Wednesday, March 23, 2022

rethinking charlie's "fitness" (again)

I'm constantly reevaluating how I think about Charlie's overall health, wellness, and particularly, fitness. Case in point -- I've written about my evolving understanding of conditioning Charlie for sport quite a few times over the years. Long story short: it's complicated. 

Charlie is a large heavy horse with a high mileage body on slightly small feet. Not only is it entirely possible -- it's downright easy to lame this horse through well-intentioned and generally accepted fitness and strength-training routines. 

"conditioning" is basically my favorite excuse for a trail ride with friends haha. long slow miles, amirite ;) 
It isn't enough to read a book on horse fitness and apply those practices directly to Charlie. I learned that lesson the hard way once, and have been a bit gun shy ever since. To the point where.... We've maybe gone too far the other way, with not quite enough baseline fitness and strength training to support Charlie's physical needs. 

There's obviously no shortage of research (and opinions) in this field, but I recently got a fresh perspective from a long distance runner, of all places. His approach to fitness and conditioning is basically, "everything I do in the gym is intended to support my goal of running." Meaning, he's not there for the #gainz, not there to increase mass. Only to support his running goals. 

brief interruption for a shoe update: leather pads are officially on, and we're *still* growing out that overreach crack from last year
Obviously that's obvious, but then he kinda veered off in a different direction than I expected, observing that runners tend to over-develop some areas of musculature (hamstrings) while under-developing others (glutes). And that he uses his gym time and strength training to counteract these musculature imbalances. 

His point was that these imbalances are ultimately unsustainable and will eventually lead to injury. And since he can't run if he's injured, he prioritizes "injury prevention" as his number one objective in strength training. Anything else -- specific exercises to improve stamina or quickness or whatever to improve competitiveness -- is secondary to this pursuit of risk mitigation. 

obviously gotta give this ridiculous wannabe mountain goat the footwear he craves omg
Now. I've never really been what you might call "an athlete" (har har). I didn't play sports in high school or college, never had any sort of coach work me through a routine or regimen. So for those of you who have had that experience, this might not be anything new to you. But... To me, it seems like a really important distinction. 

switching gears again to some snaps from charlie's chiro / acupuncture appt this week
Horseback riders always talk about how "dressage improves the jumping," by getting horses more off the forehand, or more adjustable, or whatever. That, doing *this* set of exercises will improve your ability to execute in *that* arena. Or we always hear about how dressage is kinda the "weight lifting" (or anaerobic exercising) complement to the "cardio" of trot or gallop sets. 

he gets basically the same spots jabbed every time but the urge to document is strong lol
All of that makes sense to me and whatnot, but it's easy to miss that foundational point of "balance." Of ensuring that muscles developed through one type of work (running) are physically balanced and stabilized on the body. Not bc it makes you better or faster or whatever (tho, it probably does), but bc *this* is our basic protection against injury.

That approach to conditioning is, to me, very attractive. To the point where literally the most expensive lesson I've ever taken in my riding life (which, notably, includes lessons with various Olympians and 5* riders...) was a "Solutions for Soundness" clinic that was basically billed to be this exact sort of experience. 

bonus shot of charlie's puffy fetlock bc he got caught up in something and dinged up the ankle, ooh ooh and *also* added a NEW overreach before the old one had even finished growing out! 
The idea was an experienced riding coach and an equine sports massage expert would tag team the lesson to identify specific exercises to improve conditioning and promote soundness in the horse. Sadly the *execution* of that idea was... er, underwhelming lol, so I kinda put the whole thing behind me and moved on, with the exception being that it was the genesis of my idea to ride with a metronome. 
But ya know. Everything old is new again, right? And spring time is my favorite time to take a fresh look at Charlie's overall health picture and make sure it aligns with my ideas and goals and dreams for the year ahead. 

and back again to today. goddamn charlie LOVES this practitioner tho. that is the face of a horse who is focusing every last shred of his attention on that pink-sleeved hand in the background
Step 1 was going down the laundry list of "housekeeping" items for Charlie, inserting literally *ALL* the quarters into the machine.... We slapped the leather shoe pads back on this past cycle. The horse got his hocks freshly lubed. We followed that up with a visit from his favorite chiro / acupuncturist to help work out and release any lingering compensation issues from the hocks. Plus, I picked up a box of Adequan for good measure. 

time to go back to work, sir! 
also his dweeby forelock center part will never not kill me <3 <3 <3
And? Guys. The horse feels good. It's almost like he's going out of his way to show that issues we had under saddle were 100% related to his physical condition. And now that his hocks are taken care of, he's back to stretching and swinging, back to drama free left lead departs, and even volunteering lead changes despite the fact that we normally never practice them.

So the next step is making sure the work we do is additive to Charlie's condition vs corrosive. Which, it turns out, is not quite as easy as writing a check to the vet to stick a needle in it. 

I've basically got a sense of some of the work we'll do to try to improve the overall balance of Charlie's musculature. Namely -- just more of the same that we worked on with Molly. And I'll probably start riding with a metronome again since that was super helpful to work on rhythm. 

But... idk, what all do you do to build up hind end strength? Anything glutes-specific? I know there isn't like, a magic bullet or anything (I wish... ugh), but anything reasonably fun and not too likely to piss the pony off is worth a try! 


  1. Interesting. I read the book Pilates for horses’ this winter and it gives a whole section on evaluating the horse. It might be interesting for you. One thing that struck me was the idea that you have to push the muscle loading a few times a week to see gains in strength.
    Hill work is great for glutes. Also transitions. Lateral work too. All this you know. 😁

    1. Pushing the muscle loading is definitely something on my mind as being a key piece — like with the bum ankle, it’s been weak and painful for years. But since I started cleaning stalls at the barn (pushing heavy wheelbarrows), I’ve noticed improvements. Maybe bc that weight load has strengthened the muscles surrounding the joint? Idk it’s interesting tho how interconnected it all is!

  2. Pole work and hill work (which you know) - I really enjoy hearing about how your philosophy around Charlie's fitness changes evolves as you learn more and more. We're going to be working on a lot of topline and backend growth on D so I'll keep you posted if I hear anything interesting on my end. I see a lot of flatwork in our future

    1. Flatwork forever definitely seems to be the resounding drum beat lol! For real tho it IS exciting to parse thru each horse’s distinct needs, strengths, weaknesses etc. that’s part of the fun with having our own animals to obsess over. Looking forward to seeing how things progress with D too!!

  3. Hill work, transitions, transitions on hills :-P

    1. Lol I keep thinking it should be enough that my horse is literally loose and free out on hills for 12hrs a day… but apparently not, sigh lol

  4. Have you had a chance to leaf through Jec Ballou's 55 conditioning exercises for horses? She also has a couple of online courses about conditioning and muscle building that I really enjoyed.

    The crux of her recent work is that strength and conditioning are about more than just wind or big muscles. There are lots of tiny stabilizing muscles in the horses body that need work too, and they contribute tremendously to long term soundness. Things like walking on varied terrain (trails!! But also sideways or backwards on hills), careful negotiation around corners and through pole mazes, wobbly lines, changing leg yield angles etc. And it can almost all be done at a walk! So really low concussion.

    1. yes! actually i blogged about Ballou's books as far back as 2015, in posts you commented on then too! luckily my horse gets to navigate varied terrain at varying speeds for about 50% of his life (yay large group turn out!), which really can't be underestimated or undervalued in thinking about his overall condition. i guess i'm thinking more about how i plan and structure the roughly ~5 hours a week he spends under saddle, changing how i approach certain exercises. like, instead of thinking about "we do dressage to make the jumping better" (where my experience is actually... that bad dressage makes for a behind-the-leg horse which is NOT great for jumping), i can arrange our exercises with a mindset about supporting our goals (jumping) while ensuring each muscle group gets its fair share of attention to reduce the risks of repetitive motion injuries. small distinctions, but helpful for me to think about!

  5. I know Jimmy Wofford is all about walking in addition to regular riding. He wrote an article for Practical Horseman a while ago about walking for fitness. It's supposed to use the same muscles as galloping without the concussion and he says he feels that it produces sounder fitter horses then trot sets and such. It definitely makes sense! I know I need to be more diligent about doing that with Chimi b/c while he's not a high milage horse he is 19 this year and is super pudgy right now coming out of winter and rider injury (lol)

    1. oh man, agreed 1,000% on the importance of walking!! i'm completely convinced that charlie would not be a sound horse if he didn't get the type of turnout he gets haha... the google tells me that "Studies have shown that horses turned out in large pastures with companions will log around 10 miles a day simply grazing, trotting across the field, cantering down a fence line and interacting with other horses." so i estimate that charlie's getting about 35-50mi a week of movement just based on his 12hrs of daily turnout, not even accounting for what we do under saddle! i can't even imagine how much harder it'd be to manage the horse if he wasn't getting that -- like horses living at barns that don't offer the same type or volume of turnout.

  6. My husband has had a disc replaced in his neck. And then had bad tennis elbow. Bilaterally. And then went on a quest to see how it all ties together because he had a PT kind of start to break it all down for him.

    To me the work by Celeste is the similar starting point for it in horses - I obviously did not get that far with Yoshi, but the break down of his body didn't seem like one traumatic injury... it seemed to all start with his feet and lead up from there. I try to base my conditioning programs around a TON of walk work. Now with an eye to relaxing the under neck at the halt and then maintaining that in the walk. But I am clearly still figuring it all out too, with not a lot of success in Yoshi's case :(

    1. ugh yea... cases like Yoshi's are just... ugh. frustrating is not nearly a good enough word! it really is all connected, that's definitely my experience with charlie too -- esp about how central his feet are to his overall wellbeing.

  7. My vet thinks the best thing for soundness is variation in routine (and I think that's what you're saying with this post too).

    So my guy goes on long walking trail rides. We do work in the hay field that has gentle hills and lots of straight lines. We do dressage schools in the arena. We do "basics" in the hay field and arena.

    Hills are 100% my favorite for hind end strength. They don't have to be hard or fast either, long slow stretchy stuff where the horse is really using himself.

    Of course, YMMV!

  8. As others have totally said hill work lol But one thing my trainer told me that I found interesting was backing up hills. Nothing very steep, and not a huge amount of times (I believe she told me around 3 to start and around 10 for good fitness and the hill was literally the small uphill bank to my barn lol). This is supposed to improve glute/hind end/stifle strength, which Amber needed with her bad stifle. I did notice an improvement in her strength, but with all of my issues and my decision it was best to "retire" her, I've stopped doing the exercise. But that is a thought of something to try! And I always did that exercise in hand so it was super easy to suddenly do when I brought her in from turnout or when going back to the barn after our ride :) And to be honest, not even backing up a hill, but just backing around 10 or so steps in general really helps them. The sliding stops of the reining QHs I trained all benefited from consistently backing around 10 or so steps. It helped them build hind end strength and learn how to really tuck their butt and shift their weight from the front to the back :)
    Mr. Handsome is still looking good!

  9. So full disclosure - I ride endurance so we're not exactly training towards the same goals but: backing up slopes is brilliant. 10 steps at a time, in hand at first to ensure straightness, head DOWN. It's amazing how a "fit" horse can find this really hard. And work on the thoracic sling - so much easier to lift that front end at a jump if the actual front end can help!

  10. Sounds like everyone else has already given you great advice, so just here to say I'm glad that he's feeling so awesome right now!

  11. Hope all is ok with you guys! I think this may be the record for how long this blog has gone without a new post!

  12. I used to date a ultra marathon runner and while that relationship did not work out, we'd have some pretty good conversations around conditioning people with me of course chiming in about horses lol.

    I'm glad that your meticulous list, and revisiting of topics is help Charlie live his best and soundest life!


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