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Jec Aristotle Ballou

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A Non-Dressagey Exercise to Improve Shoulder-In, Haunches-In and Half-Pass

In this excerpt from 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, respected trainer Jec Aristotle Ballou explains how and why to use trot poles with the outer edge raised in your schooling.

Photo courtesy of Trafalgar Square Books.

Schooling horses over ground poles can cure numerous gait irregularities or movement compromised by tension, crookedness, and weak muscle patterns. Because they require the horse to take designated stride lengths in sequence, they install good clear rhythm in all gaits. As the horse traverses over poles, he learns to push equally from both hind legs, correcting imbalances in the effort of his hind limbs. Pole work contributes to straightness and symmetry through his core and mobilizes the spinal joints. The postural adjustments needed for crossing poles recruit the horse’s interconnected abdominal muscle group, thoracic sling, and gluteal chain. Schooling different arrangements of poles helps re-pattern existing habits within each gait, and leads to the creation of new signals from the nervous system.

  • As a general rule, walking over raised poles improves core stability, joint flexion, and intervertebral joint spacing. It assists horses recovering from sacroiliac pain, back injury, or disrupted muscle use from stiffness. Walking over poles contributes to the horse’s looseness and range of motion.
  • Trotting over poles plays more of a strengthening role. It develops strength in the larger back muscles that effect limb movement plus utilization of quadriceps, pelvic stability, and stronger spinal stabilizing muscles. As these muscles are recruited, it can lead to a release of stored tension from the extensor muscle chain, which is a common culprit of horses that tend to be chronically hollow in their toplines.
  • Cantering over poles tones the thoracic sling, loosens the shoulders as the body rocks between forehand and hindquarters, and lifts the back. It can greatly improve flexion and extension of the back, which allows it to lift and carry the rider better. It is believed to deliver the most mobilization of the lumbosacral joint, which enables the horse to engage his hind limbs.

Here’s an exercise to be ridden at the trot with the poles arranged on a curve with the outer edge raised. This setup will encourage greater mobility of the horse’s scapula and engagement of the latissimus on the outside front limb. For horses with asymmetrical reach from their forelimbs, this exercise can help correct it. The stability required from the oblique muscles and latissimus carries over to improved dressage movements like shoulder-in, haunches-in, and half-pass.

1. Place five to six poles on a curved line. The curved line should be approximately the degree of curve on a 20-meter circle. Space them so they are slightly less than four feet apart at the center.

2. Proceed in working trot around a circle that crosses over the center of the poles.

3. Maintain a light contact with the reins, asking the horse to travel in a rounded frame.

4. Keep the horse bending to the inside around your circle, and be sure to maintain consistency of rhythm throughout, including when you cross the poles.

Ride 10–15 repetitions over the poles in each direction. Be sure to ride this exercise in posting trot. Adjust the spacing of poles as needed; it should feel like the horse takes a comfortable trot step between each pole, not that he has to extend or shorten his stride to negotiate them.

This excerpt from 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses by Jec Aristotle Ballou is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).

Fix the Horse That Leans or Bulges to One Side with This Easy Exercise

In this excerpt from her book 55 Corrective Exercises for Horses, trainer Jec Ballou shows how creative use of our environment can provide all we need to counter a horse’s problematic posture or movement patterns.

Photo courtesy of Jec Aristotle Ballou.

Skilled riding is often all it takes to improve a horse’s athleticism, performance, and overall well-being. But just as often, even good dressage-based training programs fail to fully root out the habits and patterns that prevent many horses from reaching optimal movement and correctness of their gaits. Anything from a poorly fitting saddle to inconsistent exercise schedules to an injury or stress, or past postural imbalances can create compromises. These quickly become deeper impediments to a horse’s movement mechanics that persist even with good, regular riding schedules.

The body’s way of taking care of itself during physical imbalances is to put up defenses. These defenses take the form of muscular spasms, adhesions, tightened muscles, restricted joint motions, and signals to and from the central nervous system to move differently.

Curing these defenses is not as simple as giving the horse a period of rest, though that can seem like a sensible solution. Adhesions and spasms, for instance, do not go away on their own after aggravating sources have been eliminated. They require outside manipulation as well as correct signals from the body to clear out. Putting a horse out in the field for a few months with the hope that everything will clear up rarely fixes the underlying problems.

Therapies like chiropractic care and massage are generally successful in releasing areas of immobility so the horse is able to move optimally. They free up areas of tension and compromised mobility that the body will not release by itself. However, they only set the stage; they do not by themselves create healthy movement. For that, the horse must be taken through exercises that habituate correct new patterns. Physical motions are governed by an underlying wiring that will still store faulty signals until these signals are reprogrammed.

This is where corrective exercises like the one I’ll share here, Serpentine Across the Ditch, come in. When a horse has developed more strength in—or favors use of—one front limb, it causes him to travel crookedly. This comes about by one of his shoulder blades developing tighter soft-tissue connection with his torso. Because of this, he will commonly be seen or felt leaning to one side or “bulging” one direction with his shoulders or rib cage when in motion.

A helpful technique to partially remedy this is to stimulate his shoulder-girdle muscles with varying effort and coordination. Constantly changing slopes and surfaces help prevent him from traveling habitually with the forelimbs.

1. Find a ditch or canal that slopes downward approximately 5–10 feet, and then rises up the other side. Be sure the banks of this ditch are stable enough to ride on and not crumbly or dangerous.

2. Begin by standing in the swale, with the horse’s body parallel to the banks or sides.

3. Now proceed to ride a shallow serpentine that keeps crossing the ditch.

4. With each loop of your serpentine, move just two or three steps up the side of the bank and then return back down. The loops should be tight and swift.

5. Remember to change your horse’s poll flexion and bend for each loop, the same way you would in the arena. Be sure to not let him “fall” down the slopes with quicker strides. His rhythm should remain measured throughout.

This excerpt from 55 Corrective Exercises by Jec Ballou is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.horseandriderbooks.com).