human athletes. Runners often develop hip, knee, foot or ankle problems because their training puts constant demands on these joints. Swimmers develop tendonitis in their shoulders and elbows from constant, focused use. And tennis players, who also suffer shoulder and elbow problems, can become muscularly unbalanced, with the side that swings the racket noticeably bigger than the other side of their bodies.
That’s why these human athletes often cross-train. All three do stretching exercises and weight training to stretch and strengthen specific muscles, other soft tissues and bones. Many practice yoga or other Eastern exercises. Runners sometimes swim, and even some swimmers run in search of an alternative way to develop their cardio-pulmonary fitness.
A fourth benefit of gymnastics is that they develop confidence for both the horse and the rider and, thus, help build the partnership between them. Riders learn to trust their horses to do their job, instead of trying to direct every single step, and horses learn to trust they can negotiate the jumps to which their riders point them.
Similarly, the fifth benefit is that gymnastics, because they prepare or set the horse up to jump correctly, free riders to work on themselves, to work on their position and balance. Gymnastics allow riders to concentrate on things like eyes up, releasing with their shoulders and arms over fences, and staying in the middle of the horse.
Consequently, the sixth benefit is that riders (and their horses) learn to go forward with confidence. Why' Because you can’t do gymnastics properly if you’re riding backward. The striding and the challenges just don’t work. And correctly negotiating a series of jumps always develops confidence in problem-solving abilities for both horse and rider.
The seventh benefit is that gymnastics is a mind refresher, to provide an equine change of pace. Horses can get sour doing the same thing over and over again. Gymnastics, which make horses think about moving their feet and legs, give them a new challenge. Next month we’ll describe specific gymnastic exercises.