Soft Tissue Rehab Exercise: Supple Without a Saddle

With my mare in recovery from two ligament injuries, I’ve gotten creative: dreaming up things we can do in the stall, on the lead, and under saddle in straight lines mostly at the walk. I had a world of trouble finding guidance on the internet. Most exercises were tailored for horses with bony injuries. Soft tissue brings its own complications. This rehab requires daily sessions on firm footing with as few turns as possible. This means nothing on the longe-line, no cavaletti, no trail-work, and no circles.

As she’s been returning work, her back is tender. I’m not surprised. The mare lost every ounce of muscle she ever had, leaving the stall for only 10 minutes twice a day for 7 months. She is now ridden under saddle every single day.

This is a great exercise to do a few days in a row to give the horse’s back a break.

Required equipment:

  • Horse. I prefer to ride my (very calm) mare without medicating her, but per my vet’s recommendation, I rode her for the first several weeks with 2-3 cc’s of oral Acepromazine on board. Talk to your vet and your trainer and figure out what’s best for you.
  • Bridle.
  • Helmet.
  • Watch. The vet has provided strict guidelines on how long my mare can be worked during each phase of her rehabilitation. I have an inexpensive digital waterproof Timex from Target that is barn-tested and Capital Cowgirl approved.
  • Arena with firm even footing.
  • Mounting block.
  • Another human (for safety).

NOTE: The list above does not include a saddle. I firmly believe a few bareback rides are good for both of us.

The Warm-Up

Handwalk twice around the arena in each direction. Match your steps to the horse. This is meant to warm up the joints and prepare the back.

Go to the mounting block and get on. Grab mane and land lightly. Remember the point of the whole exercise is to loosen the back.

Walk once around the arena each direction with your legs relaxed at your horse’s side and breathe deeply. Listen to the footfalls and notice the tempo. Is it even? Rushed? Relax your back and let your hips be pushed by the horse’s steps.

Obedient

Mentally divide the arena into 4 distinct segments. I use the Dressage letters A, B, C, and E as my guides, but any 4 points will do. About two strides before each “point,” flex your abdominal muscles to stop the rocking of your hips and sit deep. The horse should slow its steps, and may even flick an ear back towards you. At the “point” ask for the halt. As soon as all 4 feet stop, allow the horse to walk on. Continue this at each point twice around in each direction.

Now your horse is listening. He may even begin to anticipate the halt. This is ok. You are about to modify the exercise.

Supple

Keep the contact as you walk around the arena. This means if your horse’s head comes up, your hand keeps a soft feel of his mouth. If his head goes down, your hand should follow.

Once my mare is obedient to my seat and hand, I begin to ask the horse to raise her back. This strengthens her core muscles and allows her ribcage to spread and flex—like yoga! It also provides room for her hips to swing and her hind legs to come up underneath and support her. This is the foundation of collection, and yes, you can practice this even at the walk!

Make sure to hold your reins close to the horse’s neck, with the distance between each hand and the horse’s midline equal. As the horse walks, feel his barrel swing from side to side. This tells you which hind leg is stepping up under the horse: as the barrel shifts left, his right hind is coming beneath him, and vice versa. Once you have the tempo in your mind, nudge the side the barrel has shifted to. As you alternate legs, you are telling the horse, “Yes, keep moving. Step bigger.”

Once my mare is moving forward at a decent walk, she begins to stretch her head and neck long and low. She also starts to chew. As long as she isn’t grabbing the bit and falling on the forehand, this is a good thing. I give little releases with the rein to tell her so.

Cool Down

The Supple exercise is so relaxing that my mare is often sighing and stretching by cool down. Take the last few minutes and stop asking for big swingy steps. Breathe deeply, relax your back, and again focus on the horse’s steps. You may find his tempo is more relaxed and more even.

Hop off. Pat your horse. Untack and give him a treat.

This ride won’t be the most exciting, but it will be rewarding. Even a walk will help your stall-bound horse build muscle. By working the horse correctly in a way that he engages his hind end and relaxes his back, you will be strides ahead when it’s time to trot again.

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4 thoughts on “Soft Tissue Rehab Exercise: Supple Without a Saddle

  1. Although most of this seems “common sense” the way you have organized and summarized it provides very helpful and easy to follow steps for naive beings like me! Thanks. 🙂

  2. If they are typical injuries close to backbone maybe you could just lend high saddle – I mean kulbaka, but I have no idea how this is called in English. I guess there must be some similar in your country. This is old type of military saddle, designed for long marches (when cavalry was moving, horses sometimes had to stay saddled for two weeks…). Kulbaka doesn’t touch backbone area at all. We had similar problem and buying kulbaka solved it completely. After riding for half a year, the saddle doesn’t feel so much uncomfortable any more 🙂

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