How often do you not hear this question? And then people answer ‘use poles and cavaletti, back the horse up, go up and down hills, ride transitions and lateral work’. And these people are not wrong, but as with most horse topics, it’s just not that simple!
Why do we even want to train a horse’s back?
The answer to that is simple: it carries the rider’s weight. In order to carry the rider without causing damage to the structures of the back (spine including spinal processes, joints and spinal cord, ligaments and fascia, muscles, ribs) the back must be capable of some lifting action to counteract the rider’s weight. Excessive movement (stretching and stressing the structures in extreme positions) should be avoided, the back needs to become one stable whole.
Remove restrictions / interference
An ill-fitting saddle (this includes any saddle that is uncomfortable for the horse!), an unbalanced rider, pain anywhere in the body, forced posture, dysfunctional feet. A lot of factors that can prevent a horse from using his body the best way he can. If you’re not sure, get the horse’s body checked for functional movement and possibly painful areas. Don’t train against these, eliminate them first.
Any movement (actual movement)
The horse is perfectly capable of training himself if allowed to do so. Turnout, space to run, playing with friends, good eating habits. All of these activities will support good overall condition and will start training the back without any effort from you. If a horse is standing still in a stall most of the day, that is training him to do exactly that: standing still.
The ‘right’ training
The right training makes horses look better and healthier, always. If this isn’t happening, something is off. With the training, or with the horse (refer back to removing restrictions). The right training should be about teaching, supporting, explaining, shaping, helping and creating. Not restriction, endless repetition, pushing and forcing. The horse can only learn when he’s motivated to do so, when he’s willing to try. The best training is one that the horse will adopt on his own, because he understands and because it feels better. Learning means strengthening the right connections in the brain, which goes further than just creating one conditioned response to a cue.
So what is supposed to happen?
Besides carrying things (the rider, the horse’s gut, foals) the horse’s back has one clear job: the transfer of energy and force. The spine connects the hindquarters to the forehand. The hind legs are directly connected to the spine through the pelvis, the fore legs are not. This means that when the hind legs create force on the ground, these forces can cause movement all the way up to the head if allowed to travel unrestricted. A big part of the horse’s movement is neurological, coordination, patterns that are saved in the brain. The horse knows how to walk, trot and canter from birth. However, these gaits can look very differently depending on how the horse’s body is functioning. An unbalanced, disunited or otherwise dysfunctionally moving horse is not letting the hind legs’ energy travel through the spine. For this to happen, the spine needs to be aligned. Both laterally and horizontally. That is the real definition of straightness – the entire body is working together towards the same goal, the spine is aligned and movement is happening smoothly and flawlessly.
How do we achieve that?
Any horse (and human) has patterns and habits in their movement. It’s important to learn to recognise these patterns, because they might work fine when the horse is standing still in the pasture grazing (or when you’re sitting still on your chair), but once the body needs to do any sort of performance, these patterns are like walls it runs into. A pattern gets repeated often, it’s what the body is strong at. It’s not so strong at all the other things we might want the horse to do, including carrying us. Taking a horse out of his patterns forcibly can cause anxiety, physical tension, protest behaviors and eventually physical issues. When done gently, with aids the horse understands, you can explore these boundaries and start installing new patterns, which will in turn become stronger with practice. Once the horse’s body is capable of more ways of moving, it will also learn to be capable of aligning the spine, and more importantly maintain it. Aligning the spine with the way of travel will become another pattern to get ingrained in the brain. Aligning the spine becomes synonymous with balance – energy can’t transfer in any particular direction if there are ‘kinks in the cable’, it will stop at these points. Any horse that is capable of aligning the spine and maintaining balance this way will automatically be training his back, because it is moving in the way it was intended. Only once the horse is *capable* of aligning the spine is it any good to practice the exercises that stimulate the muscles including those of the back, like poles, cavaletti, back up, hills, transitions and laterals. These exercises will change things up, stimulate the horse to find small variations on their patterns and strengthen the base pattern even more. However, for this to happen the base pattern must first be in place!