Remedial Exercise Programmes: Proprioception, Co-ordination and Agility

For the final blog post on the Remedial Exercises Programme blog series, we are at the last stage of rehabilitation- the intricate and fine tuning phase- which includes proprioception, co-ordination and agility.

Do you remember this arrow chart (below) from a few blog posts ago? It emphasises that first we must work on the other two points before we can really begin to concentrate on the final stage of rehabilitation. Of course, certain proprioceptive, co-ordination and agility exercises can be incorporated in the beginning of the rehabilitative stage, but it is less frequently than the other aspects.

So what do these three terms entail?

1. Proprioception

What is it?

Proprioception, otherwise known as kinesthesia, is the body's ability to sense movement, action, and location within space. Its present in every muscle movement you have. Without proprioception, you wouldn't be able to move without thinking about your next step. It lets your dog meticulously scratch behind their ear and allows your horse to gage where to place their limbs before taking off to clear a jump.

Within an animal’s skin, muscles, tendons and joints live thousands of sensory receptors- called proprioceptors, making up a small aspect of their nervous system. When the animal moves, these receptors send specified signals to the brain about the body’s positions and actions. The brain then processes these messages, working with vision, the nervous system and vestibular system to create their perception of where the body is and how its moving. Furthermore, proprioception is very important to the brain, and it plays a huge role in self-regulation, posture, body awareness and the ability to focus on specific tasks.

Proprioception exercises

There are multiple different proprioceptive exercises that can be incorporated into your horse or dog’s remedial exercise programme. Walking, trotting, sniffing, turning, jumping, weaving and leg yielding are just some examples of activities where proprioceptive input is needed.

Some examples a vet physio might utilise to target proprioception include:

· cavaletti or trotting/ground poles

· unstable surfaces or balance equipment (discs or Fit Bones) for dogs or varying/uneven terrain for horses

· inclines (challenging proprioception due to the patient’s shift in their centre of gravity)

· climbing stairs

· circling, figure of eights and weaving

· lunging with training aids such as bum bands, pessoa etc.

· scatter poles

· walking through long grass or water

· walking over different surfaces e.g. towels, carpet, pebbles, gravel, Astroturf etc. it could be anything!

2. Co-ordination

What is it?

Co-ordination is the ability to perform precise, accurate and smooth motor responses (optimal muscle function), efficiently. Its the brain’s ability to select the right muscle at the right time, with the correct muscular intensity, speed, distance and direction to achieve the desired action. For co-ordination to occur, several aspects of the brain and central nervous system must be working correctly, such as the vestibular system, cerebellum of the brain, FLEXIBILTY, RANGE OF MOTION (link- touched on in a previous blog post) and vision.

Co-ordination tends to go hand in hand with proprioception as it is another element which requires fine-tuned movement of the muscles and nervous system. This is why many of the proprioceptive exercises listed above will also be selected to challenge co-ordination. This is also the case for agility.

Types of exercises

A few exercises which help improve co-ordination include cavaletti/trotting poles, targeted stair climbing, rein back/walking backwards and plenty more.

How coordination helps your animal

Coordination is an important factor to be integrated into a patient’s home exercise programme as it:

· Improves performance- both in canine agility competitions and equine competitions such as jumping and dressage

· Allows for a more smooth and even ride on your horse

· Improves core stability

· Prevents muscles imbalances due to overcompensations by promoting a more all-rounded weight distribution

3. Agility

What is it?

Agility is the ability to move your body quickly and easily- the power to change direction and shift your centre of gravity, effortlessly. This is one of the last and most advanced principles of a rehabilitation plan, necessary mainly for those animals who are working and competing. Nevertheless, it can only benefit your animal to incorporate agility into their routine if they are able.

Agility exercises

As mentioned above, many of the exercises which we have mentioned to target proprioception and co-ordination ALSO target agility. Often just increasing the speed of the exercises above will also increase the agility aspect. However some extra examples of agility exercises include:

· Weaving through poles or cones