Proprioception and Strength Training Techniques for Horses

Helping your horse develop balance, core strength, and range of motion can be the key to injury prevention and better performance.
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Helping your horse develop balance, core strength, and range of motion can be the key to injury prevention and better performance

elastic band system
Systems that use elastic bands can improve both proprioception and strength. | Courtesy Equicore Concepts

After you’ve read this first paragraph, close your eyes. Extend your arms to the side. Then, try to touch your nose. Can you do it? If so, you’ve passed a classic test of human proprioception: knowing where your body is and what it’s doing.

For horses, the question isn’t so much, “Where’s your nose?” as it is, “Where are your feet?” The question often arises as horses recover from injury or surgery. It also crops up in response to neurologic conditions such as equine protozoal myeloencephalitis (EPM) or Lyme disease.

Proprioceptors are basically specialized nerve endings—nerve cells in tendons, ligaments, joint capsules, skin, and more. Proprioceptors interact and provide information to the brain so it can tell the body where it is in space, explains Steve Adair, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, ACVSMR, CERP.

Horses with poor proprioception are at risk of injury, including taking bad steps or overloading certain areas of their body, says Adair, who is a professor of equine surgery, lameness, and rehab at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, where he also serves as professor and director of the Equine Performance and Rehabilitation Center.

Start With Veterinary Involvement

Before you get started on a full slate of proprioception or strength-training exercises, consult your veterinarian.

“You have to know why there’s something wrong with them first. Because if it’s something like EPM, then no amount of physical therapy without the medicine is going to make them better,” says Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, FRCVS. Clayton is the former Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

“If there’s something that you can actually cure with a treatment, then that’s the first thing,” she continues. “And then, if you’ve cured the disease, that’s where we come in with exercises to get them moving (and) improve their coordination.”

If injury or surgery has caused the horse to lose proprioception, you must get the pain and inflammation under control before beginning proprioception exercises, Adair says.

For him, the importance of veterinary involvement is also about human safety, because you don’t want to spook a horse or hurt yourself while working with an animal that’s developing better strength and balance. Adair makes sure people know how to perform certain exercises safely before he recommends they try them at home.

Testing Your Horse’s Proprioception and Preventing Injury

If you find yourself saying “that’s just how he is” about your horse’s subtle sways or missteps, stop and consider the potential danger: He could be poised to sustain an injury right before your eyes.

“You can definitely change your injury risk curve by being really cognizant of … the horse’s movement and taking those small changes really seriously,” says Shelley Thomas, MPT, CERP, C-PS. Thomas is a physical therapist who works with both humans and horses. She owns Intrepid Wellness and is a certified equine rehabilitation practitioner based out of Idaho.

Gait problems are often the first sign something is wrong with a horse’s proprioception. “They might pull the forelimb forward and raise it before they put it down,” says Clayton. “They might cross the hind legs.” Those are common clinical signs of a neurologic horse—one that’s having proprioceptive issues due to disease.

But gait problems can also arise due to conformation issues. Maybe the horse moves with a funny hitch or reaches farther with one leg than the other.

Addressing the underlying cause of a horse’s quirky movement can prevent repetitive-use injuries, Thomas notes. That doesn’t mean you must pause your training or showing plans, however. Though every situation is different, she says the horse can often stay in work.

You can evaluate a horse’s proprioception in a few ways. Clayton suggests watching how the horse moves over different surfaces and on hills to see if he’s struggling with precise or decisive limb placement or ­ambulating forward. You’re looking for good range of motion, Thomas adds.

Strength vs. Proprioception

Improving proprioception is an early step toward getting strong enough to return to work or even ordinary equine life. Strength—the ability to do work—and endurance come after proprioception improves.

When a horse needs to improve proprioception, consider your management practices. A horse that is stalled most of the day needs something different than a horse that is turned out 24/7. Among horses that live out, one kept in a pasture with flat, soft footing might need different exercises than a horse that lives on hilly, rocky footing.

Similarly, consider the horse’s stage of recovery. Some exercises are more suited to the tighter quarters and restricted movement of stall rest or limited turnout, while other exercises are appropriate for a horse that has recuperated enough to go out with a herd.

Many of the exercises that can be done in the stall are core strengthening exercises, which “put the horse into a position where it encourages them to turn on these little muscles to stabilize his body, stabilize his spine,” Clayton says.

Building Proprioception From Inside the Stall

Whether your horse is on stall rest or you’re just looking for exercises you can work into your grooming routine to maintain or further develop your horse’s proprioception, the following exercises don’t require much movement or space to perform:

Tail stretches and pelvic tucks. If your horse will tolerate it, gently pulling on his tail is one of the first exercises you can use in rehabilitation.

Simply pulling the tail to either side will help the horse activate the muscles that control and strengthen the stifle, Adair explains. It does not need to be a hard pull; Adair compares it to isometric exercises.

Staying at the same end of the animal, you can also encourage your horse to do a pelvic tuck. That’s where you run your fingertips upward on either side of the tail, encouraging the horse to tuck his pelvis.

Some horses could react negatively to these exercises, Adair notes. So stay safe by standing closely beside your horse’s hindquarters when asking for a pelvic tuck.

Backing up. If pelvic tucks aren’t an option, asking your horse to take a few steps backward is one of the best things you can do. All the sources in this article talked about backing up both in the evaluation and conditioning phases.

“Backing up requires a lot of proprioception for horses because it changes their visual field,” Thomas says.

Baited stretches. Just as the “touch your nose” exercise is a classic test of human proprioception, baited stretches (also known as carrot stretches) are classic examples of equine proprioceptive exercises. There are a slew of exercises you can do (covered in Clayton’s book Activate Your Horse’s Core). The main points are to use a treat to encourage the horse to reach and hold his nose at various points on his body: elbows, knees, fetlocks, hips, stifles, hocks, and so on. You can find more detailed instructions on how to perform these at TheHorse.com/149672.

The baited stretches are progressive. For example, your horse might not have the core strength and flexibility initially to touch his nose to his hip region. Instead, you might start by trying to get halfway to the hip and holding for three seconds.

balance pads
Balance pads induce instability, causing the horse to engage his muscles and ligaments. | Courtesy Sure Foot

Balance pads. These are foam pads placed under your horse’s hooves. They serve to induce instability, and you can work them into a regular grooming routine.

The instability has a purpose: “That horse has to learn how to engage its muscles and ligaments … in order to maintain an upright position and not fall,” Adair says.

You can use balance pads for both proprioceptive and strengthening exercises. “Not only are you requiring a horse to recognize where his body is in space, but in order to maintain his body in a particular orientation, he’s going to have to be engaging, contracting, and relaxing different muscles,” Adair adds. “So by doing that, you’re going to be improving strength.”

Weight shifting. You can work weight-shifting exercises into your daily grooming routine, as well. While lifting up a hoof to pick it out, gently lean into your horse to shift his balance slightly. The principle behind it is similar to that of balance pads.

Heat. This can also play a role in improving proprioception and strength. Whether you’re applying a heating pad or hot towels or using a quarter sheet, heat helps your horse by encouraging blood flow to muscles, Clayton explains.

Beyond the Stall

If your horse isn’t rehabbing from injury or has been cleared to start exercise, you can add more active strengthening techniques.

Walk over different surfaces. Does your horse balk ever so slightly as he enters the barn or steps into his stall? If you thought it was a light-to-dark issue, think again. It might be the footing, says Thomas.

Walking across different types of surfaces is an exercise all our sources recommend. Be it asphalt, grass, pea gravel, or rubber, “each one of the surfaces provides a different sensory input,” Adair says. “And when you change that sensory input, that horse must learn how to adapt.”

Methods for Rehabbing Horse Joints
Stepping over poles builds proprioception because it improves hoof-eye coordination. The horse also develops balance and joint flexibility. | iStock

Ground poles and cavaletti. Stepping over poles builds proprioception because it improves hoof-eye coordination. The horse also develops balance and joint flexibility.

Variety is the key to ground pole ­exercises. You might set the poles at different angles or distances. Later, you might add height. At that point, the cavaletti exercise starts to evolve from a proprioception exercise into a strength one. Raised poles have the horse engaging more muscles to lift the limb higher, Adair says.

Clayton says cavaletti exercises are best used once the horse has already shown signs of improving proprioception.

Exercise bands. Systems that use elastic bands can improve proprioception and strength simultaneously. Typically, the bands attach to a saddle pad and wrap around the abdomen and the haunches.

Two things happen for your horse when you use them. First, the bands lightly grab at his hair and activate proprioceptors. Second, the bands give him a greater awareness of where his legs are in space and can encourage a greater range of motion, Clayton says.

At the Clinic or Rehab Facility

You should be able to perform the above exercises at home without purchasing much gear. Purpose-built facilities likely have additional equipment to help your horse. Adair describes a type of seesaw at his facility in Tennessee. Horses are lead onto the device and find their balance point, turning on those core muscles to stabilize their bodies.

Other horses might benefit from an underwater treadmill, which makes the muscles work harder to move through water while reducing weight-bearing on bones, joints, and soft tissues.

Be Flexible and Go Slow

While you’re working on your horse’s balance and flexibility, remember to also maintain your own mental flexibility.

If the exercise bands spook your horse or make him anxious, for instance, try other exercises. If your horse doesn’t react (or overreacts) to pelvic tucks, try backing up.

Though the exercises mentioned in this article are good starting points for strengthening and balance, rehabilitation plans must always be designed for your individual horse based on your veterinarian’s advice, Adair stresses.

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Written by:

Karen Hopper Usher has a Master’s degree in journalism from Michigan State University, where she reported for Great Lakes Echo. She previously worked in local news and is a lifelong equestrian.

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