Have you ever experienced moments when 'lack of coordination' seems to be the best description for you while in riding your horse? It often leads to feelings of clumsiness and a general lack of confidence in your abilities, right? Well, imagine how it feels when your horse suffers a similar lack of coordination; lack of balance leading to an uncomfortable ride for both of you.
This lack of coordination in horses is often associated with fitness and general conditioning, and this is partly true. Your horse's general fitness levels, or lack thereof, can play a large part in his overall ability to remain in a balanced way of going. However there are other factors that also play a large part in how well your horse can use his body, particularly when in a different or unfamiliar situation.
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Take your own coordination as an example; if you were to do a task that you do regularly, such as making a cup of tea or coffee in your own kitchen, you would find that your actions happen as though your body is on autopilot. However if I asked you over to my house to make some tea; you would find it much more difficult to do a pretty simple tasks.
The same principles apply to your horse, if it is something he does day in and day out, his body has already figured out the best and most effective way for it to do that particular movement or task. It is smooth and probably looks graceful and simple because it is done in balance in a way he feels comfortable. However, just like your own tea making capabilities, when you begin to add different factors to your horses schooling, or change scenarios, things can become rather wobbly quite quickly!
You have to agree that most young horses look wonderfully coordinated while in the field however, as soon as a rider is placed on their back it suddenly seems becomes a rather large effort to continue with one foot in front of the other without falling over! This is the horse having to learn or adapt to a different situation - this particular one being having a rider on board
We also see older horses struggling with coordination. Particularly when they are ridden all the time in a beautifully manicured and maintained arena. They are used to having perfect footing underneath. But if you take them out of the arena, maybe on the trail or into an appropriate paddock or field; well things are very different. The rhythm and balance are suddenly lost and it almost feels like the horse has forgotten all his past training. Sure, you will have moments where it feels good, but for the most part it is a disjointed effort that pales in comparison to when he is working in his comfort zone.
When we are in the saddle, it is always a great advantage when your horse can adapt immediately to different situations you may find yourself in, quickly and without a break in balance or rhythm
So the first step in improving your horse's coordination is highlighting the quality of your transitions. This is something you can begin working on immediately when riding your horse the next time. Focus on the balance and consistent rhythm of each individual transition. Pay attention that your horse is not speeding up the tempo of the gait he is in before the transition. Also work on establishing the new gait as quickly as possible after the transition. Through becoming more concise and specific about how you prepare, and then ride each individual transition, you can begin conditioning your horse to balance himself better and adapt to different situations with greater ease.
Don't make the mistake of only working in the more exciting transitions, such as trot to canter and canter to trot. Transitions that include halt, walk and trot are equally as beneficial and often easier for the rider to be more consistent through. Again, focus on the quality of the gait leading up the to the transition, maintain that gait right the way until the transition occurs. The transition itself should be coordinated, straight and smooth, and then followed by good quality gait afterwards as well.
The second thing you can do is working some lateral movement into his schooling routines. Think of the transitions as really working him while moving in a straight line, tail to head. The lateral movement then works him sideways, so working his body differently and forcing him to balance differently. Very often horses that can adapt and who have good coordination are able to remain in balance while moving sideways. Practicing this in the arena will begin to develop your horse's ability to do this as well, with you on his back.
One of the other ways to improve your horse's coordination is to work him over ground poles. He must become very aware of how he is moving his body and where he is placing his hooves. Groundpoles also helps coordination by improving the physical strength of your horse's back. They ask more of his joints, his back and his whole topline in general. All this while remaining balanced and moving forward in a rhythmic manner is excellent for him.
You can use single groundpoles placed randomly around the arena, with your horse having to ride different shapes to reach. You can also use basic trotting poles, either flat on the ground or raised and later you can build simple grids.
Regardless of how you use the poles, they will definitely help your horse to become more aware of his feet and legs while being worked in the arena and build muscle and strength while doing so
The final suggestion I have for you to begin improving your horse's coordination is hillwork. I am not talking about steep, gruelling inclines that exhaust your horse; rather mild inclines that ask him to use himself slightly differently, but in doing so, strengthen and condition his body. You can work up and down the hills, and later once you are both happily walking and trotting up and down, you can begin asking different questions by introducing transitions into his hillwork.
Maintaining the rhythm of the gait while working and down hills is difficult for many horses. It is also different because most hills will be either on the trail or in a paddock or field, making the footing or terrain a little less accommodating as well
So improving your horse's coordination won't happen overnight, it will take time. By working some of these exercises into your daily schooling, or warming up and cooling down, you will help your horse reach a greater level of coordination throughout his body, which will make riding more enjoyable for both of you in the long run.