Checking your horse’s back for health and muscle condition is something you should do fairly religiously. It’s easy to do and can be part of your pre- and post-work grooming routine.
Start just behind the loin, standing next to the horse’s hindquarter parallel to the spine. Dig the tips of your fingers (both hands) in at the spine and, pressing down very firmly into the back, drag the tips of your fingers toward you six or eight inches.
If your horse’s back isn’t too sensitive or weak, you should be able to dig your fingertips in hard enough to feel the individual ropes of muscles as you pull your hands toward you. Repeat at least twice in the same spot. (If your horse has a sensitive back, you will have to start softer, do more strokes and work toward the firmness necessary to palpate the muscles.)
What did you feel?
Move forward the width of one hand and repeat, continuing forward until you reach the withers. You will be able to feel the top of the rib cage when you come to that area of the back.
Where did you feel ropes of muscles?
Where did the ropes start and end?
Did you find any knots?
Ropes are muscles which are being stressed and strengthened along their length. Check the tenderness of the ropes. If they’re too tender, back off a bit in the work. You will have to be the best judge of your horse’s condition.
Knots are isolated areas of stress which need additional attention. Press into the knot with both thumbs or your fist, holding firmly for 15 to 30 seconds. Release and repeat as necessary to remove the knot. If you’re using your thumb(s), you’ll be able to feel a “dent” in the knot where it has released. For best results, continue to massage the knot until it releases completely.
Repeat this evaluation process after your workout. Which muscles have changed? You should notice a significant difference in the knot you worked on before exercising your horse. It is more beneficial to work on knots before work, as the work will increase the blood flow and help massage the area.
As your horse develops the ability to push with his hindquarters, you will notice a significant change in muscle development over his topline as your work progresses.
You will notice an increase in the density of the muscles and the size and condition of the “ropes”, starting at the loin and slowly progressing toward the wither.
Consistent work and vigilant attention to the condition of the muscle are the keys to success.
Now that you’ve had some time to work on evaluating movement, let’s talk about how to change it and make it better, more productive. Before we can get right to work, there are a few more concepts you’ll need to grasp so you have the whole picture when you start.
To get the hind legs to do more work, we have to get the hind legs up farther off the ground during the non-weight bearing phase of the limb’s movement. You also need to get the hind legs farther up under the body. This may sound a little hard to understand, but bear with me and I’ll try and explain.
Let’s deal with first things first.
Our first goal is to get the hind legs farther up off the ground. Look at each leg as a spring. The harder you press the spring down, the farther it’s going to spring back up in response when released. The legs of a horse work exactly this way. The more the leg pushes down (carries weight) when the horse is moving forward, the farther it springs up into the air when it’s moving forward for the next stride. Remember the furrows in the dirt left by the dragging hind toes? That’s your clue little or no work is being done by the hind legs! Watch the front legs instead. What are they doing? LOTS of knee action with the foot coming well off the ground! So, where’s the work being done? By the front end, of course. Your goal isn’t actually to get the hind foot off the ground more than the front foot, but to cause it to become stronger and more active. The hind foot will never come off the ground as far as the front foot because the hip drops toward the ground as the foot comes up. In other words, the hind leg compresses as much as the foreleg, but some of the compression is a dropping from the top and some is a lifting from the bottom.
So if we take the spring action of the hind leg to the logical next step, what we want to do is get the hind legs up into the air so they have more energy and can do more work, pushing harder when they’re on the ground. With cavaletti this is pretty easy, as it takes no special skill, just the ability to observe and persevere until you accomplish your goal. With cavaletti, it’s also easy to teach the horse to increase the length of stride (get the hind legs up under the body more). And while we are working to activate the hocks, we will be building the muscles your horse needs for impulsion (going forward, using the hindquarters for propulsion).
It takes time to build muscle and reschool (change) how a horse moves. Here’s where I need to add a warning. Building impulsion (push from the hindquarters) is one of those tasks where you must make haste slowly. You must be very consistent in the work, but proceed carefully, as too much unfamiliar work in the beginning can give your horse some pretty sore muscles. You want to work but work smart. Don’t go backward by trying to make progress too fast in the beginning. If you make the muscles too sore, you’re forcing your horse to use the forehand for propulsion, which is the opposite of what you want.
Before you start this work, consider evaluating the condition of the muscles in your horse’s back (see inset). Familiarize yourself with any unusual knots or lumps so you know if they change as conditioning progresses.
For this exercise, you will need six poles, 10-12 feet long. I don’t recommend more poles, as the effort is generally too great for the horse, nor do I recommend fewer than six, as the effort will not be sufficient to introduce change. Poles shorter than 10-12 feet will make it difficult to keep your horse from dropping in or pulling out of the poles and it’s more difficult to prevent him from avoiding the work.
To work your horse over cavaletti, you can longline, as I do, or you can use a lunge line. If you intend to lunge, you may need to use sliding side reins to help stretch your horse’s topline so he cannot pull with his forehand. I do not recommend the type of side reins normally used when lunging, as they do not allow independent side to side movement of the head and neck nor adequate stretch of the topline when the head and neck are lowered. If you intend to longline over cavaletti, and you’ve never longlined before, intend to spend some time acquiring the skill necessary to keep your horse forward with a stretching topline before approaching cavaletti work. If you need a good basic guide, visit the Library at axwoodfarm.com and work your way through the lessons there.
There are two important ground rules you’ll need to review before you start work over cavaletti.
- The goal is to send your horse over the cavaletti when he is at his most balanced and forward. Sending your horse over cavaletti when he is not balanced, engaged and forward is at best nonproductive and at worst, counter productive.
- More than four to six passes over the cavaletti in each direction per session will make most horses extremely sore. For horses who have never pushed with their hindquarters, fewer passes in the beginning is better. You can test how sore his back is by checking for knots and ropes. Ropes are okay, knots aren’t (see inset).
To set the cavaletti, you will need to know the length of your horse’s trot stride. As the quality of your horse’s trot improves, you will need to increase the distance between the cavaletti, so watch for this. You will also need to know the arc you will be defining. You will not be sending your horse over the poles every time he goes around the circle, so set the poles in a fan on an arc identical to but outside your lunge circle, with the center of the poles the distance of the horse’s stride apart, as shown in the diagram. To make sure the poles are aligned correctly, mark the center of the circle the cavaletti will be on, place the poles the correct distance apart on the arc and, standing at the outside end of each pole, site down the pole to ensure it is pointing exactly at the center of the circle. The center mark gives you a visual siting of where you will need to be standing to send your horse over the cavaletti.
When you first introduce your horse to cavaletti, it’s a good idea to let him walk through a couple times from each direction. This will allow him to see them and get an idea of their placement. Once he is accustomed to cavaletti work, this step should no longer be necessary.
When your horse is thoroughly warmed up, expand/move your circle to send your horse through the center of the cavaletti. You want to plan this for when he is calm and forward, not upside down and rushing. Once through the cavaletti, return to your original lunge circle to reestablish calm, forward, et al.
Don’t be surprised if the first couple times he goes through the cavaletti he is very uncoordinated and stumbles or steps on the cavaletti. Take him back to the lunge circle, give him a little bit to regroup and try again. After the second or third time, if he can’t seem to get through the cavaletti in a semi-coordinated fashion, remove a couple cavaletti and try again. You will need to put the cavaletti back as soon as you think your horse can handle them, adding one at a time. The number and quantity of effort is important. When starting your horse over cavaletti, you will have to use your own best judgement if things aren’t going well. Noone knows your horse like you do. You want to get your horse to the point where he can calmly do the work, building muscle and self-carriage, and your experience with your horse is invaluable in accomplishing this goal.
Some horses need a terrific amount of urging to trot through cavaletti. If you absolutely can’t get your horse to trot through, pull four of the cavaletti out and see if you can get him to trot over just two. Then, slowly add the cavaletti one at a time until he’s able to trot through all cavaletti.
As your horse works over the cavaletti, and days and weeks of consistent work pass, you will notice your horse is able to carry the longer, pushier, more elevated strides for longer and longer after coming out of the cavaletti. You will also notice a change in the musculature of his back (see inset) and in the way he carries his head and neck. If he has a tremendous resistor muscle along the bottom of his neck, you will feel it soften and see it begin to shrink as he changes his method of propulsion from his forequarters to his hindquarters. If his back is dropped, you will see it lift up and become more muscular. You will see the back lift and drop with each trot stride as the muscles in the back are activated and worked.
There are two things which will determine the speed of your success in changing the way your horse moves. The first is consistency. The only way you can build muscle is to work muscle. That means working correctly at least every other day. More than 48 hours between works means you’re losing muscle, not gaining it. The second is the point at which your horse started. The worse your horse moves, the more he pulls with the forehand, the longer the time you will have to work to get optimum movement and the greater the reward will be. Only you can decide if the goal is worth the effort.