We know why we want a supple back.
Think of the back as the gateway to all things good in horse riding. A supple back allows energy through the horse's top line. It releases tension, loosens muscles - allows instead of blocks. The up-and-down action of the back creates space for the hind legs to reach underneath the body, which will in turn promote better balance - whether on a turn or straight line.
But most importantly, the supple back allows the horse to carry you, the rider, in a more healthy fashion. Which is something we should all be interested in.
Consider the opposite: the clenched, unmoving back. Tightness. Rigidity. Blockage. Hind legs out behind the horse's center of gravity. Lack of balance. Bracing neck and on the forehand.
That image should be motivation enough to make you want to put in the effort it might take to learn how to get the horse to "work through the back."
While there is definitely much more to the supple back, the exercise below can help you get started at a basic level. These two movements combine to give you a sort of road map, if you will, to begin to find your horse's back.
1. Start with the leg yield.
Do it on a circle, in trot.
Use your inside leg at the girth, and stay evenly balanced in the saddle. Leg yield outward so that the circle becomes a little bit larger, bit by bit. The idea is to get the horse to lift through the rib cage (in response to your leg), lift the inside shoulder and shift weight to the outside. The horse's legs may or may not cross over each other - in this exercise, the cross-over is not required. Just a shift to the outside is fine, especially at the beginning.
You might notice that it is somewhat easier to get a bend to the inside if you can get the leg yield going well. The horse will already be reaching underneath the body deeper with the inside hind leg, and will be able to maintain better balance into the bend. Without too much fuss happening from your hands, you should feel the bend begin mostly thanks to your leg aid.
So now, your horse is stepping outward and the inside bend is developing.
Enjoy this for a few strides. Lighten your contact at this point, lighten your seat, and allow more energy through the horse's body while still stepping out and bending.
You're looking for a bouncier feeling, a swingier back... basically, more freedom of movement and energy.
Once you feel you have a nice bend and some easy steps outward, you might find that your outside rein "fills up" on its own, and suddenly, you have this wonderful neck rein on the outside rein, which will naturally lead you right into #2.
Now that you've activated the hind end, you can see if the front end can become lighter and straighter.
The shoulder-fore is a basic but excellent way to line up the horse's front end so that it leads slightly to the inside (and works on the bend again). Click here for the shoulder-fore aids.
Using your outside neck rein, bring your horse's shoulders just a little ahead of the hind leg tracks. In other words, the horse's front leg tracks should fall slightly to the inside of the hind leg tracks.
You're still on the circle, you just did the leg yield out, developed a bit of a bend, and now, using the outside neck rein and outside leg behind the girth, you bring the shoulders back in towards the middle of the circle - just a little.
If the leg yield was going to create a bulging outside shoulder, this shoulder-fore will quickly avoid the problem altogether. You'll notice that the outside shoulder straightens up a little and the front end lightens a little.
The straightening action will align the horse's spine and once again, you'll feel the trampoline-y feeling of the back that is active, round and engaged.
When You Get Good
Try it on one side first, then the other.
Then, switch sides - go right, then left, then right. Go off the circle and make it fun by finding new turns and circles in different places in the arena. Use serpentines, tear drops, S-changes... get creative!
When you first start with the leg yield, many horses will misunderstand the leg aid to mean speed up. If your horse quickens the legs instead of steps out, half-halt the speed, and regain your initial tempo. Then try again. It may take many repetitions for a horse to learn to step sideways away from a leg aid. Be patient, clear and reward often.
Another common problem is that the horse will continue to lean into your leg as you apply the leg aid. Many horses naturally lean into pressure. If your horse leans into your leg, come to a walk. Apply your leg aid again, and get the horse to leg yield at the walk. When the horse is responding, go back to trot.
While finding your horse's swinging back might be a difficult challenge, the feeling of floating energy that comes with suppleness is something you'll never want to go without ever again after you've found it for the first time. The bonus is that if you can listen carefully enough, you will realize that your horse will appreciates it too!
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