For the past few months, some of us have not been able to ride or work our horses as much as we normally do due to lockdown restrictions. Whilst it is a good opportunity for our horses to get some rest, it also means our horse’s riding fitness may have declined over time. Now that restrictions have eased and with competition season just around the corner, it is time to take our horses out of the paddock and get them back to work.
In this blog, we chat with Eve Bukina from Hooves & Heel Healing to get her tips on getting your horse fit and ready for competition season. Eve performs bodywork on horses to keep them sound and is a trained equine bowen therapist and concomitant practitioner.
With the trot work I find its good to mix up ridden work with lungeing or liberty work in the round yard. This incorporates variety and is a great bonding exercise.
Why should it take that long?
Your horse has plenty of energy and you are probably thinking surely it can get back to work straight away. Well, it can work of course but your horse is likely to be sore after the workout if its muscles aren’t ready. Confusing eagerness for fitness when the adrenalin is pumping is a recipe for disaster, which may end up in a vet visit, more time off, expensive bills. It may be tempting to start lungeing your horse on day 1 but it is best to take it easy with the fitness program with a gradual return to full work. Remember we risk causing micro muscle damage if we rush the process.
Even though the process of getting horses back into work is long, take your time and evaluate your horses progress and how it is feeling each step of the way and readjust if necessary. Good foundations always pay off in the long run and will reduce the risk of injury. Also remember that each horse has individual needs and you need to tailor your training program to suit your horse.
As an equine bodywork therapist, you would have worked with a variety of horses. What are the common injuries you see in the horses that your treat?
Most common injuries would be pulled, torn or stiff muscles especially around the back end (hamstrings, gluteal muscles), back in the lumbar-sacral area (behind the saddle) with that being the weakest part in the horse’s body and neck area. Saddle areas are prone to sores too due to saddles that don’t fit properly and uneven distribution of the rider’s weight. Injuries can come from riding, uneven weight distribution of horse and rider (i.e. being one sided), paddock slips and playing around and emotional issues such as holding in emotional pain in various muscles, for example tension from regular anxiety.
How important are stretching exercises for your horses?
It is important to incorporate regular stretches before and after riding. After all, if you did a structured exercise class, you would always start and finish with stretches. Horses are the same as humans, they have uneven muscle development and get stiff. Stretching improves muscle flexibility and range of motion, which help prevent and/or reduce injuries.
Can you give us examples of some useful stretches we should do with our horses?
Stretching the front legs forward and back and doing the same with the back legs. Stretching the neck to the sides and up and down with “the carrot stretches” as we call them. Raising the back by pushing on the belly. With stretches I would recommend to ask your body worker to show them if you are unsure as it is important not to stress the joints and over stretch and of course not to put yourself in danger whilst doing them.
How do you know if your horse is experiencing pain or soreness?
Horses, being prey animals, hide their pain pretty well. But there are signs we can watch out for like becoming grumpy, lazy, disinterested in work, getting naughty during a work out and bucking, kicking out, shying unnecessarily, refusing to do certain type of work by not engaging hind quarters or dropping shoulder when asked, feeling uneven and lacking forwardness. They may become sensitive to brushing, girthy when tacking up or touching in certain place, may clamp tail, tilt head unusually often etc. Swelling or heat is of course always a good indicator.
It is good to develop a solid relationship with your horse to know how it feels normally and that will make it a lot easier to detect when they are feeling off.
What should you do if you think your horses is experiencing pain or soreness?
I would suggest getting them seen by your preferred body worker or if the injury is serious call the vet. Giving them time off is of course beneficial, but that may not solve the problem in the long run.
How do you know if your horse requires bodywork?
Any display of experiencing pain or soreness, horse feeling emotionally off. I also recommend to simply keep up the maintenance every few months, which helps identify and prevent small aches and pains becoming big. In terms of how often, it depends on the age, workload and health history of the horse.
What is bowen therapy and concomitant healing?
Bowen Therapy is a dynamic bodywork technique that can be applied remedially or holistically. It is relatively gentle and can be very relaxing. It empowers the body’s own healing resources achieving balance and harmony, resulting in fast and lasting relief from pain and discomfort.
Concomitant healing deals with healing the physical body from physical problems, caused by overuse, accidents, sporting injuries etc. and the storage of emotional issues within the body. This form of healing that works to alleviate pain quickly with tremendous results for both animals and people. It requires the application of pressure to precise bodily points using the thumb, forefinger or index finger to release blocks and provide considerable relief from pain. Its effect is often instantaneous.
Feel free to contact Eve Bukina at www.hoovesandheels.com if you have any questions on bodywork.
In this blog, we speak to Racing Victoria’s acknowledged off-the-track retrainer, Lyn Shand who has extensive experience as a retrainer and NCAS coach. Lyn is the owner of Equus, a horse training facility based in Nar Nar Goon North, Victoria which she runs with her partner, Jamie Bayliss. Lyn is also one of the founders of Beyond Racing Ltd, a registered not-for-profit which provides retraining and rehabilitation support to retired racehorses so they can be successfully rehomed once their racing days are over.
What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from being a retrainer?
The biggest lesson I have learnt is to always check in and ask myself “is that what I actually asked for?” Horses live very much in the present and their communication relates to right now. Most of their language is communicated through body language, whereas humans use mostly verbal language. To gain greater connections with our horses, we need to learn their language.
What is groundwork and why is it a useful tool?
We often start our retraining program with some groundwork. Groundwork enables us to assess horses in a variety of areas before we ride. We can evaluate so many things from the ground, including temperament, movement, soundness, ground manners, responsiveness and trainability. I like to free lunge horses at first to see how they respond to my body language, whilst also assessing theirs.
Working with a horse on the ground is similar to building a foundation for a house. Having solid foundations makes the training process much easier. Once we have a relaxed horse to work with, we can progress the training and start working on balance and rhythm.
We can use groundwork as a development tool to build muscles and strength, keeping in mind a horse coming off the racetrack will need time to adjust to this new vocation, along with learning new ways of doing things. The horse needs to build up the correct muscles for his new job, learn to relax and carry himself on smaller circles before adding a rider. The horse can then, over time, develop balance in the paces and through transitions. Groundwork is also an excellent way to develop our human/horse relationship as we use a lot of body language when asking horses to perform tasks from the ground.
What training principles should you follow when training horses?
Firstly, you must be consistent. Consistency is essential in training horses. Horses learn through consistency and if we consistently ask for something to be done correctly and reward their good behavior immediately, they learn from it. There is no use asking for something to be done correctly only half of the time. Again, we as trainers need to constantly question “did I ask correctly?”, particularly if the response from our horse is not the correct one. Most of the time, it is us not asking correctly.
Secondly, there should be a system of discipline and reward. This is sometimes referred to as pressure and release training. We always encourage the horse to respond to pressure and instantly reward the desired response by releasing that pressure or providing a reward. During groundwork, we may ask a horse to move away from pressure by positioning our lunge whip towards the shoulders of the horse and when the horse moves away, we can reward that response. The reward can be a release of pressure or acknowledging verbally, so through consistent training, the horse learns to respond to light pressure.
What are the main techniques used in groundwork?
The main techniques used in groundwork are lungeing, long reining and leader work.
Lungeing is another fantastic way to work with horses on the ground. Some people think lungeing is as simple as standing in the middle of the circle and have the horse go around you in circles. It is so much more than that! To become good at lungeing can take years of practice and the more you do it, the better you tend to get at it.
Lungeing can be a fabulous way to communicate to the horse about rein and leg pressure. Whilst lungeing, your lunge whip is like using your leg if you were riding, so the position and action of the lunge whip is important. Horses love variety, so the less round and round in circles at the same pace, the better. Some great exercises on the lunge include plenty of transitions, voice command training, training variations in paces (eg faster and slower trot), teaching the horse to balance (eg halts and half halts) and work over poles. Keeping lunge lessons reasonably short (eg 20 minutes) is beneficial, as small circles can be quite strenuous on horses’ legs.
Whenever we introduce side reins, we do so gradually and always warm the horse up first without them. When we do clip them on for the first time, we make sure they are reasonably loose, so they are not restricting the horse too much. Tight side reins could cause a horse to panic. Side reins, when used correctly should encourage the horse and provide a balancing effect, which assists the horse to understand the correct effect of the bridle. The horse should learn to work forward, into the bridle, whilst using his hind legs to power his body forward and be comfortable in doing so.
Long reining is a wonderful groundwork technique which really is as close to riding from the ground as you can get. It involves having two reins, one clipped either side of the horses’ bit. Long reining can be carried out in a straight line and on circles. It is a great tool to continue the work of teaching horses rein and leg pressure and is extremely useful in breaking in also. It can be tricky to learn and does take a good deal of practice. I would highly recommend anyone wanting to learn this technique to seek professional guidance as the value of good long reining is hard to put a price on!
Leader work is another technique we use in our groundwork training. We ask the horses to respect us as their new leader. Since horses feel secure in a herd environment, establishing a clear leadership role encourages them to relax and allows progression in their training. I often explain this concept like a mother holding a toddler’s hand to cross the road. The child will be confident whilst the mother is holding their hand, as the mother has created a sense of leadership and confidence that her child can trust in. Horses are more secure when they have someone confidently showing them the way forward and are likely to progress well in their training this way.
Any last words of wisdom?
Groundwork is amazing for both physical and mental growth and establishing new muscle memory without adding the pressure of the rider and everything we do in groundwork will improve the ridden work. The value of good groundwork in retraining cannot be underestimated.