Equine Sports Therapy Exercises
A big thanks to Kaitlyn Croke and Will Zillman Horsemanship
https://williamzillman.com.au/ for riding these exercises for Ridestrong.
Exercise one: Raised Pole Fan:
- Set up to six poles in a fan shape as shown in the video. Raise the inside edge of the poles to around 30cm. Space the raised ends approximately 30cm apart. Set the wider ends 1.3m apart.
- Ride around the narrow part of the fan first at a walk. Ask your horse to take a single step between each pole.
- Maintain a clear bend by applying pressure with the inside leg.
- Circle round to cross the poles again, but move to the wider edge.
- Ask for two steps between each pole here.
- Alternate between the narrow end and the wider end.
- This exercise will highlight any instability in the pelvis. Be sure to go slowly and don't expect the world.
Exercise two: Serpentine Across a Ditch
- Find a ditch or canal that slopes down approximately 1-2m and raises up the other side. Be sure this is a safe spot without crumbly edges where your horse could slip.
- Stand in the middle of the ditch with the horses body parallel to the ditch sides.
- Proceed to ride a shallow serpentine that keeps crossing the ditch.
- With each loop of the serpentine, move just two to three steps up the bank and return down.
- The loops should be tight and swift.
- Remember to change the poll flexion of your horse and bend for each loop the same as you would in an arena. Be sure to keep control and not let him fall down the slopes as he tries to rush. Maintain a measured rhythm.
Exercise three: Ride a Hill Sideways
- Find a small hill that would allow you to ride across it for around 20m.
- Gentle slopes are best here. Avoid steep hills.
- Place the horses weaker or stiffer side on the uphill
- Walk a straight line sideways across the hill.
Exercise four: Quick Halts Down a Hill
Contraindications: should not be done with horses suffering joint issues, arthritis or decreased functionality in their lumbar or sacral areas. This will cause more damage. Only do this exercise with a healthy horse.
- Develop a brisk but controlled walk with light rein contact travelling straight down the hill.
- The hill should be sloped so that you can feel the horse working his way down the hill but not scrambling.
- After 10 strides ask for an abrupt halt transition maintaining straightness.
- Stand still for 5 seconds and continue down.
- Repeat after 10 strides.
- Make sure when he stops that he maintains the rein contact. You don’t want to loose the posture you are trying to create. Stopping abruptly causes him to sink with his sacrum and hold the flexion of his hind legs so that he can lighten the front end. Engaging the hind!
Exercise five: Back Up With Good Form
- Maintain correct forward down posture. If your horse lifts and braces his neck, stop moving backwards until you can encourage him to return to the correct posture.
- If the horse curls his head to his chest and overly rounds his neck, stop going backward, draw the chin forward and restart.
- Keep the horse straight. If he falls to one side place him against a fence.
- If he drags or scrapes toes on the ground, do this exercise on a range of harder surfaces to encourage proprioception.
- Travel backward 10 steps to begin and build to 30 per day.
- Keep the steps rhythmic, steady and smooth. Slower and controlled is better. Dont rush.
Exercise six: The Schaukel
- Begin in a square halt, the horse in a forward down position. Ride four to six steps backward.
- Immediately close your legs and walk the horse forward four steps then halt.
- Ideally the last hind hoof to step backward should be the first to move forward.
- Keep your horse square.
- Repeat as long as the horse is maintaining straightness. Listen to his body and dont overdo it.
- Aim to create the feeling of a carousel horse moving back and forth.
- Your horse should step forward and back energetically but with control.
Exercise 7: Backing Up a Hill
- Once you have exercise 5 done correctly resistance free you can continue with this exercise.
- Seek out a gentle gradient.
- Keep a good horizontal balance established in exercise 5. Back up 5 steps and assess how your horse felt. Was he resistant, tight, raising his head or bracing his back?
- If he manages this without any stress you can move on to 10-15 steps.
- If it is challenging maintain 3-5 correct steps or however many your horse is able to give. Form is everything! Don’t compromise.
Exercise 8: Backing Down a Hill
- Using the same gentle slope as exercise 7 begin at the top of the slope. Ask your horse to back down in a straight line to the bottom of the slope.
- Again if this is challenging ask for less. Aim for success rather than finding ways for your horse to fail.
- Make sure that their steps are measured and they are not trying to take larger steps to balance themselves. This creates imbalance.
- Posture needs to be maintained here.
Exercise 9: Forward Down Transitions
- Begin in an energetic trot. Post the trot.
- Slow down for four strides and then make a gradual transition to the walk so the horse continues to reach forward down with his neck.
- After 10 walk strides, keeping the neck forward down transition to trot.
- Repeat. When the horse is maintaining the position comfortably with no head bobbing you can move onto adding in canter transitions.
Exercise 10: Changing Angles - Leg Yield
- Riding your horse at a walk, turn him slightly toward your arena fence so that he is now in a head-to-fence leg-yield position - his haunches pointing in to the arena.
- His spine should make a 45 deg angle in relation to your fence.
- Take 1-2 strides here when starting out. Don’t ask for too much as this can be a very challenging exercise for weak horses.
- Once he completes that ask him to bring his haunches in further so that you have a 90 deg angle of his spine to the arena fence.
- Side-pass for or five strides here.
- Return to the 45 deg angle for 4-5 strides
- Alternate like this for 1-2 mins
- Take breaks in between the 1-2 mins if your horse if finding this difficult.
- Hold the angles steady but ensure that you are listening to your horses body. Don’t expect the world straight away.
Exercise 11: Lateral movements on a circle
- Ride a 20m circle posting the trot. Develop good rein contact and energy
- Sit the trot. Remain on the circle, ask for shoulder in for 2-3 strides.
- Release the shoulder in and ask for haunches in for four to five strides.
- Go back to shoulder in.
- Repeat in each direction.
- If this is too difficult for your horse. Drop down to an energetic walk.
Exercise 12: Snake over Poles
- Set up several ground poles in a straight line. To make this harder use raisers.
- Walk a tight serpentine that crosses back and forth over the pole from one end to the other.
- Always cross at an angle and not straight over.
- Keep your loops as close as possible to the pole. The idea is to make quick postural adjustments.
- Make sure that you are changing the horses bend with your inside leg.
- Repeat the serpentine a few times
- This can be done in hand as well.
Exercise 13: Snake over Poles V. 1
- Set up a second row of poles next to the first one in exercise 12.
- Walk your horse over in the same fashion. Maintain forward down head carriage.
- If your horse knocks the poles often. Leave the poles and go for an energetic trot and come back to it.
Exercise 14: Snake over Poles V.2
- Use the initial set up for exercise 12 but create three, equally spaced gaps in your line of poles.
- Walk or jog a serpentine over the centre of the poles avoiding riding through the gaps.
- Now avoid riding over the poles and serpentining through the gaps.
Exercise 15: Straddle a Pole
- Place a single pole on flat ground.
- Lead your horse to approach the pole straight from one end.
- Pause briefly
- Now very gently, one controlled step at a time lead him forward with the pole under his midline.
- Use a dressage whip to tap his body if he falls over to one side.
- Go slowly and let him pause and calibrate the movement.
Exercise 16: Stretch and Climb Through
- Set up four or five poles on the ground spaced slightly less than a meter apart.
- Around 6 meters away set up four or five more poles spaced 75cm apart these can be raised to 20cm for fitter horses.
- Either leading or riding, ask your horse to walk in a straight line over both sets of poles.
- Make sure he stays collected and only takes one step between all the poles
Exercise 17: Zig Zag Poles
- Place 6-8 poles in a zig zag fashion as seen on the video, make your sides of the zigzag around 1.2 meters apart
- Jog through the zigzag several times.
- Give minimal bending cues. The idea is for the horse to make his own adjustments with a little rider support.
- You can do this at a walk too
Exercise 18: Agility Square- Develops stability in the trunk and pelvis
- Set up cones or markers in a 30m square
- Proceed in a working trot or jog around the square
- Before the first corner, ride a downward transition to walk.
- Proceed for 5 strides, then trot again for a few strides.
- Before the next corner ride another transition to walk for four strides.
- Trot to the next corner for three strides of walk
- Trot to the final corner of your square and ride just two walk strides. Repeat from the top.
Exercise 19: Trot Poles Raised Outer Edge - corrects asymmetrical reach of the forelimb
- Place five to six poles on a curved line as seen in the video. The curved line should be approximately the degree of curve of a 20m circle. Spaced 1.2m apart.
- Proceed in working trot (or brisk walk) around a circle that crosses over the centre of the poles. Be sure to post the trot.
- Maintain light contact with the reins, asking for a rounded frame.
- Maintain a bend to the inside and complete 10-15 repetitions over the poles in both directions.
Exercise 20: Trot Poles Raised Inner Edge - Counters side dominance and tendency to ‘fall in’
- Place five to six poles on a curved line spaced slightly less than 1.2m apart at their centre.
- Raise the inside end of each pole to a height of 20-25cm.
- Ride a lively posting trot over the poles, keeping the horses spine in an arc toward the middle of your circle.
- Ride in a rounded frame with equal soft contact in both reins.
- Riders must keep a firm, quiet outside leg against the horse in this exercise, as the natural tendency will be for the horse to drift outwards.
- Complete this in both directions 10-15 times.
Exercise 21: Controlled Downhills - Engaging the back
- Ride in a slow measured walk downhill
- The walk should maintain forward progress, but it should feel like he places each foot separately and that you could ask him to stop immediately at any second.
- Keep your body aligned parallel with the trees around you, neither leaning forward or back.
- Be sure that the horse maintains straightness. Envision your legs as railings that he stays aligned between.
- Aim to ride down a hill that takes at least 10 seconds or longer to descend. Ride down it three to six times.
Exercise 22: Balancing on Unstable Surface - Challenges motor control and core stability
- Find an unstable surface such as a large foam mat, mattress or you can buy commercially available sure foot pads.
- After allowing your horse to sniff and familiarise himself with the pad, walk him directly across it once.
- The next time walk him on the mat and ask him to stop with all four feet on it.
- Stand for at least a minute or two. Most horses at this point will sway gently from side to side for several seconds. Allow that to happen
- Walk him off the mat and then circle him to come back on it.
- again, stand for a moment
- Repeat for three standing sessions on the mat.
Exercise 23: Mobilisation on Unstable Surface - Improves balance and core stability
- With your horse standing square on the mat, ask him to flex his head around towards his hip.
- Move the treat very slowly toward his hip; you don’t want him to swing his head around quickly and loose balance.
- He might shift his feet a little as he balances. This is okay so long as he stands on the mat.
- When he successfully touches his hip, move the treat down low to the outside of his front foot.
- Repeat on the other side
Exercise 24: Weight Shifts on Unstable Surface - Helps shift the horses centre of gravity.
- Being by standing square on the unstable mat.
- Stand beside him and place your hand on his sternum.
- Very gently ask his sternum back a tiny amount.
- You should feel the chest yield to the pressure and the horse will draw himself up and back as though he is going to walk backward.
- Keep hold of your lead line and give him the intent to keep his feet planted.
- Hold for 3-5 seconds then release your hand on his sternum.
- If this does not work for you - just pick up alternating front legs for several seconds and then try again.
Exercise 25: Serpentine In Hand - enhances symmetry and promotes equal use of the sides of the body
- Stand directly in front of your horses chest with your rope in your left hand and a long whip in your right.
- Begin by walking straight backward and drawing him to you.
- Now use your whip directed at his ribcage to ask him to bring his body around it.
- Be sure that you are walking back in a straight line.
- After three steps swap sides.
- Continue alternating sides.
- If your horse is sore or resistant they will rush forward into you. Use a series of gentle bumps with the cavesson to manage the tempo and keep him out of your space.
- Make sure to check the angle of the poll when you bend the horse to each side, it should mimic a hinge swivelling.
Exercise 26: The Labyrinth - calms, focuses and improves proprioception
- Set up a labyrinth as shown in the video
- Either hand walk or ride your horse very slowly through it.
- Take your time; proceed with small careful steps
- Don’t become overly concerned if the horse bangs the poles, this is part of the experience.
Exercise 27: Therapeutic Pole Pattern
- Place three poles parallel to each other, at a distance of two horse lengths apart.
- Proceed to lead your horse in an hourglass pattern, crossing the poles.
- Begin at the left edge of the first pole and proceed to walk a diagonal line across the other two poles.
- After you cross the third pole, make a half circle to the left asking the horse to bend his body in an arc to the left.
- You will now be at the right edge of the third pole.
- Proceed to walk in a diagonal line across the other poles.
- Make a right half circle to arrive at the beginning point of the exercise. Repeat 10 times
Exercise 28: Pre Ride Circles - Mobilises spinal joints and stimulates spinal muscles of stability.
- Place a cone in the middle of a 6 meter circle
- Ask your horse to walk the small circle around this cone, inviting your horse to stretch long and low
- Keep your horse in forward down position and make use of your cavesson and whip to keep the horse from falling in.
- Practise equally in both directions, aiming for 3-5 revolutions with an energetic rhythm.
- 6 meter circles engage the deep epaxial muscles of the spine. Make sure you use a cone to ensure that the circle size is correct.
Exercise 29: The 11 Meter Circle - Encourages straightness and symmetry of movement
- Using a longe cavesson and a 6m longe rope ask your horse to move around you in an 11 meter circle
- Aim to keep a feeling of contact in the line, drawing the nose forward as the outside foreleg steps forward.
- Use your whip to make sure the horse does not fall into the circle.
- If the horse is not stepping under his body toward his midline with his inside hind leg, direct the whip to his flanks.
Exercise 30: Walking uphill over Poles - improves the canter and limb adduction
- On a gentle slope, place two poles on the ground parallel to each other spaced 1.8m apart
- Lead the horse up the slope encouraging a forward-down neck posture.
- Cross over the centre of both poles without slowing down.
- Aim to have the horse take two big strides between the poles
- Descend the slope and repeat
Exercise 31: Longeing Therapy - enhances co-ordination and balance
- Begin by setting up 5 poles on one end of your arena in a fan and spaced for walking; arrange five poles spaced for trotting on the other end of your arena, about 60m away.
- Now ask your horse to circle around you on an approximately 20 meter circle, crossing the walking poles.
- Make three circles like this
- Walk to the middle area of the arena away from the poles and ask your horse to canter three circles around you.
- Transition to the trot and move your circle to the trotting poles on the far end of the arena, make three circles over these poles.
- Pick up the canter again and move back to the centre of the arena for three circles.
- Come back to a walk, move over to the walking poles and make three circles over them.
- Keep repeating this sequence for 5 minutes, depending on your horses fitness and rehabilitation status.
Exercise 32: The Two Part Turn - resolves habitual bracing and teaches the horse to shift his balance.
- Start by riding a small circle with light rein contact in a walk
- Now ask the horse to step his hindquarters over and away from your inside leg, so that his hind legs follow a slightly larger circle circumference than his front legs
- Take two or three strides like this
- Now apply a half halt to shift the horses weight back on his hindquarters and encourage him with your outside leg to take two steps over toward the centre of your circle with his front feet
- This step should feel like a small pirouette.
Ensure that your horse walks with energy to help him flow through this exercise. If your horse falls apart go back to riding a 10m circle and ensure that you can maintain bend and energy before approaching the turn again.