3 in-hand exercises to improve your horse’s strength and suppleness

3 in-hand exercises to improve your horse’s strength and suppleness

With many of our usual activities postponed, your horse might be spending less time in work and more time at grass than usual. This week, Equine Touch Instructor & Practitioner, Audrey Anderson, shares three groundwork exercises to keep your horse’s body supple and his mind active.

What you’ll need:

  • Hat
  • Gloves
  • Sturdy boots
  • Headcollar and lead rope or lunge line (use a bridle if you need more control)

These exercises are all done in walk. “Most horses will offer a better stretch in walk than in trot or canter and there’s a lower risk of jarring,” says Audrey, “This means they’re perfect for bringing your horse back into work after time off as well as keeping him strong and supple all year round. Plus, you can do them in any safe area - you don’t need an arena!”

1. Square stance and neck stretch

Does your horse stand naturally square? Stiff horses tend to stand unevenly and this exercise will help you address any imbalances within his body.

Square Stance

  1. Ask your horse to stand square. Are each of his four legs forming the corner of a ‘square’ (more accurately, a rectangle)?
  2. Correct his stance. Move each leg until he’s standing correctly.
  3. Repeat a little and often. Be patient, if he finds this difficult he probably has some tightness in his body. Persevere and keep sessions short so neither of you gets frustrated.

Once he’s comfortable with square stance, you can progress to stretching his head and neck.

Head and Neck Stretch

  1. Stand at his shoulder. If your horse finds the stretch uncomfortable he may walk forward to relieve the tension.
  2. Flex his head gently to one side. Place your hand behind his head on his upper neck and bring his head towards you, only as far as it will comfortably go.
  3. Hold the stretch for up to 30 seconds. Or less if he finds this difficult.
  4. Release and repeat on the opposite side. Look for differences in his flexibility on each side.
  5. Travel down the neck with your hand and stretch each section in increments. Only hold each stretch as long as your horse is comfortable and not for more than 30 seconds.

2. Clockwork poles

This fun polework exercise can be adapted to suit horses of all ages, stages and fitness levels. It’s great for improving suppleness and bend by encouraging your horse to relax through his jaw, neck, shoulders, barrel and hindquarters on each side.

Clockwork Poles

  1. Lay out eight poles on a circle. Imagine a clock face and place poles at 12, 3, 6 and 9 o’clock, with an extra pole in between each.
  2. Stand in the centre and ask your horse to move around you over the poles.
  3. Adjust the distance until your horse is comfortable. This will be wider on one side (his good rein) than it is on the other. If he stumbles or clips the poles, make your circle bigger by moving the poles outwards. You can bring the poles in towards you as his flexibility improves.
  4. Repeat for 15-20 minutes twice or three times a week.

Next steps: Gradually feed the horse away from you onto a wider circle and bring him back in slowly. This will encourage him to step underneath himself with his inside hind and bend through his body.

Clockwork Poles - 2

3. Simple reverse

A horse that can back up easily is an asset for every owner and discipline. From stepping back when you enter his stable to performing a relaxed rein back in a dressage test to engaging his hindquarters for takeoff.

  1. Ask your horse to back up a step. Apply a little pressure with your lead rope and step towards him. Does he go back willingly, in a straight line, with his head low and relaxed? If he feels restricted or his topline is short, he will twist in his body or raise his head as he moves back.
  2. Reward any backward movement. Whether he offers a few inches or a few steps, reward him by walking forward and taking pressure off the body.
  3. Repeat a little and often. Keep practising and only move on once your horse can happily reverse for 3-5 steps in a straight line. If you’re having trouble keeping him straight, place a pole about 1-2 metres out from a fence or wall and use this channel to guide him backwards.
  4. Ask him to lower his head and back up at the same time. Use a little downward pressure on your rope and ask him to keep his head low and then step backwards. Don’t worry if he finds this difficult, this movement requires a full stretch from his pole through his entire topline and hindquarters so take it in small steps and build up.

“When you’re back in your normal routine, these exercises are great to have in your toolkit,” says Audrey, “If your horse feels stiff under saddle you can use these stretches to help you find where that tightness is coming from.”

Thanks to the generosity of our customers, the Petplan Charitable Trust has been able to contribute vital funds to animal charities to help get them through the Covid-19 crisis. £150,000 donated to the Association of Dogs and Cats Home (ADCH) Emergency Coronavirus Appeal and another £50,000 donated to the Covid-19 Equine Rescues Emergency Fund. We work in partnership with 1,200 animal charities across the UK and know this money is desperately needed to ensure they can continue to support the animals in their care.