active back
Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

"Could you post a couple of pictures of how the back/topline should look like when horses get more conditioned?"

This was a question posed to me by one of our Horse Listening readers (thanks, Stephanie). It's a good question and I thought I'd answer it here with more detail. When we are learning to ride, it is important for us to learn to develop our "eye" as well as our "feel" of good movement. I decided to answer the question here because there are surely many people who might be interested in the answer.

An active back is fairly easy to identify. Take a look at the horse's back behind the saddle. There are muscles on either side of the spine. If the back is "swinging," and there is a good forward movement (impulsion), you should be able to see the muscles bulging on both sides of the spine. While you watch, you should be able to see the muscle rippling underneath the skin as the horse moves.

In the above picture, you can see that Cyrus is using his back nicely. I chose this picture because the sunlight allows you to see the gleam of the muscles. That line down the middle of his back is the dip of the spine, where there is no muscling.

The other clue is the deep stride length of the inside hind leg. When his back is active like this, I feel a "swing" in his trot movement and he is invariably round in his body outline and softer in the contact.

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A final thing to look for is the lift of the tail. His lightly arched tail indicates first the hind end engagement, but also a fairly relaxed back. In movement, the tail will swing lightly left and right during the trot steps. Ideally, the tail is lifted in the middle of the hind end. If the tail points steadily left or right, the horse is working to counter an imbalance or lack of straightness issue.

You should be able to see the topline muscles working in all the gaits. Whether in walk, trot or canter, the horse can reach underneath the body with the hind legs and in the rhyhtm of the movement, rise and drop his back. The back will likely "swing" in the stride - left, right, up and down depending on the gait - and there is a general sense of release, "throughness" (of energy) and roundeness in the overall outline of the horse.

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There are other signs that go along with the increase muscle use of the topline. You might see some mild foaming of saliva in the corners of his mouth. You might get a snort as he releases tension through his body. The ears are soft and sometimes flop in the rhythm of the movement. The gaits feel bouncier with more air time. The horse may become more forward or enthusiastic in his work.

In general, he feels better to ride and looks better to an observer on the ground.

What to do when the horse uses his back.

When your horse offers his back, it is up to you to ride in a way that encourages him to continue the swing and impulsion.

1. Go with the movement.

Riders often resist when they feel a surge of unexpected energy or movement. Be ready for it and go with the flow (quite literally)! Swing more through your own back. Allow energy through both your lower back and between your shoulder blade area. Be sure that the horse feels your commitment to the movement.

2. Allow with your seat.

You might notice more up and down movement when the horse begins to swing. Rather than bracing against it, give through your lower back and keep your seat moving in tandem with the horse. If your horse swings up to your seat and feels an abrupt push-down coming from you, he will invariably mirror your movement with a dropped back. In time, he might learn to ride with a hollowed back simply because of your reaction.

3. Keep using your aids.

Make sure you keep using your aids - it is often easier to "shut off" your communication when you need to work harder to stay with the horse.  Scoop with your seat to encourage the energy forward and through the horse's body. Use your turn aids on a turn, and regularly work on straightening in the movement. Remember to include half-halts when necessary to rebalance the horse and help him stay off the forehand. In all cases, be an active participant in the creation and then the maintenance of the movement.

4. Reward Your Horse

There is nothing better than the rider that gives immediate "yes" answers to the horse's efforts. You can pat the horse, but also harmonize through intentional aids that release, follow or become quiet while the horse is still in movement. "Become one" using quick aids that guide and release and watch as your horse gains in confidence.

Well, there you have it. First of all, watch as many horses as you can while they are being ridden. See if you can spot engaged movement and an active, swinging back. Then see if you can improve your horse's back while you ride. Try some of the above suggestions and see what works best for your horse. Different horses and different situations might require variations of the above ideas. See if someone can watch you and give you feedback on what they see. 

How do you know that your horse is swinging and using an active back? Let us know in the comments below. 

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  1. Hello, I just discovered your blog and I love it! Enven if it’s hard for me to understand english, i try my best and when i do, I find endeless informations!
    Active back is what i’m looking for with my horse. But I have some issues, I don’t feel it. I cannot see the difference when it’s good or not. I am working and I hope that will come soon.
    Thanks for learning things to me!

  2. The development of the muscles of the underline ( the underside of the neck, chest, stomach and the insides of the hind limbs ) are AS important as the muscles in the topline.

  3. The best way to see the back, and the rest of the horse move is through correct longeing. So much easier to see what the horse is doing if you are on the ground instead of on the horse!

  4. Excellent post and well articulated (from a fellow and more “newbie” blogger)! particularly with how a rider should respond when their horse gives in the back. In her comment, I think Catherine McIntyre brought up a valid point about the tummy muscles. If a horse is consistently ridden through and from back to front, along with most other areas in the horse’s body, in particular, his/her abdominal muscles (core) will become stronger over time with correct, consistent training/conditioning.
    As with our core strength/fitness as riders, as a horse becomes more fit, he/she will be better able to carry his rider in a more balanced and comfortable way. Not unlike us humans, a horse’s core fitness is essential as this will allow him/her to come up with the back and become more supple – this will only happen with correct training/conditioning.
    Your comments about what the rider needs to do when their horse offers their back are spot-on! While a great deal of insight can be gleaned by observing a horse from the ground, if a horse is ridden and conditioned correctly, a more experienced, consistent and correct rider will more quickly “feel” their horse’s soft, giving back and throughness and continue that communication by moving in sync and harmony with their horse.
    With this said, “feeling” one’s horse is something that takes most riders much time to learn (and some never achieve a high degree of “feeling). But when you “feel” that awesome power from behind, the suppleness and comfort as one’s horse gives in the back, and when the rider “allows” the horse to move in a more balanced, harmonious way, it’s a “feeling” one will most likely never forget – it’s absolutely awesome!!! (can only speak for myself…)
    This is an excellent blog and as a fellow horse person, rider (dressage) and blogger, there is always something new we can learn from each other every day! Thanks! 🙂

  5. This is an excellent article and much appreciated. Yet, I feel Stephanie’s question can be interpreted differently…I understood her question to be asking about how a conditioned horse’s back and topline appear when standing still (without tack) versus a horse that is lacking that muscle development. A set of comparison photos – one showing a properly muscled back of a well-conditioned horse and one showing a horse that is does not have the muscle development (likely from not being ridden or even from being ridden poorly).

  6. In response to Nicole, that is what I thought she was asking for. Also, it’s important to remember that a lower level dressage horse vs a GP level horse will have very different muscling patterns because of the level of work, engagement, and collection that is required of them! Nice article!