Training young horses for over a decade has taught me a lot. Among other things, I see many young horses that have similar tension patterns throughout their bodies. While some of their muscles are working too hard, some are not working enough: this creates uneven fascial pull and causes discomfort.
If tensions and soreness is left untreated and unchecked for too long, it can create big problems in developing young horses (adults, too, but more importantly in youngsters). Most of the time, their owners are caring and genuine, and they do not use improper training techniques or harmful tack or gadgets. In most cases, they also do not ask too much from the horse. So, wherein lies the problem? Why and how do these young horses develop imbalances?
Usually, the answer is simple: the horse has never been taught to carry the rider properly. It is important to understand that when a rider sits on a horse, they put the horse’s own balance completely off, making them use muscles in a way that they would not without the extra weight on their back. Also, this goes way beyond just carrying the rider: the horse needs to know how to carry himself while carrying the rider.
Groundwork and lunging
Many horse owners and trainers lunge their young horses before putting a rider on them. This is a great way to start, but most people neglect teaching proper form while doing so. When you practice proper, biomechanically sound groundwork and lunging before putting the rider on, the horse is much more likely to carry himself better from the start.
And to clarify, when I talk about lunging, I mean teaching the horse proper self-carriage. This cannot be achieved by simply letting the horse run around in circles until he is exhausted.
If the horse cannot fully carry himself when lunging or when handled on the ground, they cannot do it with a rider, either. Sure, some masters can teach a young horse straight from the saddle, but as a general rule, preparation is key. So, frankly, before starting with ridden work, the horse should understand self-carriage and core activation on a lunge line. This will also teach the horse how to use his back properly, while starting the topline development correctly and properly.
If the horse does not learn this from a young age, you will end up with an adult horse that compensates for the lack of undeveloped muscles. Tension, soreness, unevenness, and imbalance are common, and the risk of injury increases.
What if my horse was not started correctly?
If you have a horse that was not started correctly and you believe they may have tension and other issues because of lack of self-carriage, you can return to the ABC’s and start the training process from the start. Sure, it is harder to retrain a horse and fix old habits than it is to simply start with the correct way - but sometimes it has to be done.
Also, the help of a bodywork specialist, equine massage therapist, and chiropractor may be needed in the process. As the horse starts using his muscles differently, there will be soreness and stiffness involved.