Training

Developing an Elastic "Trampoline" Back, Part 2

Practice these horse-training exercises to develop a freely moving horse.

The development of a supple and elastic “trampoline” back is an important part of helping your horse become a gymnastic athlete under saddle.

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. See Part 1 of this series for more details on what a supple back should look and feel like.

Get the Feel

The exercises I use to seek a more elastic back depend on the experience of the rider and the horse.

If I am trying to teach the rider to feel that trampoline back, I’m going to begin with longe-line lessons. I want to develop the rider’s independent, following seat.

Obviously, you need a safe longe horse that will allow the rider to learn. The rider should have a grab strap attached to the D-rings in front (if in an English saddle) or the horn (if in a western saddle) to hold. In the English saddle, hold on with three fingers, and if you feel like you’re losing your balance, pull up. The goal is to be able to ride without having to hold that strap or horn.

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I introduce these exercises at the walk, and then as the rider builds skill and confidence, I move to a trot and canter. The rider’s upper body must remain straight.

Walk the Stairs - lift one leg up and forward, as if you were marching up the stairs. Lift your inner thigh off the saddle until the only thing you feel is your seat bone. Alternate your legs. When you become comfortable, lift both legs at the same time. You want to feel your seat bones as the only point of contact with the horse, and feel your back wiggle freely, like a snake. Make sure your back doesn’t lock up to cheat and help lift the leg.

Bicycle - Rotate your hips around, lifting one leg up and out toward your horse’s head. Alternate legs, like you are pedaling the bicycle. This works your core and teaches your pelvis to move independently. You should feel as if you have become an assistant to this horse’s back. The horse is going to relax and begin to rise and fall at his own pace, and your hips and back will allow that movement to flow through. It should feel as if your pelvis is going 50 percent up and 50 percent forward. The horse will push your pelvis slightly forward, toward the pommel. You will feel it raise and lighten off the saddle. If you look down, you’ll see your belly. Then when the horse lowers you down, you come back to an up-and-down sitting position.

As you develop your ability to ride these gaits, you are developing a following seat that moves with your horse’s movement, and you are allowing the horse to move more freely. Once my student is able to take away her arms and legs and sit with that independent seat, she’s going to feel the horse truly coming through his back and allow that trampoline effect to happen.

Help the Horse Feel

If the horse is green, I’m going to develop his abilities through various exercises to increase his balance and carrying power. I want to develop the horse’s ability to step that hind leg up and under his rider, so I do a lot of this training on a circle, as opposed to a straight line. I start with a 20-meter circle, as the centrifugal force of the circle encourages him to step up and underneath, whereas a straight line might allow him to get wide behind.

Next, I encourage my horse to stretch forward and toward the bit, which in dressage we call “long and low.”

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On the circle, I encourage the horse to take my reins (gently, not greedily) and stretch toward the ground. There is a difference between the proper stretch and falling on the forehand and speeding up. The latter is incorrect. When the horse is balanced on all four feet, he is raising his withers and moving in balance, but he’s just reaching his head and neck down and forward and stretching that back up. Imagine if you were to reach down to your toes, you can see how your back comes up - and how the tightness increases if you go too far.

You will see a difference in how the horse travels. A horse that achieves this can open up his back and allow that “canal” of energy to flow forward. A good, balanced horse might pick up on this immediately, while a horse with a tight back might quit or stop, and an unbalanced horse might speed up or feel like he’s running off. This will tell you if you can move to the next step or if you need to continue to work where you are.

A horse’s muscles have to develop and change, and he is growing emotionally and physically. You could have a balanced horse one day, and the same horse will want to quit two days later. It may take time to solidify, but it is so important, which is why in the early levels of dressage competition, it is an exercise worth double points.

Another exercise is transitions within a circle. Sometimes you get your best trot after canter work. I’m going to ride on my 20-meter circle, then ask him to do a “yin-yang” change through the circle. I turn into the center of the circle and begin to ride a smaller circle (a 10-meter volte), changing the bend half way and repeating that half of the 10-meter volte so I end up going the opposite direction on the original 20-meter circle. This requires the hind end to sit and push more without gaining speed.

I do this at a canter, transitioning to a trot when I change bend, then transitioning back to the canter. I need to make sure my horse never loses forward energy in the circle or the transitions, and encourage that trampoline back. A horse tends to brace if he’s unbalanced (same with riders!), so circles are a good way to work through the issue.

For the more developed horse, I do what I call half transitions within a gait. I ask my horse to go at, say, 15 mph, then shift down to 10 mph, then back to 15. Eventually, I work my way to 5 mph, but if I ask him to go to 5 mph and he says, “I can do 7 mph but I can’t do 5 yet,” I need to take a step back to where I achieved success. I’m also going to vary the size of my circle, spiraling down from my 20-meter circle to a 15-meter circle, then back up. Eventually, I spiral down to a 10-meter volte. I’m going to keep my leg on him, not asking for an increase in speed, but to engage and lift up.

Lateral suppleness is also important. I might start with turns on the forehand or haunches to teach the horse how to step away from my inside leg. My goal is always to get that horse to come out in front of my leg, in balance.

Remember that every horse develops at a different pace. Some horses are naturally balanced, while some take time. Keep a metronome, that tick-tock of the proper rhythm, in your head, so if he does want to change his pace, you can help bring him back to that relaxed rhythm and always work to get that trampoline bouncing.