Jec A. Ballou

What counts as calisthenics? And why do they matter? Luckily, someone interrupted my rhapsody during a clinic last week praising the value of calisthenics for developing equine athletes. What exactly did I mean by calisthenics? the student asked. She was probably not alone in wondering, lost as I was describing the power of these exercises.

The more we learn about horses’ anatomy and body mechanics, the more it becomes clear how riding and training can alter their bodies, and not always in positive ways. As we observe just how fragile and delicate these animals are beneath the surface it can be tempting to question whether we should be riding them in the first place.

Sandwich Lope Jec A. Ballou Western Dressage

When Western Dressage first established itself, we instructors struggled to describe the requirements of a “working lope” clearly enough for students. We wanted to be sure to differentiate it from the stilted gaits seen in the Western Pleasure discipline, and yet it was also not the animated jumping-across-the-ground canter of the traditional dressage world.

Since I advocate strongly for dressage horses to also ride trails regularly, I found myself years ago implementing a rule or mantra that applied to any time spent in either of these experiences: on-the-buckle OR on-the-bit. Essentially, this boils down to riders keeping their horses in one of these states at any given time.

Optimizing how a horse uses his body often relies on making the most of every chance you can to observe him. For me, training plans benefit enormously from noting how horses stand at the grooming area and while roaming around the pasture. This can be the purest time to evaluate how they are using their bodies during a given phase of training or life. It allows me to maintain an ongoing report for how they seem to be doing or where I might need to shift the emphasis of their training.

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For those of us who can measure our involvement with horses by decades rather than days or months, showing up at the barn can feel like the Bill Murray movie Groundhog Day. With a few minor variations, our days follow a similar routine. And while these routines are generally satisfying, they open the door for burnout. Even when you love your horse or horse training career wildly, this sameness gets dull.

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My conversation last month with renowned trainer and veterinarian Gerd Heuschmann did not lead where I thought it would, having started with muscles but ending with books. He said he believed many of the disappointments in modern training are due to students no longer being committed to the scholarship of dressage. In addition to physical practice, he wishes for them to read and study and think deeply. But most riders don’t see the point, he lamented.

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