Mounted walking exercises for your horse

Practice several turns on the forehand to help fine-tune your turns. Photo by Donna Stidolph

Walking, practiced and praised by the ancient masters of classical dressage, is always better than letting a horse stall when it is unable to perform regular training. Walking allows complete contraction of the long muscles of the back in a contraction-relaxation cycle that avoids tension. Additionally, the precise motor control that is possible at the walk allows you to help your horse find more range of motion and joint flexion.

Inactivity sometimes plays a bigger role in creating bad muscle patterns than improper training or injury. When a horse does not move enough throughout the day as nature intended, circulation decreases. This results in sluggish muscles and dehydrated tissues around them. Over time, this creates ingrained restrictions in range of motion. This is of particular concern for older or injured horses.

Too many of us forget the value of school in a hurry, thinking there’s not much to accomplish. To be clear, walking workouts do not improve cardiovascular fitness, but, fear not, cardio plays a minimal role in your horse’s mechanics and movement patterns. However, training with mounted walking exercises mobilizes the horse’s spinal joints and increases postural muscle stimulation.

It should also be noted that the equine lymphatic system does not have a central pump. Lymphatic circulation relies more on muscle contractions. The lymphatic system helps maintain fluid balance between blood vessels and tissues, which is crucial not only for movement, but also for immunity and injury repair.

During any period of reduced exercise due to weather or time constraints, you can accomplish a lot in 25 minutes with one of the following walking routines. In each routine below, spend about two minutes on each exercise, then keep going through them like a circuit until your time is up.

Walk on horseback
Transition from work walking to extended walking in a long, low frame. Photo by Donna Stidolph

Walking Routine #1

For 25 minutes, do the following continuous circuit:

Long and low transitions: With the horse in a long, low stretched frame, mount the transitions from working walk to extended walk; repeat. Try to keep his head and neck descending to the ground in light contact with the reins during these transitions. He will have to use his abdominal muscles for balance.
Polish your turns: Interspersed with intervals of active walking covering the ground, practice several bends on the forehand and on the hips in each direction. Be sure to take several brisk walking steps between each turn.
Proprioception box: Lay out a box on the ground using four earthen posts touching at the corners. Mount a variety of patterns on and through the box: cloverleaf, circle around each corner, figure eight, etc.

Walking exercises mounted with your horse
Spiral from a 20-meter circle to an 8-meter circle, then lower the leg back down. Photo by Donna Stidolph

Walking Routine #2

For 25 minutes, do the following continuous circuit of uphill walking exercises with your horse:
Topline Accordion: Roll around the edge of your arena in a brisk, forward march, as you practice lengthening and shortening the reins and instructing your horse to change frames from longer to shorter.
Incoming and outgoing spiral: From a 20-meter circle, spiral to an 8-meter circle, then, maintaining the inward bend, drop your leg back to your initial 20-meter circle, being careful not to lose energy.
Snowman: Roll once around a circle 20 meters to the left. Then, at the top, change turns and circle 10 meters to the right. Take the circle 20 meters to the left. Your figure should look like a snowman with a fat body and a smaller head on top.
Simple ground posts: Install as many poles as you have available randomly all around your arena. Take a brisk walk over the poles and creatively navigate various bends and loops.

Riding Patterns Diagram
Mount a variety of models on a simple box made of ground poles. Diagram by Jec Ballou

Walking Routine #3

For 25 minutes, do the following continuous circuit:
Gear changes: Ride different tricks in the arena while changing the speed of your walk. Aim for four distinct speeds (super slow, slow, medium and fast) and do 20 strides at each speed. Repeat.
Cornerstone Transitions: Make transitions to a stop every 10 strides. At each other halting transition, have the horse step back six to 10 steps, then continue.
Wavy lines: Mount a “scalloped” edge around your arena track. Maintaining a brisk, spirited walking pace, walk a wavy serpentine with loops of about 3 meters back and forth left to right, and so on.

When performed regularly (four to five days a week), targeted walking routines can have a surprisingly beneficial impact on your horse’s body. Even if it is not as visible from the outside, their value is much greater than inactivity. Your horse will thank you!

This article which offers mounted walking exercises for your horse appeared in the November/December 2021 issue of illustrated horse magazine. Click here to subscribe !

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