1. The time it takes
Just like an athlete the horse requires time, a minimum of two years, to strengthen his body before he is ridden. This strengthening happens through specific gymnastic exercises that encourage relaxation in the horse and careful development of specific muscles at certain stages of his training progress. The horse begins his development first through body and mind relaxation. This relaxes the ventral chain muscles which in turn allows the horse to give us that soft sucking at the bit we want to see in every riding mount. Begin training your eye on horse observation with our free download! Next the horse must learn his first step towards engagement. He learns engagement through lateral exercises. He can only do this first with the rider on the ground. This is becasue his own weight and balance offers a high enough difficulty level to carefully build him up for more strenuous work. He can be educated about how to move his hindquarters under his body and lift his back and how to move his haunches away by any careful and thoughtful horseman. This is when he should begin learning basic lateral movements. He learns to yield to the leg aid and move his haunches away by the gentle use of the whip. As the horse learns to bring his haunches closer to his forehand he must lift his back. In doing this, the weak or young horse seeks to balance himself and lengthen his spine by stretching the neck and nose forward and slightly out. This is a natural physical response by the horse. This stretching down and out will be sought by the horse and should be encouraged by the trainer before and at each new developmental stage and after each exerting exercise. It's exactly like stretching before and after a sport activity to keep your muscles from cramping. Once the horse understand his role in the exercises, he needs the opportunity to strengthen his muscles. Just like any athlete it takes several years to build both skill and muscle strength. Muscles are built by carful exertion that does not push too far or too long. Short sessions, such a10, 20 to a maximum of 30 minutes for a horse each day is sufficient. This is because the exercises are difficult much like a weight lifting. With over exertion the muscles will fatigue and tear and cramp, making it impossible to increase the muscle in size to make it stronger. The over exertion in fact causes muscle loss. Muscle strength or tone is lost twice as fast as it is built up. This is why a careful understanding of the muscle development and proper order of exercising the horse's body is so important for his wellbeing.
Learn more about what muscles are used when working over the back in our online courses
2. Training Ultimate Collection
The horse shown in the picture is an example of true collection. She is moving forward and under her body. Her hind legs have come closer to her front with the proper lifting of her back. She is relaxed in the neck and seeking balance with a slight upward arch and a relaxed ventral chain. Her diagonal pairs are moving at equal hight, which shows that she is connected from her haunches to her forehand. Her lumbar is lifted, picking up her heavy core (learn about the horses core muscles here!) and lowering her haunches to shift her weight back. This horse shows the beginning of a safe and properly educated piaffe. This collection should be attainable by any horse particularly those in high level dressage, endurance or show jumping etc. To learn about how to help your horse strengthen his body safely and give him a longer riding career we suggest following Art2Ride on YouTube.
3. What's Happening Inside The Body?
The horse needs the opportunity to lengthen his spine. By lengthening the spine, anatomically the horse is opening his spinous prosthesis. These are the spaces between each vertebrae through the back and neck. When these spaces open, the horse has more freedom of movement and ability to bend. He does this by reaching under his body actively with his hind legs. Best started at the walk without a rider on his back. This hind leg action biomechanically lifts his core, back, lumbar and withers. The horse's natural reaction to this sensation is to reach down with his neck and a slight out with his nose. This downward and out position gives him the ability to balance himself and the strength to lift his ribcage, intestines and spine upward. This is a lot of work and physics does not allow the young or atrophied horse to lift this area of the body without moving from a state of relaxation and stepping under himself from behind and lowering the head and neck first before being asked to come up. Remember, the lowering of the head and neck is a reaction from proper hind end movement. A horse may stretch it's head down without any lifting of the core, which is why we've put this video together to show the difference. Over time the horse becomes stronger and is able to gradually raise his head and neck while maintaining the engagement of his haunches and core. First into the working position then into collection. This can take the young healthy horse up to 7 years or more. Ultimate collection is when a horse has gained so much strength he is able to shift his weight and do what is called the piaffe as shown above. From the piaffe he is able to lift his front end into a levade. He has gained so much strength and spring behind at this point, his highest form of collection is to jump effortlessly over fences while maintaining the engagement of his core and haunch muscles. All of this protects the horse and allows him to work safely throughout the majority of his life. A healthy well cared for horse should live at least to its mid 20s.
4. How the body works to do this
Muscles react to what the brain tells them to do. Their response is to work in pairs, groups and chains. To develop the body for optimum health and safety, the whole horse must be considered. He is not a mechanism of muscle and bone manipulated properly equals success. He is also a living thinking animal. So by pairing your understanding of your horse's biomechanics and his natural behaviors and his emotions, you will be able to make educated decisions based on the thorough understanding of your horse and his needs. You can memorize some of the muscles with our free download.
5. How it supports the rider
By strengthening the core, back and top line muscles the horse is given the ability to support his rider with ease over time. He is able to remain relaxed and engaged over his back and through his haunches becasue these muscle are strong and will not sway from lack of strength. After one to two years of strengthening from the ground, the horse's back muscles are able to tolerate the added weight of the rider and the saddle. He continues to work in the stretch to further strengthen his top line and core before coming up into a working position. Photo credit: From the Stretch Up Into Collection, Qlalibertee.