Proprioceptive training - prevent injury and enhance the horse's performance

Posted by Michelle Botha on

Equestrians are always looking for ways to improve their horse’s abilities and prevent injuries. To achieve just this, many are starting to incorporate proprioceptive training into their work. Proprioceptive training is a natural and highly effective method to help the horse access its full potential by gaining more awareness of its body and knowledge about its capabilities and
boundaries.


What is proprioception?

What exactly is proprioceptive training? Proprioception (latin proprius ‘own’, recipere ‘gather’) describes the perception of the own body, its position and movement in space. Loads of nerves, so called proprioceptors, are located in muscles, fascia, joints, ligaments, and tendons, and constantly supply the central nervous system and brain with information about the position of any body part and changes occurring there. If a muscle gets stretched in a certain way or tension arises in a tendon this information will immediately be processed in the central nervous system and brain to adjust the body so as to safely cross the obstacle and ultimately avoid injury. The better a horse’s or human’s
proprioception is, the faster they can react to stimuli and adjust their body in a beneficial manner, thereby preventing damage from occurring.


The importance and concept of proprioceptive training is not new to us and has been used to enhance the performance of human athletes for many decades. Proprioception is built into every form of physical training and rehabilitation – for humans. In the equestrian world, however, it is only slowly gaining popularity, even though it is an incredible and important tool which can significantly
help both rider and horse reach their full potential and reduce the risk of injury occurring while getting there.


All athletes need good proprioception but equestrians, in particular, need to be highly aware of not just their own but also their horse’s body, its position and movement at any given moment whilst riding, to be able to properly communicate with the horse and not hinder it through tense muscles or
locked joints. A rider needs to be able to adjust to the horse’s movement within a split second and tense or relax certain muscles to accommodate or ask for a certain reaction from the horse. Therefore, incorporating proprioceptive training will not just help your horse but both of you to be more aware of your own body in the long-term.


Map of the body

Through all of the proprioceptive information that is constantly being sent to the nervous system and brain, a kind of map of the body gets created in the brain. If a horse does very monotonous and unstimulating work in the same arena, day in and day out, the map of its body will become less detailed since no new information is coming in. This will ultimately lead to less developed nerves and
neural pathways that don’t communicate well with each other. Eventually this can lead to a horse that is seemingly made up of multiple parts instead of one harmonious body and that is not aware of its size or location in space (think of the typical horse that cannot engage its hindquarters at all or 
bumps into things). Since the nervous system and brain don’t get much input, they ‘forget’ about certain body parts and will not be able to move them supply or even estimate the abilities of them. This can have pretty bad consequences, such as a horse stumbling all the time when eventually having to walk on uneven ground and twisting its fetlock and becoming seriously injured as a result of not being able to adjust its body to the new environment. Furthermore, since horses are naturally prey animals it is a priority for their brain and nervous system to know that they are able to flee if confronted with a threat. However, if the brain has no idea how strong, fast, or agile the horse is, due to lacking proprioceptive information, this can lead to high levels of stress, nervousness, and jumpiness in the horse because its brain doubts its ability to flee and survive if necessary.


If the horse’s brain and nervous system don’t believe the horse to be able to perform a certain movement without injuring itself, due to a lack of proprioceptive information, they will not allow the movement. Some equestrians unfortunately will see this refusal as bad behavior and force the horse
to perform the task asked from it anyways. Though the horse may perform what is asked in such a situation the result may be detrimental. Evidence shows that most injuries occurring in equestrian athletes, stem from microtrauma which can be caused by exactly what was just described. Eventually the nervous system and brain will block certain abilities of the horse to protect it from crossing the boundaries that were set earlier by the body to prevent injury. This ‘blocking’ could manifest in different ways. These include stiffness, resistance to perform certain tasks, less available strength than the horse should theoretically have and, last but not least, pain. All of these could potentially be
prevented if the equestrian helps the horse to create a good map of its body, which in return leads to more awareness about its physical abilities and boundaries.


Incorporating proprioceptive training

There are many different ways to help a horse become more aware of its body. Plenty of these can very easily be incorporated into the everyday life and training of the horse. These include giving valuable proprioceptive input by gently brushing the horse’s body from the front to the back and the
top to the bottom with brushes with different bristles. Furthermore, long gentle strokes with the flat hand or the fingertips or a drumming motion with the fingertips across the entire body (don’t forget the insides of the back legs) already provide the horse’s brain with a lot of proprioceptive input to
help create a more detailed map of its body.


Body bands and wraps, gymnastics mats and balance pads can also be incredible tools to enhance the horse’s proprioception although they should only be used on an uninjured horse and need to be slowly introduced. However, one of the easiest, most effective, and free ways to help your horse
become more aware of its body is by going for walks on uneven ground. Walking through a forest (and leaving the track), water or other uneven ground will supply your horse with loads of proprioceptive input and help reactivate its proprioceptors in joints that maybe haven’t otherwise been properly challenged in a long time. Should you not have a forest or any uneven terrain near
you, poles randomly thrown together create a wonderful ‘movement challenge’ for your horse to solve. Gym mats laid out in the arena whilst you work with your horse will also offer a challenge for your horse to stabilize itself whilst walking over them for a few seconds and then readjusting again to
walk on the familiar ground.


All of these exercises will help your horse create a better map of its body and become more aware of its level of stability, agility, flexibility, and strength in every single body part. This ultimately leads to quicker, more precise and supple adjustments to new ‘movement challenges’.

Another easy and especially hands-off way to incorporate proprioceptive training into your horse’s everyday life is by adjusting its living situation. Ideally a horse should be able to move its body, browse and play with other horses all day long. Should your horse already live in a paddock paradise or paddock of any sort you can easily incorporate some proprioceptive challenges which will have your horse train itself in its free time. One of the simplest ways is to just have some poles in some part of the paddock or on the track. This way the horse will practice walking over them whenever it needs to take that path to get to, e.g., a feeding point. If you use hay nets to feed your horse, you can
easily incorporate a little passive physiotherapy by hanging some up higher and some over a fence so that the horse has to reach up or over an obstacle to get to its food. This stimulates your horse’s creativity, allowing them to act out natural browsing behavior and is a great source of proprioceptive input by the horse putting its body into multiple different positions to reach the desired food. Keep in mind, however, to only offer about 20% of food higher than chest level to not strain the neck too much. Different ground surfaces on a track, such as gravel, sand, wood chips and grass will also offer a lot of proprioceptive input and are a very easy and hands-off way to help your horse create more
body awareness.


Start today

As you have seen there are many ways to help enhance your horse’s abilities and help prevent injury through proprioceptive training. Being creative in incorporating proprioceptive training into your weekly schedule will not just help your and your horse’s body awareness but also creates a deeper
bond between the two of you. With everything you do always make sure that your horse is warmed up but not tired and start slowly as to not overstimulate or strain the body, especially when introducing balancing pads. Incorporating proprioceptive training on rest days is a great way to slowly build a better and more detailed map of your horse’s body. 

So, the next time you brush your horse, just take a few extra minutes to tap over its body with your fingers. When you take your horse on a walk just stray from the path a little to walk across some uneven terrain. With incorporating changes as little as these, you will have enhanced your horse’s proprioception in no time. And don’t forget to have fun whilst creating more awareness of your
bodies!

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