Coming out of a sedentary life style, Kitt’s muscles, joints, ligaments, and tendons are unaccustomed to physical stress. Even moving to a field with a hill was a wake up call for Kitty! With the goal of going from atrophied to excellent, my mind started to spin with the question- Where do we start??? The answer came pretty simply after watching all the sleek Kentucky Derby contenders march around the paddock. Kitt would build muscle the same way the thoroughbreds start- Hand Walking!
For a horse who has no muscle to support his joints or protect his vertebrae, riding is out of the question. What Kitt needs is to activate muscle memory through an active stepping, loose backed, forward moving walk. This gait is the least stressful on his joints, yet the most effective in putting on muscle, as the use of muscles to walk is deliberate and slow. Walking in hand, I can also easily influence the correctness of his gait, encouraging him into a longer stepping walk, doing a little lateral movement, and transitioning activation within the gait.
Kitt and I walk everywhere right now! We are walking up and down hills, on the road, in the ring, in tall grass, and right before meals. With empathy and discernment for Kitt’s energy levels and muscle fatigue, we typically try for 20 minutes twice daily. Notably, we try to walk before meals because a horse’s digestion, absorption, and metabolism improve as circulation improves.
(muscle stimulation & increased heart rate= + Circulation= + Digestion & Absorption)
Hills work a horse’s hind end as he pushes up the hill and sits to balance down the hill. Forward movement up and down hills also encourages the horse to use his whole back with a longer, slower stride.
In small amounts, walking on hard surfaces can help improve blood flow to the hooves (particularly in barefoot horses), and it helps to increase bone density and tendon and ligament strength, not to mention toughening soles! Be careful not to overdo the hard surfaces too quickly though, as they can be stressful on soft tissue.
To get through these surfaces, horses need to pick up their toes a bit and engage their shoulders and hind ends. These surfaces also encourage a good, balanced stretch to the topline.
Transitioning within the gait (big walk, little walk, big walk) can help a horse’s coordination and his push/balance strength from behind.
Everyone!!! People, fit horses, fat horses, retired horses, green horses, and everyone in between can benefit from hand walking. Horses are grazing animals by nature, meaning that biologically, they are built to walk and eat a little bit at a time all day long. Most people can respect the fact that small meals are better, but few stop to consider that a little walking in the middle of the day can help a horse’s circulation, muscle looseness, cardio, relaxation, and joint health. Not to mention, bulk up the backs!