How to Identify if the Horse's Back is Locked or Engaged.
In The Horse's Back I talk about the importance of the horse's back for correct health and training. Here I am discussing the symptoms which allow us to recognise if the horse is using his back correctly or not.
If the horse's back is locked he is not using his back.
First, the negatives, which show that he is not using his back.
Check his muscular development when viewed without a saddle. Does your horse:
- Have developed muscle under his neck?
- Have a ewe neck?
- Have a hollow back?
- Have poor muscle definition in the loin area?
- Look a tad pregnant (grass belly)?
- Have a wide lower belly when viewed from the front or the rear?
- Have a dip in the neck immediately in front of the withers?
Some of the above can be associated with the horse’s natural conformation. This will mean a bit more work on your part than working with a horse who doesn’t have these challenges in his build. Likewise a young horse or green horse. If you have been training your horse for any length of time and he still displays these characteristics, then you will know that he is not using his back. True ’ewe neck’ and other skeletal issues are challenges, but correct work develops posture and movement in any horse, makes them beautiful and increases their likelihood of long term soundness.
When he is moving, does he:
- Rein-back reluctantly, crookedly and/or with his head up?
- Try to stop to pass manure?
- Open his mouth while working?
- Put his tongue out to the side? (See the story at the end!)
- Put his tongue over the bit?
- Give poor transitions?
- Feel heavy in the hand?
- Have trouble engaging the hindquarters (a very overworked statement but if it is your feeling then use it in your self-assessment)?
- Fall in on the circle?
- Walk hurriedly?
- Hollow immediately when you move forward in a transition? (i.e. lift his head)
- Walk in a rhythm that is not a true four-beat?
- Trot in a hollow fashion that is hard to sit?
- Show no medium or extended trot?
- Rush in canter?
- Move in a four-beat canter?
- Have difficulty with pirouettes?
- Have difficulty with turns on forehand?
- Have difficulty with other lateral work?
- Have trouble with square halts?
- Move wide behind (particularly in trot)?
Guess what? If your horse shows one or more of the symptoms above there is a good chance that he is not using his back.
In six months this horse had already changed through committed training.
Signs that he is using his back are:
- Foam at the bit (on both sides).
- Foam between the back legs
- He gives a straight rein-back with bascule (bascule = longitudinal stretch – loins raised, neck stretched, head lowered) on a light or loose rein in a straight line with a clear two-beat diagonal movement.
- His tail lifts and swings.
- Holds his head and neck in an elegant position (without rider/rein meddling).
- Maintains frame in change of rein and transitions (without rider/rein meddling).
- Maintains rhythm and cadence while passing manure.
- Shows muscle definition (similar to a heave line) along his stomach.
- Gives a feeling of having ‘power steering.’
- Maintains the same amount of contact (pressure on the reins) without the rider needing to shift hand position or change the length of the reins.
If the horse passes gas or manure without slowing down while he is working, it is a good sign that his back is up. Have you ever been riding your horse and suddenly thought to yourself, ‘Golly, this feels good!’ and then realized that he is doing a poop? If your horse goes to poop, don’t let him stop; keep him moving. There are three reasons for this.
- When the horse poops he has to lift his back to do it. If he stops, he is trying to tell you that he can’t lift his back and move at the same time. If you insist, he will learn that this is indeed possible, and is in fact necessary.
- When the horse passes manure while he is moving, it will help you to recognize and experience the feeling of your horse using his back.
- It is also a great indicator for you to feel the difference in the lift in his back. This will help you identify how much he is or isn’t using his back in your normal ridden work.
The first time he works his back consistently for half to three-quarters of an hour, he may pass gas and manure several times during the lesson – it is almost a ‘clean out.’ In subsequent sessions this might not happen to the same extent.
How often does your horse foam between the back legs and foam in the mouth? Foam between the back legs normally means that he has engaged and is working his back. Foam at the mouth normally means that the horse is relaxed in the poll and jaw. The ideal scenario is that he is sweating or foaming high up between the hind legs and at the bit, and the rest of his body is relatively dry (except perhaps under the saddle).
Some horses foam easily between the back legs for various reasons and, in that case, I am not always sure that they are working correctly. If it has not been normal for your horse in the past, it is a great sign if he does it in response to this training.
When you dismount, check with your hand for foam or sweat between the horse’s back legs. If it is dry the horse has not been working with quality.
When your horse starts using his back you may also observe the following signs:
- There will be a change in the fluidity and power in his movement.
- His hair will lie differently. It will generally lie more sleekly, and you may even see a slight change in the tonal colour. This can happen in a millisecond.
- The quality of the movement in the trot will alter. He will become softer, more powerful and easier to sit. (Some breeds can feel comfortable at trot even when they are not using their backs while others show a distinct change.)
Other Points to Note
Observation from the Ground
While the horse is moving, if he is using his back you can see the movement of the back muscles; there is elastic, springy action of the muscles behind the saddle along each side of the spine and the top of the hindquarters.
The way a horse carries his tail can be indicative of how he is using his back. When working, his tail should be carried with a soft arch and swaying gently. The manner of tail carriage is, to a small degree, determined by the breed/conformation of the horse, but only to a small degree – no alibis. Rigidly high indicates tension. Not carried and hanging low generally signifies that he is not using his back.
A crooked tail carriage may indicate a physical condition. Sometimes better use of his back will cause the horse to straighten his tail. Sometimes the horse will use his back better but not straighten his tail appreciably.
The loin area behind the saddle will probably look hard, tight, flat and/or sunken if the horse has not been using his back when working. With development, the loin starts to look and feel spongy, soft and fuller.
Breeds of horses with broad backs can be deceptive, and on these horses the loin is not the most obvious indicator. When a Thoroughbred starts using his back he shows rapidly a noticeable change in the muscular development in the loin area, while the horse with the broad back does not necessarily show such a quick and easily perceptible difference. In these horses the posture and reduction of the under neck muscle are better guides.
If you work the horse In-hand without the saddle, when you ask him to lift his back you will see:
From the side, that he grows taller and his top line from the withers to the croup can become almost straight instead of having so much of a ‘dip’ down. You will also see a definition of the stomach muscle (heave line). His neck will appear longer and he will generally arch it in a more elegant shape.
From the front, his lower belly (barrel) contracts and he will immediately look slimmer. (i.e. he could pass through a narrower gateway).
A TRUE STORY FROM A CANBERRA CLINIC.
This aged little horse had, as a result of an accident years before, lost part of his lower jaw. He always had his tongue hanging out -when riding or in the paddock.
I always tell people that the symptom of having the tongue out is only because the horse is not using his back. However, I had no expectation that Bonfire would be able to keep his tongue in. WOW! As soon as Rachel had him working in the ShoulderS-In, we were mesmerised to see this amazing little horse was able to keep his tongue inside his mouth. A simple snaffle bit and NO NOSEBAND.
It was one my big verifications that yes, even in a situation like this, if the horse's back is engaged the mouth will be still and the tongue will be – where it should be. The tongue is the last front muscle. (I really want to share this story, but would someone please verify that I have remembered Rachel & Bonfire is the correct names- comment below)
If, after going through the list above, you assess that the horse is not using his back correctly. It is a very good idea to make a PLAN of what sort of exercise you will need to make him strong.
Over and Out,
P.S. To which 3 identifying symptoms can you relate?
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