Developing an Elastic "Trampoline" Back, Part 1

Heed these horse-training techniques to develop a freely-moving horse.

In dressage, we seek to gymnastically bring our horse through a full range of movement. We develop this using what we call the training pyramid. The pyramid is a guideline to develop a horse’s strength, power of impulsion and carrying power that eventually results in

collection. Every equine athlete has the ability to develop this. One of the basic components of this development that we seek is what we call “throughness,” the development of a supple and elastic “trampoline” back.

A horse that is “through” is a horse that is moving freely from the back to the front. The hind legs push him forward, and that thrust of energy moves through him from the back to the front, like free-moving water through a canal. The swing from the hind legs jumps to his center of gravity, and he will track up with his hind leg (placing his hind foot in the hoofprint of his front foot), or overtrack (hind foot extending beyond the fore foot print). He engages his abdominal core muscles, lifts his back and the energy flows up to the bit.

The effect the rider feels is of an elastic bounce. Imagine bouncing on a trampoline, and envision that elastic lift and drop with each cycle. The above description is the upswing of the trampoline. The energy just rolls through his body with no restriction, which means he can move athletically.

A horse that has a locked back might not be pushing with his hind end (he may be pulling himself along on his forehand), or maybe the rider has locked the horse with her aids, so she doesn’t get that trampoline effect. The horse will feel as if his back is a board, stiff and unyielding, with no swing, no energy moving through.

If you want to get started in the sport of reining, you’re going to need to learn how to select the right horse, equipment and coach. AQHA’s “Reining for the Rider” DVD will teach you all of this and more.

Think of water moving through a garden hose - tight and restricted. If the horse is being ridden front-to-back, if the rider is using too much hand to force the horse to slow down or to frame up, the horse cannot come through because he’s being blocked. The force of energy from the bit - that “No, stop!” energy the horse feels - will make him feel defensive about the bit, and the energy gets trapped. He will become locked.

In addition, the rider also has to have an elastic, swinging back and hip to absorb the motion of a horse moving correctly. If the rider has a locked back or is clamping with her legs and is bouncing in the saddle, that will make the horse feel defensive and cause him to lock his back.

Some horses are born with an ability to balance, and some horses must develop it through time. Self-carriage is the horse’s ease and willingness to step into that contact and carry, and it is much easier for him to move in balance. A swinging back is a building block in the process of developing an educated horse. The rider needs to encourage that trampoline back early in the horse’s career by allowing him to move freely forward and develop the strength he needs for collection.

If a horse has a very thick, enlarged muscle on the bottom of his neck, it will take longer to develop that trampoline. The enlarged under muscle indicates that the topline is not developed, and instead of being properly through, the energy hits the shoulders and stops, and he becomes hard. The energy can’t come through correctly.

It takes a champion rider to show a champion reining horse. AQHA’s “Reining for the Rider” DVD was designed by Al Dunning to help you develop the skills you need to successfully show in reining classes.

The development of the swinging back is where to start. Developing that horse with a good topline over the back can offer carrying power with ease and willingness. I will develop my horse in a long and low position, allowing the horse to work through his back while developing that push and thrust from the hind end. As I ask him to rock back, collect and subsequently slow his gaits, the swing should still be there.

A good indication of a horse comfortable with his job is a swinging tail. If you watch your horse travel at a trot, the tail should swing gently from side to side via the movement of the horse’s two-beat gait. You will see the horse’s hind legs swing up and under toward the girth area, and the tail should move in rhythm. His body is relaxed, his topline is lifting and carrying, and his tail is swinging. He’s ready to progress.

If he is uncomfortable or if he’s not ready, he will complain - he engages the under muscles of his neck, he gets cranky or he starts wobbling around or breaking gait. These are signs he’s struggling and needs you to step back and refocus on moving forward and swinging until he has relaxed.

Check back next week for Part 2, where you will learn exercises to develop an elastic back.