By Stacey Kollman
Desert Horse Equestrian Services
Most riders know their horses should lift their backs and initiate forward movement from the hindquarters. But many, especially those new to riding, don’t really know how to tell whether the horse is actually doing this.
If you’re one of those people who’s not quite sure you can feel when your horse is lifting his back to carry himself and you, there’s a simple exercise to help you experience the feeling.
First, you’ll need to teach your horse a basic back lift. To do this, start by standing just behind the horse’s shoulder, facing straight across the base of his withers. Bend your knees a bit and reach the both hands underneath just behind the forelegs. Feel for the hard structure under the skin right on the midline – that’s the sternum or breastbone.
If you follow that bone back a few inches toward the tail, your fingers will find a depression at the end of the bone at about the spot where your girth or cinch crosses. Place both hands side-by-side underneath your horse in that area, with your fingers curled slightly so the tips point up. Put some upward pressure with two to four fingers to ask your horse to lift the base of his withers and his back. (You might find a little fingernail pressure is needed at first, especially if your horse’s back muscles are generally tight.) Hold this lift for two to three breaths.
You’ll have the best luck when the horse’s muscles are warmed up a bit from light exercise. For safety, be aware that most horses can easily kick at a fly, or an annoying human trying to induce a “sit-up,” and reach that very spot with a hind hoof. Take your time so he is comfortable with the exercise – no trying to bite or kick or walk away while you’re asking him to do his “pony crunches.”
Next, recruit an assistant and teach him or her to ask your horse to lift his back using the same technique. Once everyone is comfortable with the lifts, it’s time for you to mount. You can do this exercise in any kind of well-fitting saddle. Or, get on bareback or with a bareback pad if you feel safe doing that. Pick up the reins with enough contact to ask your horse not to move his feet.
Have your assistant stand next to your horse at the girth, facing right at your hip, and reach carefully under the horse with one or both hands. Depending on where the girth or cinch is positioned, he might place both hands just behind or one behind and one in front. With fingertips curved to face straight up, ask the horse to lift its back and hold the lift for three to five nice, slow breaths before releasing.
To encourage and allow the horse to lift fully, you’ll need to create space for his back to come up underneath your seat and legs. That means you should sit evenly on your seatbones with your shoulders over your hips and your legs draped around the horse’s barrel. Squeezing your thighs or pinching your knees will discourage the horse’s back lift by decreasing the space he can lift into. (There’s a reason the part of the horse you’re sitting on is called the “barrel.” Think of that as you position the lower part of your body.)
The handler’s balance is important, too. She should be aligned shoulder over hips over feet. By bending her knees in this posture, she is lifting from her legs – essentially pushing into the horse’s midline – instead of trying to pull up with her back and shoulders. That helps both handler and horse create a sustained lift so the rider can adjust, opening his hips and allowing his legs to drape softly.
If your assistant can successfully induce a back lift with just one hand, you might ask her to gently hold your horse by the bridle so you can close your eyes during the lift. For some people, this helps them better focus on feeling the movement. Do you notice the weight shifting from front to back during the lift? Does your horse telescope his neck forward and connect with your hands on the reins? Can you feel the horse connecting his back into your seatbones?
That feeling of the horse creating an elastic-but-stable platform for you to sit on is what you will experience when your horse is working in self-carriage. You’ll have a more comfortable ride, your horse will be better able to respond to subtle cues and both of you will decrease concussion that can lead to soreness and injury.
Note: Most sound horses should be able to learn and do these exercises in one or two sessions. If your horse’s back just won’t lift, it might be time to contact your veterinary chiropractor or other equine bodyworker.
Stacey Kollman, of Desert Horse Equestrian Services is a Tucson, Arizona, horse and rider biomechanics coach and horse rehabilitator whose work centers on helping horses live healthy and happy lives. For more information visit Desert Horse Equestrian Services.