By Abby Funk
The benefits of having fit horses are almost too numerous to mention. Fit horses will have fewer injuries, longer careers, more rapid recovery time, and be better able to cope with all the demands of travel and horse show life. Whether your goals are maintaining fitness, increasing fitness, or enacting a rehabilitation program, many riders overlook probably the most underutilized fitness technique: the mindful walk.
A proper walk, one with forward momentum that positively pushes off all four limbs, has so many benefits. When beginning a ride, this walk will get your horse’s blood flowing and limbs loosened, diminishing risk of injury and strain in the workout to follow. While at the walk, you can establish boundaries and keep your horse focused and listening and set the tone for the full ride. By changing your outlook on the walk and using it as a tool to your advantage, you can develop a more productive ride and improve your horse’s performance. You can include exercises like ground poles to improve topline and allow your horse to think through exercises for themselves.
If you’re looking to increase your horse’s fitness or rehabilitate from an injury, incorporating a second walk into your horse’s program to focus on strength and mobility is more beneficial than you might think. Especially if a horse is stalled during their horse show or rehab regimen, a second ride at a proper walk can have on not only your horse’s physical strength, but their mental well-being as well. By having a second ride only at the walk or focused at the walk, you’re not stressing or straining the recovery or fitness process- you’re providing more natural motion to increase muscle strength while minimizing impact and risk of injury.
Start at a working walk, putting your horse in the bridle, and complete all the movements your horse knows how to do. Practice walking forward, extending and shortening the walk, working at a medium walk, performing a haunches in, leg yield, half pass, haunches out.
Bending their necks aids in loosening their muscles—ask your horse to come around as far as they can on both the left and right side until they soften. Once they complete at the halt, begin working on this exercise at the walk. This will help them learn to listen, and can also help to identify pain responses.
Backing up can illuminate any weakness or lameness issues—if your horse cannot back up in a straight line, that is an indication of something to work on. When horses walk, they rotate their pelvis underneath them, so that when they walk off correctly they can get their weight off of their front end.
Things to note when completing walking fitness: keeping your horse six feet off the rail and riding straight, rotating the footing you work on: working in the arena, in the grass, and on pavement. Performing the working walk on concussive and various surfaces (including but not limited to rings, grass, pathways, and driveways) can help to build muscles around all injury-prone areas in your horse’s legs.
If you can’t include a second ride, give yourself as much time as you can to walk at the start of each ride and warm-up carefully and mindfully listening to your horse.
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