My last aticle outlined steps that can be taken when working from the ground to help relieve problems with the hollow backed horse. This article will give an overview of the primary riding technique that you must master in order to strengthen and raise those back (and abdominal) muscles.
Some people will question the usefulness of this kind of discipline, but I assure you that the time spent working to correct and strengthen your horse’s back will pay rich dividends. Your horse will be easier to fit for saddle, have a happier attitude due to less stress and pain in the body–and ultimately, enjoy many more years as a useful riding mount. The exercises outlined in this series are easy to master, and one need only spend 10-15 minutes, three or four times a week, to garner the above results. (However, you must take these lessons to heart, and always ride with the correct balance of forward impulsion/contact on the bit to obtain and maintain optimum results.)
Just as any exercise requires certain types of gear, so too does this work. The first thing you need to do when starting this routine is make certain there is no bridging in the saddle you ride. By this, I mean that the bars of the saddle tree lay flat along the entire topline on either side of your horse’s back, with no gap under the seat. Since we’re talking about a hollow back, this is almost surely going to require the use of a bridge pad. Otherwise, the weight of the rider is concentrated at either side of the shoulder, and at the loins. As you might imagine, this creates a considerable amount of pressure point pain and discomfort at these points. The horse’s response is to try to flatten it’s back down away from the pain, which only exacerbates the problem. If you imagine walking in a shoe with a pebble in the heel, and another in the toe. . .you’ll begin to get an idea of how this works (or rather, doesn’t work) for the horse. For more on this you can check out my gaited horse saddle fitting and equitation video here.
I offer the Have-A-Heart Bridge Pad to alleviate this problem. Its design allows you to place the rounded edges of the ‘‘heart’’ right in the cup behind the horse’s withers. This perfectly fills in the hollow area of the back so that the weight of the rider is properly distributed along the entire back of the horse. There are two layers of open cell foam within the pad, so you can easily adjust the pad to suit the degree of sway as the horse’s back is re-formed.
Let it also be noted that your gaited horse must be able to transfer action up from the loins through the back and neck, especially when performing a saddle gait. If you want those back muscles to become healthy and useful, then they can’t be restricted by a saddle that acts like a stationery splint tied on and held firmly down under the weight of the rider. Some of the horses we are called to work with have back muscles that feel like cardboard–there’s very little life left in them. This is usually a direct result of poor saddle dynamics. ‘Nuff said. . .
The Most Important Exercise
To begin this exercise, mount up. Use the 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit If you don’t own one, use a simple snaffle. Do not try these exercises using any other type of bit with a curb (shanks). The action of other curb bits cannot communicate lateral cues as well, and will ultimately be counter productive to your purposes.
Ride with one hand on each rein, held at pelvic level. Ask your horse for an active walk, with little or no contact on the bit. (How to determine correct contact: if the horse braces against the bit, lessen contact. You want your horse to lower its head.) At some point your horse will start ‘reaching,’ or lowering its head to ask for contact. This is a good thing. When it happens, take just a touch more contact on the reins, while using your seat and legs at the same time to continue to ask for forward motion. The more active the walk, the better.
Once the horse is moving forward loosely and comfortably, ask for a correct halt. This requires that you push your horse forward with your seat and legs while you take evenly on both reins. In effect, you’re driving your horse’s body into the bit, which acts as a sort of wall. The driving with your seat/legs must come ahead of the pulling on the reins, in order to be effective for our purposes. The purpose here is to get your horse pushing with his back end and rounding up through the back when he hits the ‘wall.’ You do not want to pull on the reins so hard that the horse stiffens up, raises its head, and hollows its back. We are not suggesting—as it too often is—that you ride with ‘one foot on the accelerator and one foot on the brake.’ If you do this with a motor vehicle, you’ll wear out the brakes. If you do this with a horse, you’ll wear out the back. This is as much an art as it is a science–but an art most horsemen can master, if they choose to do so.
Once the horse has halted, maintain slightly more contact on the bit (again, don’t let him/her stiffen or brace up on it), and ask him to immediately move off again at an active walk. Now, every 10-15 strides, repeat this halt/walk sequence. At first the horse may appear confused. Don’t worry, but remain consistent with your cues, and attentive to your horse. If the horse begins to brace against the bit, then lessen the contact until you hit an active, but relaxed, response to your halt cues.
Now that you’ve perfected the halt, let’s go on to the half halt. This is exactly like the halt, except that after you’ve cued for the halt. . .and before the horse has actually stopped. . .you immediately push the horse forward with the slightly shortened rein. Remember: slightly shortened . If you ride with too much contact, too soon, the horse will certainly brace against the bit and go in its usual hollowed out form. Old habits, to say nothing of muscle memory, will be working against you–especially for the first few sessions. You need to be acutely aware of your horse’s responses, and teach him how to move, and halt, actively and in good form.
This is the first and most important back re-forming exercise you can do. If you think that this is ‘too easy,’ then you don’t understand the exercise, and how imperative it is to the reformation process! I can’t emphasize enough the importance of being aware of your gaited horse’s body, and how it is responding to your tack and basic riding cues. You should plan to practice this correct halting and half halting for several sessions, before moving on to the next portion of our “Hollow Horse Reformation” article series. Part III will be our next online article!