active back

The lifted back is something we all strive for regardless of our riding disciplines. In theory, we know that it is a good thing to encourage the horse to "work through his back." We know that the hollow back is detrimental in more ways than one, and we regularly continue to use our aids in a way that encourages the horse to lift his back through movement.

But what exactly is the result of a lifted back? What does it look and feel like?

Here are some ideas. Although it is easier to feel these results in the trot, you should be able to get similar feels in the canter.

1) "Swing" Through the Back and Shoulders

When the horse lifts his back, he is engaging his abdominals more, which in turn allows the legs to flow better in the movement. Through the back's lifting and falling, the horse's legs seem to be freed and suddenly, the movement becomes looser and bouncier. If you can't feel the swing in your horse's back, you might be able to see the shoulders take rounder, more lofty strides.

2) Steadier Rhythm

A lifted back helps to stop the staccato sewing machine trot and because of the increased swing, allows a more relaxed, purposeful rhythm. The strides feel more balanced and controlled. They tempo settles and the legs seem to have more time to come through during each stride.

3) Deeper Stride

As the rhythm settles, the hind legs are freer to reach further underneath the body. The hind end tucks under, allowing more weight to be carried toward the hind end. The horse's balance improves and perhaps even the level of your contact improves.

4) More Ground Cover

A deeper stride generally translates into increased ground cover. If you notice that the horse seems to be travelling further without moving his legs faster, you have probably lifted the horse's back.

5) Release of Tension

All this improvement in balance translates into a softness that can become a release of tension. With improved swing, the horse might stop bracing through the shoulders and then the neck and jaw. He might start breathing deeper and eventually let out a body shaking snort. At this point, if you can keep the hind end active, you will be able to influence a continued release of tension which originates in energy coming from the hind end.

6) Rounding

As the horse releases and develops a better balance, he begins to round his back. His neck arches and his poll and jaw soften - with little effort on your part. This happens as a side-effect from impulsion and subsequent release.

7) Better Lateral and Longitudinal Suppleness

Release from tension allows the horse to be more limber, both over the top-line and side to side. So if you can get the horse to engage his back, you might also discover that bending left and right becomes much easier. If you can clearly position yourself into the bend, the horse should have an easier time following your lead.

8) Soft Eyes/Ears

Don't be surprised if your horse seems to relax into a soft-eared happy place as he begins to enjoy the tension releases. If you can encourage this feeling often enough, the horse will learn to enjoy your rides and release sooner in the ride.

9) Slobber

And this is the final pièce de resistance. As we already know, slobber is connected to the swinging of the back. Even if you can't tell whether your horse is "through" and lifted in the back, you will certainly notice the "white lipstick" as it develops in the corners of the horse's mouth.

How to encourage the horse to lift his back

Well, this one is a little more difficult than just reading an article. You probably need feedback from your instructor to learn to really feel the lifted back and recognize the above signs. However, I can give you a place to begin.

Start with the leg, then seat, then half-halt combination. I know that I keep mentioning the same aids but pretty much any balancing or rebalancing starts from these aids.

Then add transitions. Start with progressive changes of gait - trot/walk/trot or trot/canter/trot. Allow the increased energy to flow over the horse's topline by moving your seat in harmony with the horse's increased impulsion. Stay in the middle gait (walk or canter) only for a few strides.

You are using the transitions for better use of the hind end, so come back to the trot within three or four strides and work with the resulting energy to improve the horse's movement. The lifted back happens as the energy begins to travel over the horse's topline.

If you have a chance to try this, leave us a note in the comments to let us know how it went. 

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Why Would You Bother to “Scoop” Your Seat Bones? Learning to use your seat effectively should take a lifetime to develop, so we will begin with just one basic aspect: how to move the seat bones.

17 Comments

  1. The horse’s back must not just lift. It must swing up and down and the energy must travel forward to the poll. This modern idea that the back must be “lifted” is wrong.

    Plainly speaking, that means the horse is blocked in the back and will display more leg movement. This is not good for the horse. Do study W. Seuning “horsemanship” in the matter and also study the fact that horses do block the horses up or down, according to their breeding and background.

    Nevertheless, both types of horses (those who stiffen up and those who hollow their back after being backed), need to re-learn to move naturally (at all three paces) again after they are having to carry the new weight (the rider).

    Only a through and very supple and knowledgeable rider can do this and sadly, all modern trainers not (in a rush to become known and make money) force the “lift of the back UP”, forcefully, and thanks to LDR (riding the horse neck deep and round).

  2. Great article,as with so many of yours. I have just ordered your book! As an teacher of the Alexander Technique I use many of the principles you describe, not just on horses but also on their riders! By releasing tension, understanding touch and contact and becoming consciously aware, we start to really ‘communicate’ with our horses (and each other!) The first step toward a more symbiotic union with our horses therefore begins with ourselves.
    “You translate everything, whether physical, mental or spiritual, into muscular tension.” FM Alexander


  3. I’ve been introduced to horses by our daughters and am not sturdy enough at my age to hope to be a horserider. However, as a newcomer to the horse world, who does very much enjoy the company of horses and groom them, I sincerely appreciate your articles. These articles help me to better understand and communicate. Thank you. Mary

  4. I explain the feel I get when my horse lifts through the abs and shoulders as this… I feel like I’m suddenly riding a much larger horse. My legs expand with his expanding ribs and I feel his shoulders become more free moving. It’s a wonderful feeling once you understand it.

  5. I came across this article recently. It’s VERY good. Only trouble is with it, is that it doesn’t explain IN DETAIL the aids and the combination of aids to be employed to ACTUALLY lift the horses back in all three gaits. The procedure the article takes about the use of the seat , leg and hand aid combination. It’s is a “PROCEDURE” known as Effect d’ensemble. It can be used in all 3 gaits from a mild “insinuation ” to lift the back, right through to its pinaltimate end, when the horse will come to a halt “on the spur at the girth” On the subsequent RELEASE of ALL aids the horse will lower it’s neck and “chomp” on the bit in the halt in complete submission with a lifted back. This can be very useful in situations of conflict such as in open fields when an excited horse is threatening to bolt. Stay in this halt with lowered neck and chomping until adrenaline has subsided even as long as 5 mins before calmly picking up the reins and proceding on. This is Baucher second manner.

  6. LDR is how Carl Hester supples his horses. It gives a false sense of the back lifting and swinging. The face should ALWAYS be on the verticle irrespective of where the neck is. If the neck is lower “into the sand” the gullet will be more open. The gait should be AS SLOW as possible when the neck is this low to enable the horse to manage it’s balance within the gait (including the canter!) The rider MUST sit tall and VERY balanced to alow this advanced stretch over the top line. The swing will be very big and can be a challenge for less than athletically supple riders. The horse will with this lowered neck need to stretch UP through its shoulders and withers to maintain its balance. The rider can then PROGRESSIVELY through the Demi Arret on the snaffle rein, an upwards action on the corners of the lips (never backwards) request a gradual lifting of the neck. Whilst the elevation is happening, the gait will become shorter, but the rythum will remain the same and more weight will be transfered backwards.
    AT THE SAME TIME , the rider must maintain the face on the verticle with the curb rein or by slight lateral flexions on the snaffle rein to maintain the Ramener. Then take the neck back down to the sand again for another stretch. To do this “take upwards with the rein/s acting on the corners of the lips and IMEDIATLY release the rein” to invite the horse to stretch TOGETHER with a , HUG” of the calf at the girth. This requires a considerable amount of tact, feel, dexterity , AND personal body suppleness, core, balance, and limb coordination of the rider to achieve this. This is what I call Pilatis for Horses! This can be trained on the longe too with the Chambon. NEVER use side reins. They always have a backwards action.

  7. Re my above posts. I should mention, I am a trained classical dancer (now retired) and use my knowledge from that field to “dance” with my horses! Like the lady who teaches the Alexander technique, many principles are transferable with appropriate adaptations.Stetching IN BALANCE before work is essential to avoid long term damage to the muscular skeletal system of both horse and rider. So, riders please do your own personal stretching in the tack room before you mount your horse!

  8. Try reverse pirouette in a school walk.You will notice the soft chewing of the bit immediately and softening of the back as the result of the loins moving towards the forehand, and then at the finish of the pirouette strike off into canter. The canter will be relaxed and supple.

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