My horse is stiff in his back. How can I get him to relax and start using it correctly?
Stiffness in backs most often starts from the mouth so it’s important to steer away from the ‘swing from left to right’ method of softening that you might see many riders doing. The more relaxed you are the more you’ll find he starts to relax too so keep things simple.
I’m a big fan of stretching back muscles by using them. To do that you need to shorten and lengthen your horse’s strides so his back muscles stretch and contract. That doesn’t mean collected to medium either! Any horse and rider can have a go at this. Try slowing down in trot so he’s almost walking, then push on again to a fairly fast trot. Do ten strides of each going large for about four circuits. You’ll be surprised how quickly it gets him working.
If your horse is tightening his back he might be losing balance. If you shorten his body he’ll find it easier to sit on his hocks and keep his weight off his shoulders. Trot/halt/trot transitions work very well – they ‘shunt’ your horse’s back end up behind his front end which makes him have to round his back. Check out this post – http://www.schoolyourhorse.com/2011/12/10/get-your-horse-connected/ It will shorten him so he’s easier for you to keep together and get him using his back.
To get a horse balanced and sat back on his hocks – as well as really using his back muscles – I’ve found canter works best. It moves his muscles forward, backwards and over his back all at the same time. Usually your horse is naturally wanting to go forward (hopefully!) too and that keeps his attention which helps.
Get him cantering on a circle but keep his head and neck fairly straight in front of his body – too much inside bend will only make him tight and unbalanced. That means keeping an even contact in both reins so you have complete control of his shoulders. Then slow him down to almost walking pace – loads of leg but with a firm contact – tighten your fingers around both reins without pulling back and clamp both thighs into the saddle to slow him down. (Check out this post to see more on how to use your thighs to slow down.) Small taps with a schooling whip can help to make him understand you want him to keep cantering even at a snail’s pace. Get a few strides of really slow canter and then allow him to go forward again but keep hold of your contact! If you drop him you’ll throw his weight on his shoulders and make him more unbalanced.
As you get better at the slow down – move on thing you can play with different stride patterns. Canter for 10 strides, slow down for 5 – canter for 9, slow down for 6 – anything that suits you really but that keeps his attention. The slow canter is very hard but it is effective.
Remember to keep things as simple as possible so you don’t feel uptight about it. The more you can play in canter the better too because your horse will enjoy it – the less he thinks he’s actually working the better!
There’s another post here which is worth reading.