"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.
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.
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.
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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