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.
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.
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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