Self-Carriage in the Horse

Benefits of utilizing the full stretch

This is an in-depth view of working a horse with a fully stretched back and neck; where the nose is close to the ground and stays there for as long as possible through corners, circles, transitions and changes of direction. Self-carriage was never an issue for a free and wild horse, however, it became one when we climbed aboard. Just what is it, how do we know it’s there, and why is it important? By contemplating the information presented here, you can decide whether or not the full stretch development of the sport or pleasure horse is of value to you.

The Equine Back

The equine spine evolved as an intricate part of the horse in its growing abilities to out-maneuver threats, travel over varied and sometimes unforgiving terrain, endure challenging environmental conditions, and basically live on four legs without much respite.

While the neck and tail can move quite a lot, the back has limited mobility and flexibility. More importantly, it has the unique and essential role as the only connecting rod between the hindquarters and forequarters. Limited twisting and bending protect the spinal cord, which translates and transmits all desired movement into expressed intention such as changes in speed and direction, rearing, pawing, kicking, wheeling about and all other coordinated motions.

The equine spine didn’t evolve for the purpose of, or in preparation for carrying or pulling weight. Weight bearing and weight pulling was and always has been a human ‘intervention’, something we must always keep in mind.

The vertebrae house and protect the spinal cord and its spinal fluid; an intricate, sophisticated network of communication through nerve cells, currents, electro-magnetism, and biochemistry. It delivers and receives messages throughout the entire body, and even extends beyond those physical boundaries.

The horse’s nervous system evolved over hundreds of millions of years, providing them with their subjective sensations; the ability to feel and ‘process’ inner and outer worlds, and, together with ‘consciousness’, allowed them participate in feedback loops of experiences.

A modern example might be: ‘nibble the gate latch (curiosity, playful, no intention), gate latch moves (feedback: learning something). The next ‘try’ is a result of that feedback. There’s a change that can’t really be quantified, however, nibble gate latch (more focused curiosity, or intention), gate opens (feedback: freedom, Yay! grass!!)’. Something is learned ‘forever’, as long as the gate latch remains the same.

There are unlimited possibilities of feedback loops, absolutely necessary for the survival of any species. Of these, we all comprehend, form and retain memories body-wide, whether good or bad, conscious or subconscious.

The brain is included in this wonderful highway of light-speed impulses, however, in the vertebrate family, it is housed and protected by a different bony structure called the skull.

Pain is part of this system, and the nervous system (nerves, spinal cord, brain) also conducts pain messages. It might seem odd to some, but emotional pain produces effects that are just as intense as physical pain. It is sometimes more complicated; as it involves a different biochemistry and pathway. Physical pain always involves some sort of emotion or combination of emotions, however, emotional pain may fly solo, meaning it’s a silent ‘injury’ without a physical cause. It’s harder to identify because it may stem from psychological or mental sources.

We tend to regard acute pain and visible lameness as something that appears because of an obvious and explainable event or accumulation of damaging activities. We tend to overlook the cumulative nature and the consequences of aggregated ‘negative’ emotional residue, whether it has psychological or physical causes… or both. We tend to categorize the emotions involved in a negative feedback loop as ‘behavioral’ problems, separating the physical problems out, and treating them differently. When a physical wound is healed, we tend to ‘leave it at that’.

Pain stemming from unprocessed emotional trauma, and pain stemming from traumatic physical injury, are absolutely interchangeable, although treatment is very different.

Scientists have been baffled by chronic pain and have even reported that ‘chronic pain has no purpose’. But now, because of research emerging from combined segments of expertise such as ‘psychoneuroimmunology’, and ‘psychoneuroendocrinology’, we can now see the part emotions play not only psychological outcomes, but their effect on behavioral ‘traits’, immune systems, hormonal systems, nervous systems and general health outcomes. Because of these relatively new areas of study, we can now understand how emotional pain can get biochemically trapped in body, and how it can be released.

This is something we haven’t considered: buried and ‘latent’ emotional pain may not cause instantaneous physical pain, but it can and does accumulate in any cellular group including muscular tissue, bone, organs, skin… dis-ease becomes de-hyphenated and forms disease…

Emotional pain (or strain) can and does cause chronic pain or ‘illness’ years down the road, making complimentary treatments and therapies increasingly sought after and regularly applied.

When we take part in all of our equestrian endeavors, it’s important to understand the nature of the equine back. We rely so implicitly on the ‘stable housing’ and protection of the spinal cord, its nerves and the entire nervous system. Weakness in the back can cause every kind of pain imaginable; from physical to emotional, and it may travel anywhere in the body and will manifest immediately, and/or several years down the road.

Equine Spinal Anatomy

The main topic to be considered, is in asking an unnaturally burdened horse to move; what type of movement is most beneficial for that horse’s physical development, emotional stability and the enrichment of his conscious mind with education, practices and experiences?

Just how do we nurture ‘self-carriage’ in the horse? How do we encourage the strength and ability they would develop naturally within our imposed circumstances? How can we encourage them to move as if they weren’t burdened by weight and constrained by reins (and attitude, expectation and judgement)?

Starting with physical structure helps:

This illustration provides a top view of the horse’s vertebrae with the skull, scapula (shoulder blades), and pelvis. There are also views of the 5th cervical, 1st thoracic, and 3rd lumbar vertebrae showing the hole (foramen) through which the spinal cord fits.

Figure 1

When we put a saddle on the horse’s back and place ourselves in it, first and foremost, we need to restore the horse’s ‘original and natural motion’, so that true harmony between horse and rider can be achieved.

The ‘Back’ is Everything

Muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments and joints all need time to grow in strength while the horse learns how to navigate with not only weight, but a higher combined center of gravity. This new paradigm changes a horse’s perception of their own balance and alters their natural length of stride, tempo, rhythm, agility and confidence.

Figure 2

Initially, being unaccustomed to its pressure, the back hollows slightly when weight is placed on it. A consequence is the tilting ‘inward’ of the pelvic and shoulder girdles, angling the hind legs backward and the front legs forward. The saw horse on the left represents a body that is strong and full of potential. The depiction on the right helps us visualize what happens when weight is placed on a spine that is young and impressionable. A young horse tends to ‘go above the bit’ because they aren’t used to the weight and pressure (Arabians are generally an exception).

A young horse is naturally responding to back pressure, so to ask for ‘head set’ too early, would focus on aesthetics rather than a solid physical foundation. Pain will happen, sooner or later.

In order to provide a ‘counter’ balance and build the back, the horse must learn how to carry his nose close to the ground while moving under the weight of the rider. A horse’s head is very heavy, acting as a counter weight in a connected pulley system.

In addition, while moving in this ‘grazing’ position, vital senses including eyes, ears, whiskers and the very sensitive nose and nostrils are at the fore. The horse naturally takes a longer, slower stride, to assure balance and protection. After some time, the horse learns how to relax the long dorsal muscles, allowing the spine and ribs to move normally with every step and every breath.

The complete stretch creates space for a freer pelvis, hip, and sacro-iliac joint. Hind legs moving well under the body frees the shoulder joint. Contrary to the belief of some, the full stretch does not ‘dump weight’ onto the forehand, but just the opposite; it ‘lightens’ the forehand, because it has to. A horse doesn’t want to trip and thrust his sensitive nose into the ground… breath is life…

It’s an amazing opportunity for horse and rider, not only because the horse traveling in that position has their panoramic 360 degree vision available to them making them feel ‘safer’, it is the best counter measure for imposed weight on the back.

A horse that is worked in a full stretch on the straight line, through corners and on circles at the walk, trot and canter, will develop springy, elastic, powerful gaits that are much easier to ride and much healthier for the horse. Resilient, supple muscles, built ‘from the ground up’, reduce injuries to both spine and limb.

A horse will begin feeling very confident in responding to riders’ requests given this foundation. It takes quite a while to establish and practice, but given the benefits, it’s well worth it.

I’ve consistently used this as a foundation for young horses, for physical therapy, for re-schooling, and have successfully used it as a warm-up and warm-down for Grand Prix horses and Carriage Driving horses. Good principles are simply good practices.

Not only does it establish trust and comfort, it supports appropriate oxygenation of tissues and helps prevent the accumulation of any ‘kinks’ or spasms that may develop during work.

A horse that exhibits true self carriage can self regulate through the paces, is happy and pain free, ears up so to speak. Their ‘paces’ are free and powerful with rhythm, regularity and brilliance for their build and individual gifts.

We do see many horses moving brilliantly, and although they are impressive, there are signs that self-carriage is inconsistent. Problems in the hind end manifest in bitting problems, and we see loads of horses competing with crucial faults; most often betrayed by facial expression because they have no other ‘acceptable’ outlet. Nosebands are tightened beyond reason, figure-eights, flash, dropped nosebands adding leverage to the rider; loss of cadence in strides and dressage movements… the list goes on.

Many professionals and amateurs are training their horses using a technique that ‘over-bends’ the neck. It harkens back to a school of thought and practice that ‘over-bending’ yields more suppleness. However, as the decades of over-use without truly understanding the theory and its careful application pass by, it has lost its benefit and has evolved into a ‘disengagement’ of the back and hind end just as damaging as going over the bit mile after mile. Since it looks better than going over the bit, and since its easier to ride, it’s not only tolerated, but promoted.

Biomechanics: Over or Behind the bit vs. the Stretch

Full stretch shouldn’t be confused with a common frame many people use to work horses, where the neck might seem long, but the head is curled over. It’s seen in all disciplines, but is technically referred to as going over the bit or behind the bit.

Figure 3

Traveling over or behind the bit has several disadvantages that inhibit self-carriage and the development of self-confidence. In terms of self-carriage, we’ve mostly been concerned with the physical aspect. However, it also implies a healthy ’emotional and mental’ carriage that should also be carefully considered.

Here are a few elements of traveling over or behind the bit that are of concern:

  • Looking down limits forward vision, which is not only unsafe, it robs the horse of vital information (think about driving your car and looking only at the road just in front of you). Literally, the horse can’t see well into the distance, and for a far-sighted creature, it’s stressful. The horse ‘has’ to depend on the rider (or driver) to supply the bigger picture, which changes the relationship dynamics in a subtle and demeaning way. It reduces the use of a vital sense, whether it’s intentional or not. We want our pleasure and sport horses to be drawn into the landscape or into the far end of the arena with not only their eyes, but with all their senses. Momentum that is drawn forward rather than driven forward has an air of levity and effortlessness.
  • The horse ‘drops’ the bit (regardless of the type of bit, and regardless of the type or tightness of the noseband), evading contact with the reins. Contact evasion is a symptom, not of the mouth, but of weaknesses or issues in the hindquarters. But since reins are an important aid for speed and direction for the driver, it’s entirely unsafe. If the horse were to take off, the driver (or rider) would find an unresponsive ‘mouth’.
  • The back and hind end of the horse aren’t properly developed for strength and balance. Physical strains and gait anomalies find their roots in the building of uneven tensions and work loads, and this ‘frame’ fosters small adaptations and compensations that don’t become apparent until much later in a horse’s career.

Many horses in many disciplines are worked with an ‘over the bit’ frame. The gaits become low and slow. The Western jog and ‘lope’ for example, are very slow without much spring. They are is easy to sit to and very comfortable. The joints in the hind legs aren’t cycling with full range and therefore, the front legs aren’t either. The type of gait is more toward a shuffle.

In a dressage horse, we are asking for much more in the gaits. We need more impulsion as we desire to transform pushing power into pushing/carrying power and pushing/carrying power into collecting and extending power. We need the joints working at more of their medium to full range, and for the entire apparatus to accommodate that. The sitting trot in dressage, even in the most comfortable horses is active, springy and powerful. It’s not that easy to sit to, and thus, the temptation to impede the gait is ever-present.

Many times riders will unconsciously prefer the curled headset because it ‘subjugates’ the trot and makes it easier to manage. It’s understandable. The sitting trot isn’t easy to master technically, especially when riding a big, athletic horse, an Arabian, or cultivating rhythm and tempo in an inexperienced horse (or one off the track)… the rider’s back needs to be super supple.

A back that is underdeveloped will be more noticeable in the dressage horse; the trot may be bouncy and comfy, but lacking in real power. When impulsion is really asked for, a horse will find their joints ‘jammed’ by the angle of the pelvic and shoulder girdle, and will naturally compensate in some way. Ribs become displaced, ligaments stretched or shortened, muscles building in ‘tell-tale’ formations…

‘Impact’ is also a consideration. Forward momentum (speed) directly effect joints of every kind, including inter-vertebral joints.

Some of these compensations are highlighted in the illustration above by the circles and arrows become increasingly highlighted. Starting from mid-back:

  • The arrow in the middle shows a downward force on the spine that is not counter balanced. This draws vertebrae closer together, compresses nerves, spinal cord, inter-vertebral disks, blood vessels, stretches lower ligaments and shortens upper ligaments (and so on). Stress on the vertebrae and supportive apparatus may cause ribs rotate, which effects more of the body…
  • The second arrow, toward the tail shows the pelvis rotated ‘clockwise’ and sacrum being tilted up.
  • The ‘hind’ circle with the orange arrow points to several problems by the tilting of the pelvic girdle, which puts a great deal of strain on the hip joint. Some horses become ‘camped out’ behind, not because it’s a conformational flaw, but because their muscles have been trained to be that way (conformed). This also puts more stress on the deep flexor tendon and the suspensory ligaments of the hind legs.
  • The big curved arrow shows that even though a horse may ‘track up’, the carrying power to truly ‘lighten’ the forehand is transferred backward, causing the forehand to carry more. This type of conditioning builds the shoulder and chest muscles accordingly.
  • The ‘front’ circle with the orange arrow shows the pressure from a ventro-flexed spine on the shoulder joint, jamming it in a way that inhibits the weight bearing phase and range of motion backwards. It puts a lot of strain on the lower legs of the horse.

As these compensations get formalized after months and years of training, they are sorely tested when we start asking the horse for a higher head-set.


In the following depiction, the red head and neck represent over the bit, the light blue a frame that is preferable to over the bit, but not as beneficial as the full stretch, and the dark blue head and neck have a purple oval with yellow dotted lines. The pink circles are the shoulder and hip joints.

The reason for the purple oval with the yellow dotted lines, is that when the head is held higher, combined with weight in the middle of the back, it strongly adds to the tendency for the horse to hollow the back (Fig. 2). In order to properly develop self-carriage of the ‘complete embodied horse’, leading ultimately toward collection, the development of the back needs to be absolutely thorough, through and correct. Otherwise, misalignment and restrictions on the horse’s body will become increasingly pronounced and painful.

We don’t want to create and add to harmful conditions by asking for a higher head and neck carriage before the rest of the body is ready. We don’t want the horse to ‘push’ his head and neck up higher, jamming the trachea and jaw, which is the larger compensation for the lack of physical self-carriage, we want the horse to ‘pull’ his head and neck up higher and hang his head gracefully from the poll. This allows for an open mandibular joint and a relaxation of the jaw.

Slight discomforts will grow into painful conditions… and those painful conditions activate emotional responses, which, without a healthy remedy, the sympathetic nervous system engages and more stress hormones are produced.

Figure 4

Consider working your dressage horse in a two-point position as a warm-up to emphasize proper (full) stretching. If the horse travels above the bit at times (which can shorten and quicken strides), rating, forward momentum and stretching will help. Following contact with the bit is important, so raising the hands vertically is necessary. If the horse travels behind or over the bit at times, forward momentum should be encouraged along with finding contact with the bit by moving the hands forward up the neck; more horizontally…

The top vertebrae illustration depicts a healthy, normal section of the spine, and just below, the effects of a back whose muscles haven’t been stretched and strengthened sufficiently.

It shows closing of the bones and shortening of dorsal inter-vertebral ligaments, the changing of angles, and imagine, the rotation of one bone in order to make room for another; kind of like crooked teeth. The inter-vertebral disks get compressed on one side, stretched on another; the spinal cord is compressed, and spinal fluid clogged. Nerve impulses are effected, pain is created, and many times, horses will buck, try to evade certain directions, certain movements, certain types of work… they may be irritable, anxious, or, some just take it until they can’t anymore, and develop ulcers and digestive ailments, chronic lameness, depression, vulnerability to diseases…

Figure 5

Take some time to lay your hands on your horse’s spine when they are quietly grazing or eating hay. Feel all the incredible ‘micro’ movements in the muscles and ligaments when the horse is chewing, and lifting his head from time to time, occasionally turning it one way or another. These tinier movements aren’t translated through saddle pads and saddles, but it’s important to comprehend and integrate into your own cells and cellular knowledge. As you become more aware from the ground, you’ll become a more insightful rider.

To further illustrate the long term effects of improper development and moving the horse up the levels too soon, or moving the horse up the levels without a decent foundation, take a look at a Third Level Dressage horse pictured as a three year old on the left, then as a twelve year old on the right:

Figure 6
  • The horse lost use and tone in musculature that was building a nice crest in his neck, and instead created more of a bulge underneath.
  • His chest ‘sank’, his abdomen ‘sank’, his spine became ‘bumpy and curved’, bulging in the lumbar region.
  • His croup became more horizontal, his tail-set and tail-carriage flattened, in fact, his tail had sunken in between his buttocks
  • His hind quarter musculature below the ‘seat bone’ was developed as a compensation to help propel his body forward. These muscles had to quickly draw the hock back up to keep time with the front legs, because the hind legs were ‘camped out’, meaning that when he traveled, his hind feet landed in places a few inches behind where they were meant to.
Figure 7

Not shown: His ‘shoeing’ was terribly awkward; his hind shoes had heels to relieve tendon and ligament tension and to help him travel evenly and soundly. He was like a frog in hot water with the temperature getting ever hotter… and no one reversed this process during his competitive career (Third Level Dressage)… not the Internationally recognized trainer, not the owner, not the farrier(s), not the vet(s).

The demonstration ride was filled with this ‘half-stretch’ and ‘over or behind the bit’ form of travel in all three gaits. When I got on, I found ‘squirrely’ contact with the bit and a pronounced hollowness on one side. I could feel the unevenness in his body and his gaits. The horse couldn’t balance on one rein, while leaning on the other. I was told to see-saw the reins… something that so many riders are taught as a response to much deeper problems. It’s not a solution, it’s a cover-up.

On a scale of 1 to 10, ‘bounce’ was about a 3. The real power that should have been propelling this horse – especially a higher level horse – was completely missing. There was a cross-canter, a fumble at the lead change, non-existent counter-canter, and a lackluster extension at the trot. Joints were ‘closed’ or congested, each to their own degree, muscles (at least) were shortened and impeded, each group and fiber to its own degree… and so on.

A well trained horse becomes more beautiful and his gaits more graceful… simple as that. Dressage should empower and enhance the natural gifts of any horse, let alone a Warmblood bred for the discipline.

The curled neck and the weakened back unwittingly promoted micro-tensions to build and accumulate. There’s just no way a rider or trainer can state that the over-bend method will produce a properly balanced horse, especially as tail swishing lead changes, ear pinning, wrinkled nostrils, evident stress and tension, four beat canter pirouettes, labored piaffes dominate arenas everywhere as a result. It took nine years of ‘benign neglect’, shameless ambition and a blind eye to the obvious, to render the horse depicted above, to the state of dysfunction and discomfort he suffered with.

Still, it was impressive to see this horse move without weight on his back. He was through and through a talent, and at 17.2hh, everything about him was big, especially his generosity, his heart and willingness to please through pain.

The bad news is that it took a long time to shape/train/condition this horse’s body into one that was so uncomfortable for him to live in. The good news is that a physical re-shaping can occur, even though it may take a year or more.

It takes time, patience, understanding and loads of giving and forgiveness, to build health from that regrettable deficit.

Discomforts will continue for quite some time while stretching is introduced and practiced. It takes a lot of time to positively and consistently oxygenate tight ligaments in-between the vertebrae and other bone to bone connections. It takes time to stretch muscles and tendons. It takes time for joints to regain range.

It takes time for the horse to travel comfortably, but new strength and balance will come.

Figure 8

The stretch as a foundation allows the joints, shown by the circles, to remain open and free, while stretching the topline. This in turn, allows space for the spinous processes of the vertebrae to move as they’re supposed to while the back muscles are strengthened.

  • Full stretching tilts the pelvis downward and positions the hind legs underneath the horse more, making it easier for carrying ability to develop evenly, and build the basis for naturally lightening the forehand (shown by the big curved arrow).
  • The upward arrow highlights the building of abdomen (core) musculature that occurs because the hind legs are working as if they are going ‘up stairs’ and closer to the center of gravity. This also greatly supports the spine and the all important psoas muscles (the only group that actually connects the hind legs to the spine).

The full stretch also helps maintain proper alignment of the spine and vertebrae, by helping the horse relax both of the long back muscles equally. From this foundation, both sides of the shoulder, neck and hind quarters can also be developed more evenly.

When there is release and relaxation, there is no tension… they just can’t exist simultaneously. That’s why the full stretch should be encouraged for long periods of time at the beginning of training, re-training or providing the horse with physical therapy on the lunge, in long lines or under saddle. The longer the periods of release and relaxation, the shorter the periods of tension…

Further Study:

Compassionate Training for Today’s Sport Horse by Karin Leibbrandt DVM

Balancing Act by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann

Collection or Contortion? by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann

Dressage Principles Based on Biomechanics Dr. Thomas Ritter

Dressage Principles Based on Biomechanics Dr. Thomas Ritter PDF format

The Gymnasium of the Horse by Gustav Steinbrecht

Positive Retraining for the Poorly Ridden Horse an article by Dr. Heuschmann published by Dressage Today

Equine Biomechanics: Head and Neck Position with Gerd Heuschmann online course

Giving softens the horse…” ~ Gerd Heuschmann DVM

Please let me know if you have questions! Besides responding to you, your questions and comments provide excellent topics for more articles and illustrations…

Published by Adrienne

Researcher | Author | Illustrator | Equine Energy Technician | Classical Dressage Published work: "Coherent Horsemanship: Combining the Quantum and the Classical" - 2020 AHP Award Winner for Excellence in Equine Media, "Legendary Hearts of Horses" - Readers’ Favorite 5-Star Reviews, EQUUS Film & Arts Fest Official Selection

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