Horses are designed to move. In a natural or wild situation a horse on average will travel between 30-80km a day. Their bodily systems are designed for motion and this not only applies to their musculoskeletal health but also to their neurological, respiratory, digestive and podiatric health. They are designed to travel over varying terrain including rocks and mud, dirt and grass, flat lands and hills, and at varying speeds. Their body and nervous system are exposed to a variety of unpredictable input and real time interaction with their environment. This creates adaptability and increased brain-body connection. What horses are not designed for is constant repetition of the same type of motion over the same type of terrain on a daily basis. Unfortunately a lot of our equine training programs are designed with constant repetition of specific movements in manicured arenas because it has been proven that practice does make perfect in predictable situations (such as the show pen). Why this works is because the repetition of movements encourages muscle memory so these maneuvers become second nature to the horse and rider. However, repetitive movements and exercises can cause repetitive strain injuries (repetitive use injuries), which are painful disorders of the joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons.
What I would like to challenge horse owners and trainers to do is look at the benefits of incorporating novel movement and cross-training into their horse training routines.
What is Novel Movement?
Novel movements are movements that are different from the movements that we do on a daily basis in our specific environment. They are non-habitual movements that activate different parts of the body and nervous system that are not activated in daily routines. Novel movement is often seen in play when interacting with others and the environment in a non-scripted manner.
What are the benefits of Novel Movement.
Novel movement develops areas of the musculoskeletal and neurological systems that are not engaged regularly. What this does is help support the body when you do ask for the repetitive movements and training exercises needed for your specific sport. With the training of novel movements, you know you are encouraging the whole body to support and engage in your training, not just the isolated parts. This leads to less injury because you have a more balanced horse. Novel movement increases overall fitness, agility, proprioception and body awareness. It also strengthens supporting body structure that aid in the health of the joints, ligaments, muscles and tendons that are under repetitive use.
How can I incorporate Novel Movement in my horse's routine?
Play! as mentioned above, play is a good way to interact with your horse. You can play with your horse on the ground on a line or at liberty, with objects (such as horse balls) and obstacles. Be dynamic and a little "unpredictable" in your play. Have your horse engage his mind and his body will follow!
Variation. Change up your warmup daily. Maybe one day you warm up outside around the property instead of the arena over and around different terrain. Another day you warm up with groundwork. Change your actual warm up sequence of movement and/or add some obstacles.
Trail Ride. One of the best ways to incorporate novel movement is to get out in nature. Nature is the best teacher for the mind and body (and soul I might add!). The varying terrain and stimulus from the environment is the perfect way to strengthen your horse mentally and physically. The varying terrain in itself is an incredible tool for developing better proprioception.
Stretches and Bodywork. Often when we do bodywork and stretch our horses we are asking for movements that the horse does not do often in his daily routine. This connects the mind to these parts of the body and also helps the musculoskeletal system to engage where needed and to relax where needed.
What is Cross-Training?
Cross-training is one practice of encouraging novel movement. It is engaging in two or more (I would say the more the merrier!) types of exercise or sports to improve fitness that will improve your performance in your primary sport. This is another way to give your horse the opportunity to explore a variety of movements and improve their adaptability.
Examples of cross-training can include the trail riding that is mentioned above. It could also include jumping horses training in dressage or obstacle work (working equitation for example) or reining horses going out and doing some ranch work. One of our Rewind Equine clients is a Standardbred racehorse trainer and her horses go out on the trail! The options are limitless and cross-training is also great for us as riders as well.