Thursday, February 5, 2009

He ain't heavy, he's my training aid

I'd like to ask your opinion on something. Here's the deal. An Illinois company called Eponaire makes a product called Astride (pictured left). It's basically a surcingle with removable weights. The idea is that you start with a few weights, and as the horse develops muscling along his back and abdomen you add more. Over time the horse is conditioned to physically support the weight of a human rider. Scott Hassler used to promote it for Hilltop Farm, and now Robert Dover is the spokesman.

Product details
The wool-flocked surcingle weighs six pounds by itself, and a series of pockets hold up to 13 weight bags (total 110 lbs). The bags are filled with small lead balls that shift like sand. The weights are distributed on the surcingle to simulate a rider aboard the horse. The design protects the spine encourages the horse to lift his back, while ample padding adds stability and eliminates pressure points. (excerpted from Making Strides from Blood Horse).

Oh, no, another gadget!
If you read this blog regularly, you know I'm a sucker for gadgets. But this idea does have a basis in research. It originated with Dr. Hilary Clayton, McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University. She used a prototype of this product in two studies. In the studies, horses between 18-30 months old were exercised in a “weighted vest that’s like a saddle pad with pockets for weight." Adding supplemental weight during exercise stimulated bone and muscle development in young horses (from Let the Training Begin! from Blood Horse).

On the psychological side...
Astride also makes sense from the standpoint of animal psychology. A principle of behavioral psychology called shaping posits that ya don't ask for the whole enchilada at once. If you're teaching a horse to bow, you first reward any step in the right direction, like downward movement of the head. Ask for a little more each time, and eventually the horse is kneeling down with his nose touching the ground on cue. Similarly, if you want a horse to accept 130 lbs on their back without a big fuss, you might want to start with 20 lbs. It seems kinder and gentler to the horse, not to mention the rider. If the horse is happy, the rider is less likely to get dumped.

So what do you think?
I really like the idea. But at a price of between 300ish dollars, I'm not sure I can justify the expense for my one young horse. I've thought about reselling it when I'm done, but when I posted queries to horse bulletin boards, not one respondent had actually used it. So I'm not sure about its resale potential. Decisions, decisions.

Tell me what you think!


Let the training begin from Blood Horse

Making Strides from the Blood Horse


  1. You know, that's kind of a cool idea. I'm sure, if you really wanted to, you could kind of make one yourself with some bags and sand... lol!

    A lot of classical dressage trainers lunge for at least 3 months prior to getting on--this makes sure the horse is fit enough to have enough confidence to hold the rider--then you just sail through because the horse doesn't think, 'I don't know how to move myself, ESPECIALLY with this rider!'

    It would make sense to help condition him further with something like this... very interesting! My baby has got a while before being ridden, so maybe the price will come down by then. :)

  2. this sounds like an excellent idea! I agree with above post too- you could in theory make your own for lots less money.

  3. I don't have a horse and have never trained one (YET!) but this sounds like an excellent idea! It only makes sense to build up those muscles before putting weight on them.
    I also agree with the other comment about making your own, that seems completely doable too!

  4. I really like the idea as well!

    I'm not sure I like the actual device, though - I can't tell from the pictures or the description whether it really distributes the weight off of the horse's back? Does it really truly protect the spine even though it doesn't look like it has a tree?

    I think I'd try gradually weighting down a saddle. The drawback to a saddle is that it wouldn't fit perfectly as the horse grew up, but with padding it ought to work for lunging.

  5. You've already decided it's a good idea. If you use it, I assume that you'll be blogging about the experience, which will help inform the public and perhaps help the resale value.

  6. Someone's got to be the voice of dissent - I think it's silly. The basic premise is a good one. It's true that conditioning horses slowly is much better for them physically, and I am certainly not advocating just jumping on one day to see how it goes. But I think the same result can be accomplished by starting a horse slowly. There's no reason the first few rides have to be more than 5-10 minutes. Then the length of time can be increased from there.

    I couldn't justify spending $300 for something like that when it's just as easy to get the horse fit on the longe line and then do a similar slow training progression under saddle. Plus, a bunch of weights are never going to feel the same as a living rider. The weights won't move with the horse the way a rider will. It's like the difference between giving a child a piggyback ride or strapping a 50lb bag of grain to your back. Think about how different the two feel.

  7. I do believe I am a traditionalist like the above comment suggests.

  8. You could always do the same thing with a pack saddle. There are adjustable ones that fit all sorts of horses. (google the long riders' guild and read about equipment.) They are less expensive and would definitely have a resale value. With a pack saddle, you could also do "sacking out" on the lunge, i.e. strap flappy, rattly, things to your horse to get him used to unusual noises and feelings. It could also make you the talk of your dressage barn!

    (sorry about the anon. I can never remember my password.

  9. Anon, now there's an idea. I'm off to google pack saddles!

  10. Whether you use this nifty device or the pack saddle, the idea about adding weight slowly is a good one, even if you're not starting the horse under saddle.

    This fall I had more time on my hands and rode my horse more than I had been. One day he started stumbling on his front feet. Turns out, the bone doesn't develop for the task as quickly as the lungs and muscles so my gelding had 4 weeks of isolated (to keep him from running) pasture turnout.

    The lesson: add weight and time under weight slowly.

  11. BTW: your source links are broken. Just FYI.

  12. Thanks for letting me know -- fixed now!

  13. First, let me say that your blogsite is inspirational. I just starting blogging and I can only aspire to such a site! Secondly, I've been looking for such a surcingle for training ponies. It's hard to work with the "little guys" and move them along the training tree without hurting their backs. This affords a good way to build back muscle and develop balance. I like it (I can't afford it, but I like it!)

  14. I'm an older rider, so I saw all the jerry-rigged stuff being used way back when to do just this: get the horse used to the concept of weight and gradually build up muscle.

    The trainers/cowboys I saw used old jeans that were sewn into segments (or old flour sacks sewn together), and gradually filled with weighed amounts of sand. No weight below where the riders knee would be. Most of the weight in the seat of the jeans and some in the thighs. The "Sandcrow" was fixed securely to the saddle (the idea was no amount of bucking would get the weight off).

    Generally this was done very gradually, with kindness and compassion. The horses I saw accustomed this way generally did better than those who suddenly had weight on their back one day, no matter how many times a stirrup got stood in.

    I'm not a trainer, don't know if this is right or not. Thought I'd share the experience and that it seemed to work well.

  15. I think it's brilliant! My eight year-old mare has bad arthritis in her withers and I'm thinking of looking into getting one to help her build up muscle over her back. Even a fitted saddle tends to bounce on her because of the shape of her back but a surcingle might be just the ticket. I may start by seeing if I can't jury-rig something with my trainer's surcingle first by adding some weights to it since this price is out of my range right now with our current vet bills. Thanks for the idea!

  16. I agree with smottical. It's a gadget that's not really necessary for what you're trying to accomplish. Save your $300.

  17. I too like the idea of the Eponaire, however....I've tried sand in jeans, and a few other do it yourself methods of adding weight to my 2 1/2 year old filly's back after she has had a saddle on her back and been driven, lunged...but I just can't keep the sand bag rider in place! How can I keep this sand bag rider balanced? Tried bungees, string, you name it..over girth, nothing keeps "sandy" stable. Any suggestions from someone that has tried this method?

  18. Find a saddle you don't care about and use duct tape? I was given a saddle and was toying with the idea of putting a 25 lb feed back on the saddle and Duct taping it down. Also have considered putting weights through the leathers (punch extra holes so it is tight against the saddle, and duct taping that down.


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