Don’t underestimate walking (for horses or humans!)

Whenever I do a lot of walking, I feel much fitter and stronger. By comparison, the times in my life where I’ve tried to compensate for sit-down work by exercising harder for shorter spells of time, it hasn’t worked so well. It is “easier” to just be generally active. But that is about as far as my interest in human fitness currently goes. Which is no doubt why I struggle with fitness myself and the best way I have of keeping reasonably sound is just by keeping busy with enjoyable outdoors things like volunteering and ponies. I “trick” myself into being a little bit healther by making it about overall lifestyle rather than focused effort or discipline (which I don’t naturally have). 

Hence, Skye. One of the justifications for having her was the change it would bring to my fitness levels, and it’s working so far. That said, I’ve been very tired the past couple of weeks and have felt at a standstill. I think the extra work is catching up with me! And I think I need more protein. It’s easy to not eat enough, actually, when you’re a plump girl working harder but trying to get smaller. 

Anyway, back to ponies, human stuff is dull. 

As I’ve written frequently, this first few weeks with Skye has been about letting her settle. Physically, it’s been about getting her core a bit more toned, and we’ve done that through the following: 

  • Walking/halting on concrete, sand, and grass. Transitions = engagement and developement of strength, even when in-hand.
  • Slow, raised, walk poles. 
  • Back lifts and pelvic tucks (reflexes). 
  • Backing-up (“collection in reverse”, Gillian Higgins called it). 
  • Decontracting the neck muscles (using the delivery of rewards to encourage a “reaching” neck posture, to relax the sterno- and brachio- cephalic muscles, which are very developed but were even worse when she first came). 
  • And we’ve started with a little bit of lunging, but for now that’s all about understanding and hasn’t had any bearing on her posture or fitness. 

But I think of all of those methods the simplest one is perhaps also one of the most effective. Walking. Striding out. I genuinely think one of the most valuable things we do is go up and down the tarmac lane in-hand once a week. 

  • Dr. Deb Bennett writes about good ridden posture as such: the hind-end coils (by which I think she means the legs and LSJ flex, the hip flexors bringing the pelvis more under the body), the abdominals engage, the withers lift as the topline decontracts (the musculature now functioning passively, almost like tendons or as part of the ligamentary system), and in particular the rhomboid and trapezius release allowing the longus colli and scalenus to engage which straightens out the cervicothoracic junction of the spine. 
  • 4DimensionDressage on Facebook wrote once (or many times!) about allowing the pendulum motion of the neck. “The pendulum motion arises from the hind leg. When the pendulum motion is not visible at the walk, it means that the horse is blocked in the hind leg. That hind leg does not move enough under the body. A retroactive hand ALWAYS blocks the movement of the hind legs.” In early fittening, the horse needs to be allowed to use the pendulum motion to engage the elastic nuchal ligament to aid forwardness and the tendinous qualities/parts of the upper neck muscles. Efficiency. 
  • The nuchal ligament, via the storing of elastic strain energy, does 55% of the work of swinging the head/neck in the walk. The head being used as a pendulum, as noted above, to aid in forward momentum. And in an unfit horse (who may need up to two years of unspectacular work before its topline is really “in”) it is tension from the NL through the ligaments of the back which allow the back to stay somewhat up beneath the rider and thus carry them without discomfort or injury. Imagine that, 55% of the work and an important job in supporting a rider. Take that elastic tension away by shortening the neck, lifting the head too soon, or moving without purpose, and the wrong muscles will brace to support the body instead. 
  • But 55% leaves 45% for the muscles to do, and those muscles will be gently toned by sustained walking. When does a domestic horse take itself for an hour’s bold walk each day? Even thirty minutes? It doesn’t. So those spells of time, striding out with a long neck, are going to gently tone all the muscles you want, including the super-important longus colli and scalenus which may be neglected otherwise. As per Bennett’s papers, the neck topline muscles have to be allowed to develop slowly as employing them too soon overpowers any chance the longus colli and scalenus have of developing. 
  • I read elsewhere (perhaps via Science of Motion) that the splenius’ main job is to resist gravity during movement, giving stability to the range of motion. Ie: that horizontal-ish FORWARD DOWN AND OUT neck posture requires the splenius to work and it will develop accordingly. Bringing them “up” too soon engages the muscles incorrectly and it’s only the upper neck that raises, not the whole forehand from the wither. “Absolute” rather than “relative” elevation, as Gerd Heuschmann would say. 
  • The longus colli and scalenus are deep, aerobic, postural muscles which get little work in most horses. Sharon May-Davis spoke about the benefits of letting horses browse (eat food between knee and chest height) for small amounts of time each day. It requires that reaching neck posture which engages the core and uses these deep, ventral, base-of-the-neck muscles. Even better if they have to slightly reach over some sort of barrier to get the food.
  • Other people recorded the effects of all this, without knowing the science behind it. “By engaging his pelvis under the horse, it lifts his vertebral column, his withers. The importance of the lifting of the withers cannot be overestimated. It is a necessity to the tilting of the pelvis which, otherwise, loses a part of it’s efficiency.” – Jean Claude Racinet. 
  • Denny Emerson, whose Facebook page I thoroughly enjoy, often writes about hours and hours of walking under saddle as being hugely valuable. It shouldn’t be underestimated. And I recently watched a video showing the huge amount of movement through the body during walk. It seems an almost therapeutic gait. 
  • I also wonder if brisk walking, and the small amount of extra work it will make the lungs do (compared to grazing!) is enough to begin developing the muscles that help with respiration. It must be, in a mild way. And remember, Gillian talked about the benefits of getting the breathing going at one of her recent talks. Some of the muscles that aid respiration (and I think she meant mainly the serratus dorsalis, but perhaps the iliocostalis also comes into it?) apparently contribute to the look and integrity of the topline. Which perhaps helps me understand the apparent contradictions in theory about how the topline along the back should function. It needs to be passive in a sense. Toned, but not in contraction, not braced or tense, but functioning almost like tendons. And yet it develops and fills out. Perhaps through static contraction? Perhaps from deeper, in the muscles that aid respiration? Perhaps both? But for sure, plenty of hunting and hacking horses and the like have decent toplines without doing endless dressage, and perhaps this is part of why… Because they move forward on straight lines, with purposeful walks, for long periods of time, interspersed with jolly good canters to blow away the cobwebs. 
  • The scalenus apparently also aids with respiration, being connected to the first rib or two, but Bennett says this is far less significant (since those ribs barely move) than its role in supporting the base of the neck. Even so, it’s another vote in favour of athletic work to get them breathing. 

So, lovely big swinging walks are the way forward, as it were. 

It’ll be great once we get round to actual hacking. She just needs to be a fair bit fitter and stronger in her posture first. Plus, I need to find a saddle for her, ha. But now that we can begin incorporating lunging once a week I’m hoping it’ll help with getting a bit more active (to get the breathing working and build that back topline), a bit more strong behind (transitions), and a bit more confident. Combined with everything else, I think we’re on the right track. 

 

 

 

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