First off, (from our last post) why even bother?
Let's face it: we see many people riding their horses with sunken backs, disengaged hind ends, and heavy footfalls. If they do it, why shouldn't we? Are we being conceited, ostentatious, pompous or pretentious?
Are we simply just too picky?
No, it's none of the above.
It's because we care.
To put in the work.
Because it's a fact: learning to feel the back of the horse, especially in movement, is not for the weak-hearted.
It requires hours of dedicated practice, oodles of lesson dollars, numerous requests for forgiveness from the horse, and perhaps most difficult of all, countless adjustments to our internal neural pathways, both physical and mental.
Is all this worth it?
OF COURSE IT IS!
In the long run, our primary motivation for self-improvement in riding is for the sake of the horse's health. We want horses that live well, staying strong and vigorous long into their old age. And a horse that uses his back is carrying the rider's weight to his best advantage.
The round back feels loose, bouncy, rolling, supple. It feels like the horse is having an easy time carrying your weight. He is less on his front legs and more on the haunches.
He gives you the impression that he can stop on a dime or turn on a thought. He is forward, active and content. The energy from the hind end easily flows through the shoulders and you notice larger, longer strides, and bouncier, more active gaits.
If you have trouble loosening enough to sit the trot, (you might be shocked to discover that) you might have even MORE trouble riding the trot of a horse that is using his back. This is because the horse's natural gaits become amplified when the back moves freely and it might be more difficult for you to stay with the loftier movement. You'd be better off posting so that you can encourage your horse to keep his soft, active back.
The same is true with the canter - the strides are more exaggerated and you feel more swing in the ride. Be prepared to let your lower back flow with the activity - anything less and you'll be stifling the horse's enthusiastic offering.
Basically, if you feel the gaits getting bigger, rounder, bouncier and maybe a bit harder to ride, then you know you are on the right track!
The Tight Back...
... feels just that - tight.
... restricts the movement of the legs.
... creates short, choppy strides that lurch and jerk.
... prevents establishment of a good forward-flowing rhythm.
... causes the horse to move on the forehand, taking the brunt of the concussion on the front legs.
... can be the culprit behind sore backs and "mystery" lamenesses.
The irony is that the horse can appear to be more "comfortable" to ride, in that the movement is smaller and shorter and thus easier for most riders to follow. If you think your horse feels smooth and comfortable, consider whether or not the smooth feeling is caused by the horse locking his back and preventing movement. Your first clue will be in the size of the stride - if it is a short stride, particularly in the hind legs, then the horse in NOT using his back.
One last secret: the horse's back is often a reflection of the rider's back. If the rider is tight and short in her movement, the horse can't help it but stay tight and short.
It might take many months of finding the "feel" in your back and then learning to maintain the required movement just to allow your horse's back the freedom to swing and let the energy through.
For those of you who are visual learners like I am, watch the following video. Will Faerber does a terrific job in showing clearly a horse using its back versus the "dropped" back. Then, let me know how you can tell what your horse's back is doing.
How to Engage Your Horse's Back by Master Horseman/Classical Dressage Trainer Will Faerber
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