The welfare of the horse
Before you start training your horse it is important to evaluate where he is both physically and mentally. You need to know of any possible chronic issues before you begin, because these will have an effect on your training and will determine how carefully and meticulously you should proceed. If needed, veterinarians, body workers, osteopaths, chiropractors, farriers, etc. should be consulted. Make sure that anyone you use and ask to treat your horse is accredited in a proper manner and has a good reputation and proven ability in what they do.
Well muscled horse
Starting with a horse that is already nicely muscled over his topline and has no health issues is of course the most ideal situation. This type of horse has well developed upper neck and back muscles. The abdominal and sling muscles are toned and strong. The back is normal to straight and will have no excessive dip. The lower neck stays relaxed and even when these muscles would be in use when the horse looks up and around they won’t bulge excessively. This type of horse should find no difficulty in starting to stretch and will develop further a lot faster than a horse with underlying issues or no muscles.
Under developed muscles over the topline, but otherwise healthy
This is the condition level where you will most likely be starting from. You could call it also the ‘zero point’. That is, when the horse has developed no muscle mass and strength along the topline muscles, but has no chronic injuries or illnesses. The lower neck muscling is most likely over developed while the upper neck is thin and short in comparison. Depending on the conformation, the withers are either non-existent or very sharp and void of muscles. The shoulders are very close to the withers and there is no lift of the ribcage by the sling muscles. Back has a general lack of muscling and can be either hollow and sunken or normal to straight depending on previous training and the horse’s conformation. There may be a clear bump showing on top of the croup due to lack of muscling both on the back and the hind quarters. The loins are usually also concave due to lack of back and core muscles. Abdominal cavity is usually hanging and distended, because of lack of abdominal muscle strength.
When a horse has been systematically drawn into a higher frame without the supporting topline muscles and worked consistently behind the vertical line, ligaments along the vertebrae gradually overstretch and cause the appearance of a break in the neckline of a horse. This is a serious fault because as long as the ligaments are overstretched and the neckline is broken, no proper connection between the hind and front ends of the horse is possible. Thus the horse cannot be in balance with his body let alone be collected. There is a kind of short circuit in the system and the movement wave from back to front is unable to follow through the whole horse.
Repairing the overstretched ligament takes a long time (about a year or even longer), very consistent work and soft hands with only very light contact. Even when the neckline has returned to normal, a horse that has been over stretched like this is very liable to keep on over bending his neck very easily even with light contact when ever he feels that the work is difficult or when he is stiff in his body.
Another telling sign of a broken neckline is a horse with very prominent and overdeveloped neck muscles along the area of 2-4rd vertebrae only. The muscles can be seen bulging out only on this spot while the rest of the upper neckline is underdeveloped.
A hunter’s bump is a consequence of riding and jumping a horse in a hollow higher frame without topline muscles for a longer period of time. The back basically has sunken down while the sacroiliac joint detaches from it. With proper training this prominent bump should slowly disappear when the back starts to muscle up and the core muscles strengthen.
A horse that has been ridden for a longer period of time without taking care of the basic condition of strengthening the topline, will eventually hollow out so much that the spinous processes of the spine will start to get too close and even rub against each other (kissing spine; KS). This is a very painful condition. Operation is possible to give relief from the rubbing effect, but the only real and lasting aid to this condition is to get the horse to actively lift his back into use and activate the whole of his topline. This should be done as soon as possible, because the moment the horse stretches down and steps under better, the spinous processes are ‘opened up’, back is straightening and there is relief from the chronic pain. Thus with KS horses, it is vital to concentrate on that stretch to the ground level and the subsequent lifting of the back as soon as possible. When the topline is strengthening, the condition should be slowly alleviated. Note that we do not claim to be able to heal KS in its entirety, but to give the horse the best chances to possible recovery and pain free life through teaching him how to use his body correctly.
Sacroiliac joint issues
Pain and alterations in the sacroiliac (SI) joint may have a very complex background, and it is usually due to alteration in the normal unrestricted locomotive movement of the horse. Until the cause of the pain in this area is found out and dealt with, the SI problem will keep on coming back, even with good and careful training regime. Some possible causes, among others, can be tendon injuries, gelding scarring, issues with ovaries, bad farriery, bad saddle, kissing spine as well as long term bad riding and training. A vet and reliable body worker should go through the whole horse to determine the cause of the SI problem. And of course their opinion should be heeded.
A horse with pain in the SI area should be trained very carefully and initially only in walk with in-hand work and lunging. It is very important that these horses stretch completely to the ground and relax totally in the work. Care should be taken to observe that the whole of the back is being activated from the quarters to the withers before advancing to trot work.
A good body worker (osteopath, chiropractor, massage therapist f.ex.) should be regularly consulted to keep an eye on the SI area and whether it is functioning properly. And of course the original cause to the SI problem needs to be taken care of and monitored.
Issues arising from bad saddle fit
A well fitting saddle is absolutely crucial in training. If the saddle is at all uncomfortable, it will seriously hamper your progress. Ignoring the problem and riding in a badly fitting saddle for a longer period of time may cause serious muscle atrophy along the saddle support area. In the worst case scenario the muscles give way totally and ‘holes’ appear in the horse’s back all the way to the bone. In a milder case, the pinching of the saddle at the shoulders or withers will cause the horse to hollow his back. Thus if ridden in an ill fitting saddle, he will be unable to work properly through his topline and no progress will be made in ridden training. Other consequences include back pain, damage to the scapula and rubbing along the withers. An ill fitting girth will also cause tension in the horse. When teaching a new client, it is advisable to check the saddle briefly before you start. This because with an ill-fitting saddle your teaching efforts may be wasted.
Another piece of tack that is essential to get right for your horse is the bit. The horse cannot relax and work properly, if the bit is not right for his mouth’s conformation. It is not useful to mask a bitting problem with a tight nose band, this only aggravates the issue, leads to resistance and tension, and won’t resolve anything.
An ill fitting bit may cause damage to the tongue, palate, teeth and lips. The horse must be comfortable with the bit before you can train him properly. Any tension in the mouth will prevent any real contact with the horse.
While the physical condition of the horse needs to be taken into account when you start your training, the mental condition needs to be thought of as well. Only when the horse can relax with his mind, trust the handler and respect him, can there be real progress in the training.
So, mental relaxation, trust and respect are vital. To gain the horse’s trust and respect, you have to be consistent and clear in your handling as well as firm, but not aggressive.
If the horse is extremely reactive and worried, it may take even a couple years before he calms down into the training. Your average horse though usually calms down and finds relaxation relatively quickly in this work. The long and low form has a calming effect on the horse building trust and confidence in the horse.
Tack and other equipment
Before each training session, check that the tack is fitting and that it is appropriate. Ill-fitting tack will interfere with or even prevent correct muscle movement and at worst will result in injuries. Badly fitted tack may not only harm the horse but could also put the trainer into jeopardy.
The bridle should fit the horse’s head properly.
Make sure to check that your noseband is fitted correctly about two centimetres below the cheekbones and that it is not too tight. Use the two finger rule; two fingers on top of each other between the noseband and the nose bridge. A drop noseband is not advised since it can too easily restrict the horse’s breathing. If you are using a flash noseband, make sure that it is also loose enough, but not so loose as to come off while working the horse.
A noseband and flash are there only to restrict the horse from fully opening his mouth, and discouraging him from playing too much with his tongue. It is not there to prevent these unwanted behaviours fully, because it is important to allow the horse to exhibit any discomfort he may feel in his mouth so that we can act on the issues before they become a problem. If the horse is uncomfortable with his mouth and wants to open it continuously and push his tongue out etc., a full mouth check and evaluation of the bit is necessary. Too tight a noseband also restricts the swallowing of the saliva and therefore horse may dribble excessively over his chest and legs.
Another point when selecting a bridle is to make sure that the part going over the poll is flat. This because if you lunge with the lunge line over the poll (line going through the inside bit ring over the poll and fastening to the outside bit ring), you have to make sure that the line will not slip under bridle at the poll and get stuck. Hence the best bridle for lunging is flat at the poll.
The bit should sit in the mouth without making excessive creases in the horse’s lips, but at the same time it should sit high enough so as not to hit the horse on his front teeth. The bit itself should be fitted to the horse’s mouth’s conformation. You should take into consideration the size of the tongue and the height of the palate. Oversensitivity in the mouth can be located anywhere in the tongue, palate, lips or the bars. The bitting should take these possible sensitivity issues into consideration and an appropriate bit should be selected that allows the horse to be comfortable with his mouth. A noseband should never be used to mask an uncomfortable mouth due to wrong choice in bitting. The problem should be solved with bitting and not be masked with a nose band.
The bit should also not be too small or too wide for the horse’s mouth. A bit that is too wide will move too much in his mouth while a bit that is too short will press or pinch the lips.
Most horses do well in the normal loose ring three piece snaffle. However, if there are conformational issues with the mouth, then the three piece snaffle is not always appropriate. As the topline muscle strength increases, the problems with the bitting usually decrease. That is, the easier the horse can carry himself, the less the bit matters, and a horse who has been fussy with a normal three piece snaffle may find it totally acceptable later on.
Horses that have been severely or even permanently damaged in their mouths by previous bitting or wrong training may require bitless bridles. It is recommended to then use the simplest side-pull type of bridles, bearing in mind that harsh hands and wrong use of bitless bridles will cause severe damage to the horse’s head. Art2Ride does not advocate bitless training, but acknowledges that in some cases it is necessary due to earlier damage done in the horse’s mouth.
Reins should be long enough to allow the horse to stretch long and low all the way to the ground level. Too short reins will restrict and stop the horse’s proper topline development. They will also pull the rider easily forward disturbing the balance in general.
Easiest way to find the right length of rein is to add extra into your existing reins (spur straps or flash nosebands) and when they feel long enough, measure them and order the correct length from a tack shop or saddle maker. An idea of how long in general you should have your reins would be to get your horse’s height at withers and add about 15 cm to that and then double it to get the total length of the reins (f.ex. height of horse 155 cm + 15 cm = 170 cm x 2 = 340 cm reins). But the best way to check the length of the reins is to try it out, and then you know for sure.
Saddle fit is absolutely crucial for allowing the horse to move correctly over his topline. It should be remembered that when the horse develops his topline muscling, the saddle can become ill-fitting very quickly. Most fitting issues which arise from the correct training of the topline muscles involve the straightening of the horse’s back, the widening of the horse’s shoulders and the raising of the withers. If these changes in the horse’s muscular conformation are ignored, the horse will become resisting and progress in training will cease. The horse will eventually become sore and if further ignored, injuries are likely.
It is highly advisable to learn about saddle fitting at least to such extent that you can check the saddle fit, detect where the problem lies and then inform your saddle fitter of the issues.
Recommended watching are the videos from Schleese https://youtu.be/U2mKz0uP_K8 , Karen Loshbauch https://youtu.be/Ffsz53UwLF0 and Kriemhild Morgenroth https://www.facebook.com/SDJhorsetraining/videos/vb.330557920618974/504994026508695/?type=2&theater . Art2Ride endorses saddles which are adjustable not only with their head plate angles but also for their width. The saddle label associated with Art2Ride is the Australian Peter Horobin Saddlery (PHS; https://horobin.com.au/ ), saddle fitter contacts for PHS can now be found around the world.
The only lunging aids that are endorsed by Art2Ride are the chambon and the side reins.
Chambon is a training aid for horses that are used to going hollow and head high for a long time and find it difficult to change their work pattern. Its correct use is shown here https://youtu.be/Tgvd84mIyC8 .
It should be tight enough to limit the horse’s higher head carriage, but not too tight to prevent the horse from balancing himself, if he happens to stumble. Meaning that the chambon should not be tightened so that the horse cannot lift his head just above the withers. The principal use of the chambon is to aid in the lunging of the horse. However, the chambon can be used also when riding in an arena with a level surface. It should never be used when riding out or jumping, or when riding on an uneven surface. When the horse stretches all the way to the ground with the chambon on, the ropes of the chambon may come very low along the horse’s legs. You can avoid this hazard by having a neck strap over the chambon and tie it to the surcingle or the saddle’s d-ring. However, make sure that the chambon will slide freely under the strap and will not get trapped. If you decide to ride with the chambon on, it is advisable to adjust it a little looser than you would have it when lunging. This is to make absolutely sure that your horse can balance himself by bringing his head up, if he were to trip.
If side reins are used, they will have to be fitted so that the horse can reach into the contact without restriction. Most side reins are too short, so care should be taken to obtain long enough side reins or you should be able to lengthen them sufficiently. Side reins are not to be used with horses that have been previously trained with such contact that they are broken in their neckline and come behind the vertical very easily. In these cases the side reins tend to overbend the horse automatically even though they are set to be long enough. The side reins work not only by restricting the higher head position, but also by giving the horse a contact to which to stretch into as well as providing an outside rein while lunging. The side reins should be adjusted such that the horse can stretch out into the contact. At first you may have them shorter if the horse doesn’t stretch yet very much, and when the horse stretches into them, you can lengthen them to encourage further stretching. The side reins should not be adjusted too long either, then they will just flop around and do nothing. Your guide should be that the horse is able to take contact with them. When your horse has good topline muscling you may use the side reins to start working on the higher head carriage on the lunge with the side reins. The correct use of side reins is explained here https://youtu.be/E2Q3Q0v2dUg .
In some cases both chambon and side reins can be used at the same time, if the horse needs the support from both.
Whips with appropriate length for the task should be used.
With in-hand work you should have a whip that reaches the horse’s haunches. Too long a whip with the in-hand work will be cumbersome and with too short a whip you will not have a good reach. The whip should also be slim enough with its handle so that you can hold it and the rein in your outside hand.
The lunging whip should be as long as possible. A light weight whip is preferable so that your arm and hand will not get tired and your whip aid will not deteriorate. It is a good idea to invest in a good quality light weight and well balanced whip with the possibility to change the leash part. With this training you will do a lot of lunging, and a lunging whip that is too heavy, too short, or cumbersome will hamper your sessions. You can train in using the lunge whip accurately with non-horse targets to make sure you can hit exactly the intended spot when you use the whip.
When riding in an arena, a schooling or dressage whip that is long enough for you to reach your horse’s flank behind your leg without you having to move your hand from its position is a good idea.
Spurs are an advanced tool in training. Before you start wearing and using spurs, your legs and your over all position in the saddle should be stable. You should also be able to use your spur aid in isolation from the rest of your leg. That is, you need to be able to control the spur aid from the main leg aid, as you would not use your spur aid every time when you use your leg aid.
The purpose of spurs is to ask the horse to activate his abdominal and back muscles even more and therefore step under better. Thus the spurs are to be used only when the horse has enough topline muscles to be able to work in the working frame and collection.
Spurs should not be used in order to make a slow horse more active. Here is a link on how to use your leg including how to use spurs. https://youtu.be/U5HWhvDV9gw
Even a horse with best possible hoof quality, good and proper angles along his legs and perfect trimming will have difficulties with harder training sessions in sand schools, if he is barefoot. Art2Ride does not promote horses to be trained barefoot. Some horses may be fine trained barefoot in the lower basic training level on soft ground or grass. However once he advances and gains muscle, a close eye should be kept on the hooves and the horse’s comfort levels. Any signs of shortening of the stride or tender feet should be taken seriously and shoeing should be considered to keep the horse’s welfare in mind.
Safety issues of training locales
You should make sure that the arena you are working in is safe. No obstacles in the arena, except if you are using them (like poles). Surface should be suitable for the horse, that is, not too hard or abrasive or too deep and soft. Optimally you should have an enclosed area to work with in case something unexpected happens and you temporarily loose control of your horse.
This chapter was also published in the online magazine No Back Pain April 2019 issue.