Struggling to move up to the next level of competition and training? Do you feel that perhaps you may not be reaching the performance heights that you're capable of? Here are 5 ways that can help to improve your horse's performance.
1. Know your horse's baseline gait pattern, strength, fitness and symmetry - and improve it if you can!
When most professional athletes start a new year of training & competition, they undertake a screening assessment which determines where their current level of fitness and ability lies and a training program is put in place in order to to maximise their performance for the year. This doesn't just apply to professional athletes however, when any of us join a new gym or training group, we would typically undertake an assessment first so that our progress can be monitored, showing us the improved outcomes (we would hope!) at the end of our program.
We feel that it's equally important to have a good understanding of how your horse naturally moves and performs. Very few horses are perfectly symmetrical, however it's good to know your horse's baseline asymmetry in order to be able to differentiate its normal movement pattern from abnormal movements, which could be indicative of injury. It also allows us to highlight any areas in which we may be able to address, through the use of physiotherapy or with other equine professionals, which may help to lead to improved performance and even reduce potential risk of injury.
It's worth considering a regular 'check-up' for your horse, to monitor how they are going, identify any areas that could be improved on and potentially identify any risk factors for injury before they become serious.
2. Follow a consistent and progressive training schedule
You would never go out and run a marathon without training (we hope!), so it stands to reason that we really shouldn't ask our horses to perform work that they just aren't fit to do. Just because your new horse has performed at 2* eventing previously, you shouldn't expect that they would have the fitness or stamina to go and compete at the same level straight away after having only been in light work for the past year. It has been well documented in human research that a sudden increase in training load or volume is an increased risk for injury. Similarly in horses, research conducted by Hernandez et al in 2001 found that thoroughbreds that had ≥ 33 days since their last race had an increased risk of injury.
The type and frequency of training that you do is also very important. In a study conducted by Murray et al in 2009 looking at risk factors for injury in dressage horses, they found that a high number of training sessions per week and a low level of training at specific movements for each competition level was associated with the likelihood of injury. While incorporating jumping into the training schedule, spending a large proportion of training time in working paces and greater than 10% of training in transitions and extended paces were suggested as protective against injury.
It's important to plan and implement a progressive and specific training schedule for you and your horse, that will not only be specific to your discipline, but will also help to protect against the risk of injury. We recommend working closely with an experienced coach or trainer to help you with your training schedule, along with other professionals such as physiotherapists who are highly experienced in the area of workload progression and exercise training principles.
Technology is a fantastic way to help us also and there are a lot of different activity trackers available now which allow you to objectively monitor your horse's fitness and performance. These include apps that can be downloaded to your phone, heart rate monitors and sensors that attach to the girth or bridle.
3. Get yourself fit and strong
The general public may not see it, but as riders we know that we do way more than just 'sit there' on the horse's back. Horse riding is a partnership, and we don't want to be the one letting the team down because our strength and fitness isn't up to scratch.
Research published by Gunst et al in 2019 found that a rider sitting asymmetrically increased the force on one side of the saddle, which can be reasonably assumed to be also increasing forces through one side of the horse's back. Another research paper published this year by Dyson et al found that larger riders can induce temporary lameness and behaviours consistent with musculoskeletal pain in the horse.
The good news is that research has also shown that these effects on the horse can be lessened through exercise. Hampson and Randle in 2015 looked at the effects of an 8-week rider core fitness program on the horse's back at sitting trot. By the end of the program they found that subjects in the study had reduced asymmetry at the end of the 8 weeks and that on average the horse's had an increase in stride length of 8.4%.
You may think that riding your horse (and all the work that goes along with that) is enough, but in reality we find that many riders aren't as fit as they think and should be doing more work out of the saddle to improve their strength, mobility and fitness. Join a gym or group fitness class and get in some training out of the saddle. There are lots of practitioners out there now (us included!) who run rider specific exercise programs. We even offer online programs so you really have no excuse!
4. Have your saddle fitted at least once a year
When did you last have your saddle/s checked? There is a growing body of research investigating the effect of the saddle on horse and rider performance. A lot of that research is being conducted by Dyson and Greaves from the Animal Health Trust in the UK. In a study they conducted in 2013, they found that back pain and minor thoracolumbar asymmetries in the horse were associated with ill-fitting saddles. They also found that an ill-fitting saddle not only affected the horse but the rider too, with a link between poor saddle fit and rider back pain. Their research suggested that well-fitted saddles were associated with frequent saddle fit checks, and that saddle fit should be checked more often than once yearly to lower the number of ill-fitting saddles.
We recommend working with a master saddle fitter, who will have undertaken extensive training in their field. And be mindful that your saddle fitter should actually watch you ride your horse in the saddle that they are checking. After all, that's what the saddle will be used for!
5. Understand nutrition and know your horse's dietary needs
Nutrition plays an extremely important role in the health and performance of your horse, however is an area that is often poorly understood by owners. There is a wealth of information out there on horse nutrition, so much so that it can often be overwhelming to know where to start. It's important to know not only the type of food your horse should be eating based on their weight, age, condition and job, but also how much and when they should be fed.
Your vet or an equine nutritionist is the best place to start in helping you to determine the appropriate feeding program for horse in order to maximise their health and performance.
Please note that we're aware that we've only scratched the surface here, and haven't even touched on the importance of the other areas that are vital to your horse's performance, such as farriery, dentistry, environment, training surfaces, bits, coaching, training - the list goes on! Suffice to say that a well rounded, team approach is absolutely essential in order to optimise both horse and rider performance!
At first glance, this first picture would look like a great advertisement as a 'before and after' – the rider was crooked on the left but is looking much more straight on the right. However, these are actually screenshots of the same video, one stride length apart. We hadn’t yet done anything to try and improve the rider’s position.
If you look closely at the horse’s hind legs, you can see a difference. The picture on the left is when the horse’s right hind leg is hitting the ground as the left hind leg pushes off, while the one on the right is the next stride – the left hind leg hitting the ground as the right pushes off. I think you can see that there is a really big difference in the rider’s posture in each stride. This was consistent in each stride we analysed.
This tells us a few things. First and foremost, it’s really important to not analyse yourself just from a picture or under one circumstance. If we were just to analyse the picture on the left, we would be commenting that the rider is collapsing over to the right with more weight through the right stirrup and rotating the trunk slightly to the left. If we were to examine just the right, we would remark that she’s looking fairly symmetrical in the body, with slightly more weight through the left stirrup. We can see some similarities - in both pictures leg position is pretty much the same, with slightly more turn out of the left toe, but on the whole the rider’s position looks markedly different.
We did some ridden exercises and positional changes with this rider that helped improve her alignment slightly, but not 100%. The rider was also experiencing pain on just one side of her body, which would improve with physio or other therapies and specific exercises but would return again once she rode. So, we had to consider the other moving variable in this partnership, and that is the horse.
We did an assessment of the horse without a rider on board. You can see from this second picture, that there is a marked difference between the symmetry and muscle bulk of the hindquarters. We can see that the right side of the pelvis is sitting higher than the left, with considerably less muscle bulk on the right side. We found that the horse had less strength on the right side of the hindquarters and was compensating for this in other areas of the body. It starts to make more sense now that it’s when the right hind leg is in contact with the ground, that the rider sits asymmetrically.
So, for the next step we wanted to assess the same rider on a different horse. The picture on the left is the same rider on a different horse, with the picture on the right the same horse as previously. These pictures are of the same phase of the gait cycle – right hind leg and left foreleg in contact with the ground, with the left hind leg and right foreleg in swing phase.
Again, we see some marked differences between them. While the right leg position is almost identical in each, the left leg position is quite different, with the lower leg coming way off the horse in the picture on the right. This was happening consistently in the video each time at this phase of the gait cycle. We can see the rider is again shifted over to the right. In the left picture there is still a slight difference in shoulder height (although in the opposite direction now), however you can see that the rider looks more balanced and centred in the saddle on this horse.
What this case highlights is the need to not review a rider (or a horse) in isolation but to look at the whole picture. If we tried to just address the rider’s asymmetries in this particular case, we likely would not achieve a great outcome, as we can conclude that the horse is contributing to her asymmetry. We are uniquely placed to be qualified to work with both horse and rider, however if you do not have a horse and rider practitioner available, we strongly recommend having your equine practitioner and your rider practitioner working together. By assessing, and then treating if necessary, both horse and rider, we have a much better chance of improving performance.