When horses are not allowed to be ridden due to a musculoskeletal injury or after a bout of laminitis, many horse owners lack ideas on how to keep their horse occupied from the ground. That's why we take up this topic in our article and show you all the exciting things you can do with your horse when it's not riding.
Before we introduce you to various training and activity ideas for ground work with horses, we would like to point out to you that, especially during or after a break from riding due to injury, it is essential that you talk to your attending veterinarian about what is possible and permitted in your case and for your horse.
Riding break due to injury: Can i only go for a walk with my horse?
Let's take the classic example of tendon damage. In this case, the training plan drawn up by the veterinarian or the equine physiotherapist very often includes walking on hard ground for the first time. After that, trotting may be gradually added. Depending on the horse's condition, it can also be ridden slowly again. Only after another four to six weeks, if everything looks good, canter may be added.
Riding break: variety for the horse's head
Before a horse can be moved again - be it from the ground or with the rider's weight on its back - there is a more or less long standstill period. If you want to keep your horse mentally occupied during this time, clicker training is a good way to do so (we will report on this in our series How Horses Learn). Clicker training, meaning working with positive reinforcement, offers many possibilities to occupy the horses' minds and to dispel boredom in the box.
Exercises with a target stick
The first exercise that comes in handy is conditioning on a target stick. This way you can make your horse understand the training with the clicker. The target can be a fly swatter, a pool noodle or something similar. You hold the target in front of your horse's nose and as soon as he touches the target with his nose, he gets a click and a biscuit. As soon as your horse has understood that he should touch the stick with his nose, you can start to vary the position: sometimes you take the stick further up, sometimes further down, then you take it further to the left and then further to the right.
You are not only giving your horse a great mental exercise and keeping him busy, but you are also stimulating the muscles, especially those of the neck and rump. When your horse has to turn its head to the side, it automatically stretches the opposite side. If it has to take the head down-front, it stretches the upper muscles. Later, when your horse is allowed to move again, you can expand the training with the target and, for example, lead your horse freely through a course with only the target - you will find some tips on this below..
Another idea to keep your injured horse busy is to pick up or retrieve objects. This works wonderfully with hats, stuffed bones for dogs, towels, cuddly toys, the food bowl and the like. The aim of the exercise is for your horse to pick up the object with its mouth and give it to you. The procedure for this could be that you click immediately when your horse picks up the object in its mouth. Then you build this up until your horse gives you the object.
Another variation of this exercise is the undressing. Here your horse pulls something off its back - for example a towel. You set up this exercise in a very similar way: You put a towel on your horse's back. When he touches the towel with his nose, you click. In the second step, your horse should take the towel into its mouth - click! In the third step he pulls the towel off his back and gives it to you. Here, too, not only the head is addressed, but also the muscles on the opposite side of the body are stretched at the same time.
Improving the horse's body perception with proprioceptive training
What is often neglected when training horses is body awareness, which suffers from injuries, standing breaks and little exercise.
If the proprioceptors are inactive, the brain receives too little information about muscle tension and joint position. Coordination and movement suffer as a result. For this reason, after a standing break, the focus should always be on activating the proprioceptors/improving body perception so that the control and use of the cooperating muscles functions adequately, joint stability is increased and a renewed risk of injury is minimised. Proprioceptive training can be designed very differently, depending on the horse's state of health. Above all, however, it can also be incorporated wonderfully during a walk without equipment.
Tip 1: Walk with changing ground conditions
So when you walk your horse, you can always lead him over changing ground conditions (if only hard ground is allowed, you can see to it that you use different hard grounds). It can look like this: Stone, gravel, sand, grass, concrete, sand, forest paths.
Tip 2: Unstable surfaces: Balance pads or mat
Another way to bring the proprioceptors out of their slumber is to use unstable surfaces such as balance pads or mats. They are a good alternative to uneven forest trails, which not every horse is allowed to walk over right away. When standing on unstable surfaces, your horse has to balance himself permanently. This activates the proprioceptors, improves balance and also strengthens the important deep muscles that are responsible for support and stability. Be careful not to overload your horse when training with balance pads or mats. It is better to start with a short session and increase the duration over time.
Creative lead training
Another great way to get horses moving at a walk is creative lead training. This can be done in the field as well as on the track at home. If you think that this is only for young horses, you are wrong: older horses and especially we humans also benefit from lead training. Creative lead training trains our own coordination enormously - and in the end we also need good coordination when riding in order to be able to give fine aids. While most of us can handle our horse very well from the left side, they quickly start to get tangled up on the right side. That's why creative lead training can be a wonderful way to improve communication on the ground.
What do we mean with creative lead training?
This is not simply a matter of walking next to the horse in the classic lead position (left), but of leading the horse through a course in a completely variable way. Possible is:
walking in front of the horse
walk at the level of the saddle (from left and right)
lead with distance (like lunging with little distance and without circles)
lead with neck ring
lead freely and without equipment (of course you have to make sure that your horse does not simply run off or that running off does not harm your horse - a good preparatory exercise is training with the target stick).
With these variable leading positions, you can then compete on a lead course, which (depending on the horse's health) could include the following elements:
Floor bars/foam alleys for climbing over with different heights and distances
Snaking through the track
Slalom with cones
Alleyways of different widths to walk through
Stopping with pinpoint accuracy (especially challenging when leading with distance or freely).
If the legs are sound, exercises for lateral striding and with more collection can also be incorporated, for example, thigh turnings on the straight or also on curved lines, decreasing and increasing circles, backwards, swings, etc.
Classical handwork and long reins
Another particularly nice way to move the horses from the ground is classical work in hand or on the long rein. Depending on the horse's state of health, many lessons can be worked on with hand work. The advantage of working in hand or on the long rein is that specific muscle groups can be strengthened and addressed. In addition, it can be used in the indoor arena, on the oval track or even in the field.
Single and double serpentines
Serpentine lines through the whole track
Change through the circle
Later on, lateral gaits (shoulder walk, travers, traversal) can be added and combined with the course figures.
Isometric exercises to strengthen the trunk muscles
Isometric exercises are a good way to strengthen the trunk muscles without a lot of movement. Here the muscles have to work without changing their length. These exercises are very strenuous - you can feel the effect yourself: take a bottle and hold it up with an outstretched arm. Before starting isometric exercises, please consult your vet and physiotherapist. You should refrain from these exercises in case of acute injuries, after an operation or in case of an acute inflammatory process (arthrosis).
In the isometric exercises you slowly apply pressure with your hands or your body in the area of the shoulder or flank - as much or as little as your horse can hold. He should not take a step to the side, but react with counter-pressure. As these exercises can be strenuous depending on your horse's condition, you should increase the pressure and duration slowly and always pay attention to your horse's reaction. You can start with a duration of 6 seconds and gradually increase the time up to 15 seconds. Each side and each position can be repeated 3 to 5 times, then your horse should be given a short break.
Loosening massages and stretching exercises
In addition to regular controlled movement, training after an injury also focuses on the health of the muscles. Only when muscles and fasciae can work healthily, without tension and adhesions, can muscle development take place. In addition, bones are attached to muscles with tendons. If the muscle of the damaged tendon is constantly under tension, this also applies to the tendon. The more relaxed and healthy the attached muscle is, the better for the affected tendon. Light massage and stretching can help here. Both have a relaxing effect and promote blood circulation. The latter improves the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the tissue and thus contributes to improved healing.
Another advantage: massage and stretching improves the horse's feeling for his own body. The massage through the sensory input of your hands and the stretching by focusing your horse's attention on that very body part.
Before trying the stretching exercises on your horse, be sure to consult your veterinarian. This is especially true if there are problems with muscles and joints. If your horse is on painkillers, you should avoid stretching exercises.
Light stretching exercises
Before we introduce you to a few easy stretching exercises, a quick note: The stretch should be held between 10 and 30 seconds and repeated about 3-4 times. Your horse should always be warmed up before stretching.
Stretching the front legs
To stretch the front legs, take hold of your horse's front leg by the hoof and pull it straight forward. It is important that you do not hold the leg too high, otherwise your horse can get a hollow back. This stretches all the muscles that are responsible for bringing the front legs back, especially the broad back muscle.
Stretching the hind legs
To stretch the hind legs, you can stand facing the tail, grasp your horse's hind leg in the middle of the tubular bone and slowly and gently stretch the leg forward past the rump.
Stretching the neck
With a carrot in your hand, you can stretch your horse's neck. Depending on which direction you want to stretch (up, down, left or right), let your horse sniff the carrot until he follows you with his nose to the desired spot. For the downward stretch, hold the carrot between the front legs - this can be a nice preliminary exercise for bowing. Make sure that your horse does not bend in the front legs.
Simple, loosening massage strokes
With very simple massage strokes you can also wonderfully care for your horse's muscles. Hand and finger strokes are suitable for this purpose. You can choose to stroke your horse's body with the entire palm of your hand or, in small areas such as the neck, only with the fingertips with more or less pressure in the direction of the coat. Make sure that you always have both hands on the horse's body. Stroking has a relaxing effect and at the same time gives you a good picture of your horse's muscle condition.
Other suitable massage techniques are raking - forming a rake with your fingers and pulling it over the horse's body in the direction of the coat - and kneading. Kneading is suitable for muscle areas where the muscles can be easily grasped, for example the arm-head muscle on the lower neck (brachiocephalicus muscle), the upper neck muscles or the ischial muscles on the hindquarters.
Keeping horses occupied from the ground in a varied way
All the exercises presented here can be combined with each other in any way. In this way, you can create a varied training plan for your horse that does not only consist of walks and lunge work, even without riding. You will see: When you then start riding again, your horse will be mentally present and much fitter and more agile than if you had always just gone for a walk. And your relationship may be even deeper than before. We speak from experience...
Reading tips with further inspiration and exercise ideas:
Trittsichere Islandpferde: Der Einfluss von Haltung und Training
On the Blog 360° Pferd of our Autorin Karolina you will find more articles with different training ideas.