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?

Good use of back for this horse. Note the deep-stepping inside hind leg, the weight slightly shifted back, the light front end, the calm, confident expression.

Are we simply just too picky?

No, it's none of the above.

It's because we care.

Enough.

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.

Feel it.

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.

Watch the video below by Master Horseman/Classical Dressage Trainer Will Faerber for an amazing demonstration of how to engage the horse's back.

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10 Comments

    1. Well, the best advice that I have for you is to get a good instructor to help. Unfortunately, there are a lot of aids that go into lifting the back. But I was hoping the video would help get people started on the idea. Also, check out my posts that are categorized as “training/lessons” and they will give you bits and pieces that all go into getting the horse moving more correctly. Thanks for reading!

    2. Help your horse to engage his hindquarters by going back to basics & focusing on developing a good walk by encouraging your horse to push forward energetically from his hindquarters so that his hind legs step well underneath him. Release any tension in your own body. Soften from your neck to your seat bones as well as all your joints (shoulders, elbows, wrists, hips, knees, ankles & toes). Keep your core engaged. Your horse will mirror what he feels from you. Maintain a supple, following contact on long reins.

      If your horse will not go forward into the contact, hollows his back, takes short “sewing machine” steps or rushes into trot, work him on a 20 metre circle encouraging him to bend more around your inside leg. The bend helps your horse relax and lower his neck which helps lift his back to level.

  1. This article is excellent. My short-coupled Arabian’s gaits feel bigger and bouncier when he is using his back correctly, but I find him then easier to sit, as I feel that I am getting beat to death when he is tight in his back. When he rounds up, I can feel his back come up under my seat, and the bounce is much softer; sort of the difference between riding in a luxury car with good shocks, and a pickup truck with no weight in the bed!

  2. I’m riding a 10 yo OTTB and we are learning dressage together. He is so athletic and a good, hard worker. I almost always feel like he is moving nicely forward at the trot, but every now and then he lifts his back into it and, OMG! those couple strides are amazing to feel! I get so excited each time that I can’t contain the giggles.

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