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Soft in the Back or the Head?

Posted by on Aug 27, 2011


If your back is stiff how do you loosen up? Do you stretch, swing your body from side to side or just get moving? Any of those things will work but there’s one thing that’s guaranteed not to have any effect whatsoever. Swinging your head from side to side!

You may see top riders at shows or on TV flexing their horse’s head side to side. What you’re not looking at is the rest of the horse which will be bending over the top of its back and through its sides. It does this because they’re flexing it from their leg not their hand.

It’s easy to focus on your horse’s head and forget the back end but pull him in the mouth and he’ll tighten his back every time. In a test this won’t only affect the collective marks at the bottom of the sheet. It affects everything else too.

Softness in the back is a hard thing to pick up – until you’ve felt it. When you have you’ll never worry about your horse’s head position again. (Typically as soon as you stop worrying about it he’ll come onto the bit anyway!)

When your horse is soft in his back it’s like riding on a piece of rubber. You can bend him, stretch him and turn him anywhere you want without a hint of resistance. ANY horse can do it! He doesn’t have to be an Olympic athlete. He just needs to relax.

Think how rigid your muscles are when you’re cold or uptight. Get moving, warm them up and they soften. This is what you have to do with your horse’s back muscles.

There are hundreds of ways to do this but the simplest is to canter. Canter is a wonderful pace. Every muscle in your horse’s back is pulled forwards, backwards and from side to side because of its sequence of legs.

At a show most riders trot round the arena whilst they’re waiting for the bell but there’s nothing to say you can’t canter. It’s really beneficial to canter just before you enter as it not only gets your horse’s back moving it gets rid of some pent up nerves.

As you trot your position is important. It’s easy to tense your shoulders against the anticipated bounce of the trot. This goes straight down your arms to your hands. Your horse will fix against the stiffness in your hands and tighten his back. Stay relaxed and so will he. His trot will stay soft and be 100 times more comfortable to sit on.

Forget about pulling in your horse’s front end and focus on pushing his hocks further under his body. The nearer his hocks get to his shoulders the rounder his back must become. Try it. To get your hips nearer your shoulders do you round your back and fold forward or hollow and lean backwards? Try this - 

Turns about the forehand are rarely used for schooling. Most riders see them as a trivial bit of lateral work they might use to open a gate. Think again. The area of your horse’s back that’s tense is his loins. Just behind the saddle. The turn about the forehand gets his loins moving. You’ll learn to love it!

Ride up the centre line to X. Don’t halt. This is all about keeping your horse’s back muscles moving. You want to keep his shoulders on the centre line and move his hindquarters round using the biggest steps possible. This is what frees his back.

Your hands must stay together. Move them in any direction and your horse will move a shoulder out of line. His forehand should be one unit. He can’t turn about it if it’s heading in two different directions!

Your contact should be even in both hands. Tighten your fingers around your reins so he knows not to walk forward but don’t pull back. If he tightens his back he’ll take short shuffling steps. His back will get tighter not looser.

With your horse’s shoulders in position your inside heel pushes hard by the girth to tell him he has to move away from it and across. Use your leg as you would use your hand on the ground. Don’t just push and lean against him – he’ll just lean back. A series of short, firm nudges will get the steps you’re after.

To avoid confusion use one leg at a time. When he steps away from your inside heel take it off and ‘catch’ him with your outside leg. Then use your inside heel again and keep your outside leg still. If he’s slow to react or shuffles round tap him up with your whip as you use your inside heel so he responds quicker and steps further across.

Initially two steps over are sufficient and should put you onto the long diagonal. Ride forward out of the turn by relaxing your fingers around your reins and using both legs together. Turn down the centre line again and do the same.

As your horse improves you can put your inside heel on for longer to create a bigger step across. This is when it starts to stretch his back muscles. Most horses should be able to complete a 90’ turn to E or B in three steps.

The further your horse steps under his body the more he’s stretching his back muscles. It will improve everything you do with him. Next time you start to flex him to the side think twice. Are you trying to loosen his back or his head?

Good luck and enjoy your schooling.

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