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Dear Dana: What exercises keep my horse ‘fresh’ during show season?

By DANA HOKANA / Horsetrader columnist - March 17th, 2010 - Q&A Dear Dana

DEAR DANA: Are there some riding exercises that you can recommend to keep a seasoned show horse “fresh” during the show year? Maybe something to break up the regular training and showing routine?
–Jennifer Bettiga, Los Alamos, Calif.

DEAR JENNIFER: Such a good question! It’s very important to do exercises or calisthenics with our show horses. These will not only keep their mental state “fresh,” but they will also help keep their movement fresh. I base my program on giving my horses times of conditioning and then times of drilling and training. If we only “drill” or train on our horses, we can burn them out.

Also, many people focus intensely on drilling their horses, and in the process they forget about maintaining their horse’s movement. The most common problem that people encounter with their horse’s movement? It’s when they drop their shoulders, lose their natural lift, and move with their body weight on their front end. This makes for an uncomfortable horse, and it adds to his burn out. I have some exercises that will help you to rebalance your horse.

One of the most common reasons a horse drops his shoulders and starts moving on his front end is that many times riders will take hold of their horse’s face to ask him to bridle his head or drop his neck or slow down. When doing this, they may inadvertently be promoting their horse to drop his shoulders because if they release as soon as it looks like he gives, some horses will learn to follow the bridle reins down — first with their head and neck, and then their front end. Almost any time a horse is asked to drop his head and neck or slow down without also asking for collection or lift, he will drop to his front end after he is released. The fix for this is to make sure that when you connect with your hands to his mouth, you don’t release until you feel him lift, collect and soften in your hands. If he gets resistant or stiff, you may need to drive with your legs until he lifts up in the shoulders and softens.

How your horse stops tells volumes about where his body weight is when he is moving forward. A horse that is up in his shoulders and balanced over his hindquarters will stop up and balanced. I like to feel my horses break or give in the haunches when they stop. Then I know without a doubt that they were moving up and balanced. Some pointers to help you to diagnose where your horse’s weight is balanced are: When you stop, feel through your hands how he stops. Is he heavy in your hands? Does he stop with a jarring motion almost pulling you forward?

These will tell you he is on his front end! Your goal is for him to stop light in your hands on his hindquarters, and stay put where he stopped.

If he stops heavy in your hands, you can correct this by asking him to move back forward and asking him to stop until he gets it right.

I practice my downward transitions often. The stop is not only diagnostic, but also a correction when stops are repeated until the horse stops balanced and up in his shoulders.

After you have successfully mastered the stop, the other exercise I love for my older horses is to medium-trot them. I don’t just pitch the reins away and let them go — I hold and drive them and really make them work. This exercise sounds so simple, but it’s really effective in making your horse use his hindquarters and drive from behind. I look for a slow, strong rhythm and I count one-two with my horse. I will then walk and let him catch his air and go to a different maneuver.

I hope these exercises give you some variations to your workout, while you keep your horse fresh and moving great!

Dana

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