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Sure-footed Icelandic Horses: The Influence of Enviroment and Training

Pferd trainiert seine Trittsicherheit

Our Icelandic horses are generally regarded as cuddly, robust and sure-footed. The horses from the island of fire and ice must also be the latter, after all, they run over scree and rocks there and often even carry tourists with no riding experience on their backs. But what seems so natural on Iceland is absolutely unthinkable for many horse owners at home with their own pony.

Why is it like that? Why are the Icelandic horses in Iceland so much more sure-footed than our German Icelandic horses? Or are they at all? In this article we want to get to the bottom of this question and show you reasons why your Isis might be less sure-footed than the horses in Iceland.

Walking on uneven ground: "My horse can't do it".

Basically, every (Icelandic) horse is sure-footed and made to run on uneven ground, over sticks, stones and boulders, uphill and downhill. If a horse could not do this, it would be pretty bad for the horse's survival - after all, it is a flight animal and must be able to flee from attackers in any situation.

Reading Tip: We explain more about the importance in our article on horse-friendly training of the flight instinct for training.

So the predisposition for surefootedness is there. Nevertheless, there are many horse owners who say: "That's all well and good - but my horse can't do it. And it's far too dangerous. "

This raises the question: Why can't the horse do this when its body is actually made for it? And if his body is made for it, it shouldn't be dangerous.

The answer: Because we humans make sure that our horse can no longer do it.
A horse that lives on a flat paddock with concrete floor and paddock slabs or possibly even in a paddock box with even less movement stimuli and that is also ridden on the flat oval track most of the time, will learn over time to walk safely and balanced on uneven ground and will trip over every root in the forest. For such a horse, uneven ground can be dangerous.

Surefootedness requires good body awareness from the horse

If a horse has problems walking over hill and dale, it often has poor body perception. The better a horse can perceive its body, the safer and more balanced it can use it.

The horse's communication with the environment takes place through the senses. In addition to the senses of hearing, smelling, seeing and tasting, the horse has three other senses, the so-called basic senses: the tactile system (sense of touch), the proprioceptive system (self-perception) and the vestibular system (sense of balance). The three basic senses are mainly responsible for body perception and register not only stimuli such as touch, warmth and cold, but also stimuli that affect the movement of the body: Muscle length, muscle tension, skin stretching when bending a joint, the change in the body's centre of gravity, acceleration, etc.

The perceived stimuli are processed in the horse's central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). They ensure that the horse has a picture of its body, that it knows how the body is located in space, which position which leg has, etc.. And it knows, based on the stimulus processing, what it has to do to remain stable and balanced in this position - because balance is always the greatest goal of the brain. Based on the available information, the central nervous system gives commands to the muscles, which then react with precise tension and thus with a target movement.

Brain and body belong inseparably together. You can imagine the connection of the brain with the sensory cells and the muscles as a network of paths. The more often a path is used, the wider it becomes. So it develops from a beaten track into a motorway. Conversely, the motorway - or let's say the country road - becomes a beaten track if it is little used. The more stimuli your horses have to process, the wider the paths become and the faster and better the stimulus processing works.

The process of stimulus perception, stimulus processing and (motor) reaction cannot be controlled voluntarily, but occurs unconsciously. A classic example: Your horse stumbles and reacts with an appropriate step to restore balance.
A particularly large number of proprioceptors are located in the deep muscles along the spine and joints. The deep musculature is the holding musculature, which on the one hand provides stability and on the other hand is responsible for fine motor skills.

The control of movement by means of the proprioceptors represents an important protective function for the horse's body and the individual joints. If too little information is sent to the brain, this protective function no longer works optimally.

Uneven ground and the fear of broken horse legs

Many horse owners are afraid that their horse's legs will break if their horse has to walk over uneven ground, hilly tracks and over sticks and stones.

This fear can be justified, for example, when your horse is taken back into training after a long period of standing in the box. Standing and lack of exercise have caused the proprioceptors to fall into a slumber and must first be activated and trained again. The activation of the proprioceptors must take place first and before the muscular rehabilitation training starts. Only then will the control and interaction of the muscles function optimally, the horses become sure-footed and the horse's legs can withstand unevenness on the ground without breaking down.

Let's take another quick look at the inside of the horse's leg: There are an incredible number of proprioceptors in the joint capsules. These communicate the position of the joints to the central nervous system and the brain transmits corresponding commands to the relevant muscles to stabilise the joint according to the joint position.

This means: the more varied the joint movements are - and uneven floors require numerous joint movements - the more stimuli are perceived. And the more varied the information the brain has, the better it can command the right muscle activity that will stabilise the joints. And this is especially important because the horse has no muscles below the carpal joint on the front leg and below the hock joint on the hind leg. The muscles that move the joints (muscles are attached to bones with tendons and at least two bones put together form a joint) are located above the hock and carpal joints. This is also the reason why the horse's legs are so prone to injury.

The uneven ground does not damage the horse's legs, but rather stabilises them. However, and this is important in this context, the horse's body must first learn to walk on uneven ground. This means that the many, many proprioceptors have to be activated. This happens - precisely - by running over uneven ground and different surfaces. So grab your horses and walk regularly through the forest, over hill and dale, uphill and downhill.

And if you are still unsure whether this is really safe for your horses, let's take a short excursion into the human realm: In proprioceptive training, our feet play an important role. There is a theorem that says: "Posture begins with the feet". Here the principle is followed: Activating the foot muscles ensures that the joint axes are secured. Of course, our feet cannot be compared 1:1 with those of our horses - although, to a certain extent they can, if we were a horse we would walk on the tips of our fingers and toes. Nevertheless, postural control of the hoof and leg joints also plays an important role in the horse in connection with body perception, posture and surefootedness

Muscle tension reduces surefootedness

Muscular tension can also impair surefootedness. On the one hand, tight, tense muscles limit the possibility of movement - after all, a muscle must be able to stretch in a relaxed manner for movement to take place - on the other hand, tension reduces body awareness because muscle tone and muscle length vary less.
If a horse stumbles a lot, it may possibly be due to tight lower neck muscles or tense chest muscles. Muscles in the area of the saddle position, for example the broad back muscle M. lattisimus dorsi, are also involved in the movement of the forelimbs. If this muscle is tense, the equilateral foreleg cannot be adequately guided forward.

Improving surefootedness: Here's how!

In addition to releasing possible muscular tension, the magic word for improving surefootedness is: sensorimotor function. Sounds more complicated than it is. Because basically it's all about offering the horse as many different (movement) stimuli as possible to which the body reacts with muscle work.

The best way to improve proprioception and surefootedness is to walk on many different surfaces such as sand, stone, grass, forest floor, gravel, crushed stone, etc., uphill and downhill and over hill and dale - in other words, typically Icelandic. So grab your horse and head out for walks through the forest and across country. Why on foot? Because you give your horse the chance to use his body the way he needs to use it. We riders often tend to restrict our horse's movement by taking the reins short, etc., because we are afraid of accidents.

In addition to these cross country- walks, coordination training can also be a wonderful way to improve surefootedness. Coordination training requires your horses to use their bodies in a very specific way.

Coordination is improved through:

  • any form of pole training
  • frequent tempo differences and transitions
  • frequent (and spontaneous) changes of direction, also sideways and backwards and many track figures combined
  • slow, purposeful movements (for example, the horse should put one leg forward, pause, put the next leg forward, pause, etc.)
  • Training with Balance Pads

Tip: Ideally work on coordination from the ground and at a walk - walk responds best to proprioceptive input and without a rider, the horse can focus solely on its body and body movement and is not thrown off balance by the extra weight on its back.

You can also find more varied exercises that improve the horse's coordination and body awareness in our Article: How to train your horse in the winter.

You can also find more ideas on the Blog of our Autor Karolinaof our author Karolina, who not only writes, but as an equine ergotherapist also helps horses with poor body perception.
Veronika also has an extra tip: "I love lunging in the meadow on our oval track because the meadow is so crooked and humpy. I let my horse run over the rutted edges, lunge over the edge of the paved track and the meadow and vary the size of the circles. I think it's really great, it's fun and I think my horse has to be able to do it. "

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Abschwitzdecken von Sportsfreund Studios
Sportsfreund Studios

The Sportsfreund Studios blog contains numerous tips on dealing with horses. From fitness training to the learning behaviour of horses - you can read it all here. The blog is written by Karolina Kardel from 360 Grad Pferd.

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