By activating a greater range of muscles, you can significantly improve your horse's movement pattern, make them stronger, and improve their suppleness.
When training, most riders tend to activate the horse's so-called "gymnastic" muscles, or in other words, the large exterior muscles. These muscles are suited for locomotion and are responsible for ensuring that the horse covers ground when moving from A to B. However, they are not effective at communicating with the nervous system in order to establish new muscle patterns (or otherwise known as muscle memory).
If a rider overdevelops a horse's gymnastic strength, it can cause stiffness in horses. Thus, focusing also on postural muscles is important to ensure the best possible performance.
What are postural muscles?
Before looking at how we can improve postural muscles, let's look at what they really are. Most horses are trained focusing on building a strong topline and hindquarters in order to get big movements out of them. However, a horse like this quickly gets dull.
When we talk about postural muscles, we mean the smaller, deep muscles that surround (for instance) the spine and joints as well as pelvic stabilizers. They support the locomotion muscles and are highly supplied with nerves and neural pathways. By activating these smaller muscles, the horse will have more support to his locomotion muscles and you will be able to modify range of motion.
Pilates for horses - improve the performance
When a dressage rider spends too much time on drilling big, flashy gaits, it makes the horse dull. This kind of repetition causes rigidity and asymmetry, which will ultimately rob a dressage rider from points in the dressage test.
A horse can have a very strong back, and yet still be highly compromised in how well they move. In fact, tension arising from a hyper-toned back slows down the horse's hind legs and can create a habit of bracing throughout the body instead of improving agility and balance. Also, gluteal muscles can restrict the hind legs from swinging freely when strengthened disproportionately to the neighboring smaller muscles.
Thus, ensuring that these smaller muscles are paid attention to equally is important to increase suppleness and to improve the range of motion.
We can think about this as Pilates for horses. The purpose is to activate smaller, supportive, deep muscles in order to support the locomotive muscles and joints.
Below, there are a few exercises to start improving the postural muscles.
Climbing up and down hills with loose rein is one of the most effective ways to help the horse to relax from the poll and back, while improving the strength of the muscles stabilizing the pelvis. This may take a long time, but the important thing is to stay consistent and to let the horse do the work and figure out his own feet without the rider's help.
By allowing your horse to move on different surfaces, you will be able to activate smaller, stabilizing muscles that (for instance) surround the joints and ligaments. This can be done by riding on different surfaces, such as sand, water, grass, and so on. Alternatively, you can set 3-meter segments of alternating surfaces that a horse walks through for a total of 30 or more meters. For instance, pebbles, firm ground, water, sand, and grass make up each segment.
This is called sensory re-education.
Add dips and drops. Ride up and down steep ditches or drops, keeping the horse completely straight. This helps to improve one-sidedness, as the horse needs to push off of both of his hind legs. In addition, this exercise helps to improve the horse's balance and to lift from the base of the neck.
Remember recovery and rest
Remember to provide your horse with adequate rest and recovery. An equine massage therapist can help you to spot possible problem areas before issues arise.