Help Reform Your Horse's Hollow or Sway Back Part 3

Now that you’ve learned how to do exercises from the ground for your hollow backed gaited horse, and have made sure that your tack isn’t causing any more problems, you’re ready for under saddle work. Let me start by telling you what not to do when you work your hollow horse.

First, do not try to lift the horse’s belly/back by prodding at it with the heel of your boot. This throws you into an untenable position in the saddle, which only makes things worse. It also annoys your horse. Trust me on this one.

Also, do not think you’re ‘collecting’ your horse just by shortening the reins for a lot of contact. Unless the energy is being generated from the hind quarters and being appropriately collected onto the bit, then your horse will shorten it’s frame. . .by hollowing its back.
You need to generate forward energy that is ‘caught’ up on the bridle so that the horse is encouraged to shorten its frame by lifting its back. Start this work by asking the horse to move forward as energetically as possible at a simple walk–don’t try to get any gait. Then request a halt by pushing with your seat, and then taking with your reins (remember: push then take). What you're doing is 'collecting' that forward energy on the bridle, so that the bridle acts somewhat like a wall against which the horse stops.

When the horse's energy is brought up against the bridle, and he begins to slow down, continue squeezing with your thighs, take up more on the reins and ask him to stop energetically. Pretend it’s a mini sliding stop. Once he's halted, immediately ask him to move energetically forward again by pushing with your seat and squeezing with your legs–however, do not give back all of the rein you took up for the halt. You want your horse to come up onto the bridle with some contact, so that its frame shortens and the back rounds up. How much contact you maintain depends upon the horse, and you’ll need to stay attuned for cues to know how much rein contact to maintain.

If your horse stiffens up its frame so that it loses all or most of its head action at the walk, then give up a bit more rein. If the head is swinging back and forth, rather than up and down, then you’ve probably given up too much rein because the horse is moving laterally. In that case perform another halt, and keep hold of a bit more rein. You want to feel your horse’s back moving underneath you, and see the energy flowing through to the neck, poll and head via energetic head action.

Once you’ve got a feel for the halt, try some rein backs. To do a proper rein back, start with the halt, but rather than pushing your horse immediately forward, continue to push with your seat/legs and take on the reins until the horse takes a step back–then ask for forward action and maintain appropriate contact on the bit. All of this helps tremendously to get your horse gathered up and moving off its haunches.

Now that you’ve done a correct halt, and a couple of rein backs, it’s time to practice the half halt. This exercise is the most important one for helping to correct the hollow backed horse. You start exactly as though you are going to ask the horse to halt. The instant you feel the horse hesitate, maintain rein contact and push the horse forward into an even more active walk. What you’ve done is re-balance the horse over its haunches, rounded up the back, and lifted the belly. Every time your horse gets high headed, stiff, or starts falling out of correct walk or gait form, do a good active halt halt. Practice half halting as you go down the trail, every 10-12 strides. Do them while traveling downhill. While it is a lot of work for the horse (and at first, for you too!), it will result in a much stronger back, better balanced horse, and vastly improved saddle gaits.

If you’re working out of my 2nd Generation Imus Comfort Gait Bit, the next series of exercises will develop your horse’s lateral abdominal muscle structures, which in turn help to support the back.
Lay out several cones, about 20' apart. (You can buy these at most sport supply stores, and they are a good investment for working your horse.) At a good active walk, and using two hands and a long, low, leading rein, ask your horse to do serpentines around these cones. The horse’s head should be about level with its poll. If it drops its head lower, or ‘rubbernecks’ around the turns, use your inside leg at the shoulder to ask it to lift more in front. Remember when you take on the inside rein to give on the outside rein, or you’ll be sending conflicting signals.

After you’ve done several rounds of serpentines, work on figure eights using the same rein technique. Then do increasing/decreasing circular spirals, using the inside cones to define the center of your spiral circles, and the outside cones to define the outside edge of your spiral circles. Again, don’t permit the horse to rubberneck around the spirals, but maintain slight contact on the outside rein and use your foot to keep the inside shoulder lifted.

Your horse’s head should not only not be too low, but also should not be too high. The idea is to get the horse to move with a fairly level topline while bending laterally in either direction. The spiral exercises help the horse to increase the degree of flexion gradually.

Working a gaited horse over poles on the ground can also help convert the hollow backed horse. Set the poles about 10' apart–ideally, they will be about 1-1/2 times the length of your horse’s body. Again, work at a very active walk with moderate contact on the reins. Your horse will want to look down to see where the poles are–the lowered head with impulsion from behind will lift the belly and round up the back.

If they’re to be of good effect, these exercises must all be done from a good, active swinging walk. Though the horse may want to slow down over cones or on circles/serpentines, the whole idea is to encourage ongoing engagement from the hind end. So be steady and persistent in your request for an active walk.

Don’t overdo these lessons, as the horse will require time to become strong enough to work for more than 10 minutes or so at a time. Mix up the serpentines, figure eights and spirals with good active, collected walk. Allow the horse to move at a nice slow dog walk every 5 minutes or so, to prevent the muscles from tightening up (remember: tight, stiff muscles=hollow back).

When you’re done with these exercises, do a few belly lifts and carrot stretches from the ground after untacking.

I encourage you to work with our Have-a-Heart Bridge Pad, to prevent pressure point soreness due to bridging. Be sure to check the padding after the first half dozen sessions or so to see if you need to remove one layer of padding. If you do these exercises 3-5 times a week, and consistently ride with good impulsion/collection even out on the trail, you will begin to see results within two or three weeks. Most horses can be completely re-formed in 3-6 months, so you’ll be able to do away with the pad altogether.

Many happy, smooth–and sound–trails!
Brenda Imus

Watch my video for a great back stretch to do with your gaited horse below!