Importance of the Back for ‘Self-Carriage’ in the Horse

Self-carriage was never an issue for a free and wild horse, however, it became one when we climbed aboard. This is because the spinal column was designed to protect the spinal cord. It wasn’t designed for carrying or pulling weight. Stiffness or pathology in the back causes pain, turning naturally free motion into shortened, uneven, and painful strides. A horse in pain might learn, but he or she will remember any painful experience with prejudice, fear, suspicion and tension. Resistance becomes the horse’s only manner of self-preservation.

This article takes an in-depth look at the horse’s back as the most important and most delicate part of the horse. It explores what type of exercise helps develop the entire apparatus in order to assure soundness, strength, resilience, elasticity and most of all: comfort.

By contemplating the information presented here, you will expand your knowledge. By putting this information into practice, you will deepen your understanding, give meaning and effectiveness to your riding practices, and improve your horse’s performance.

The most wonderful by-product will be the reduction, alleviation or avoidance of pain, and a marked increase in grace, ease, and fluidity of gaits. You’ll naturally enjoy a deeper, more rewarding relationship with your horse.

The Equine Spinal Cord

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 ‘requirement’, something we must always keep in mind.

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. The bony segments of the spine called the vertebrae protect the spinal cord. The spinal cord is like a telegraph wire, which transmits 2-way nerve signals and has at one end, a special collection of nerves and glands called the brain, which is protected by the skull.

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.

Outgoing signals – intentions – traveling to specific parts of the body are translated into expressed intention such as changes in speed and direction, rearing, pawing, kicking, wheeling about and all other coordinated motions.

Incoming signals include pain from without, pain from within, pressure, heat/cold, strain, sights, smells, sounds and a plethora of sensory impulses that are then translated and processed by the brain (reflexive reactions for horses, like humans, aren’t ‘conscious’; it takes too much time… sometimes we ‘spook’ when someone startles us, and the thoughts come afterwards).

Things like curiosity and cooperation involve interaction with environmental objects and situations as well as relating to herd mates or humans. In other words, feedback loops; experiential cycles that can lead to deeper learning or can escalate fear.

There are unlimited possibilities of these actions/reactions that are taking place every moment of every day. We all (horses and humans) comprehend, form and retain memories body-wide, whether good or bad, whether we are consciously aware, or not.

Pain is part of this system, and it might seem odd to some, but emotional pain produces effects that are just as intense as physical pain. Sometimes it’s more complicated as it involves a different biochemistry and pathway. Emotional pain may at times be a silent ‘injury’ without a physical cause and may stem from psychological or mental stresses. Emotional pain may result in ‘unwanted behavior’, rather than a limp.

Physical pain also involves some sort of emotion or combination of emotions, however, 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. When a physical wound is healed, we tend to ‘leave it at that’ and get back to normal.

We overlook the cumulative nature and the consequences of aggregated emotional pain residue. 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.

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.

So, when we consider the training and education of any horse, we need to learn how to un-stress the stressed horse, and create a consistent experience of unconditional regard for the horse’s feelings. We need to be constantly involved in creating positive feedback loops for the nervous system of the horse in all situations in that horse’s life, especially when we are on their backs.

It may interrupt a training session for example, to dismount and hold a space of reassurance for the horse while he or she processes something they feel is a threat. It can provide that time and opportunity for the realization that there IS regard and camaraderie; that this regard and camaraderie is unfailing, unflinching, unwavering, loving and patient. The stressful object or situation may become less frightening in that Moment, and in the future. Emotional stability has a better chance of supplanting the whirlwind of threat racing through the horse’s mind and feelings…

Equine Spinal Anatomy

When we take part in all of our equestrian endeavors, it’s important to understand the structure 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 – including the brain. Weakness in the back can cause every kind of pain imaginable; from physical to emotional, and it may travel anywhere in the body and can manifest immediately, and/or several years down the road.

The following 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.

Take some time to really understand that the lumbar vertebrae (orange color tones) require ligaments, tendons and muscles to be well developed to remain aligned properly. Also, consider that weight emphasized by gravity puts a great deal of added pressure on the vertebrae, especially when that added weight and force is bouncing on the back due to motion.

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 self-carriage is an option, and 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).

The illustration below 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 3

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.

A young horse is naturally responding to back pressure, so to ask for ‘head set’ too early, focuses on aesthetics rather than a solid physical foundation. Pain will happen, sooner or later. It is also is the opposite of ‘self-carriage’, since the supporting elements of the trunk/core are mostly ignored.

Biomechanics: Over or Behind the bit vs. the Stretch

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.

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 4

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 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.

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 5
  • 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 6

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. There was ‘squirrely’ contact with the bit and a pronounced hollowness on one side and a slight unevenness in his gaits. The horse couldn’t balance on one rein, while leaning on the other. I could see the rider subtly ‘see-saw’ the reins…

It was 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, and 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.

Benefits of utilizing the full stretch

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.

Figure 7

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. It also strengthens the abdominal muscles and stability portions of the body, and allows the ‘movement muscles’ to move the body instead of diverting part of their strength to compensate. It prepares the horse and helps the horse truly learn to move naturally while carrying weight. This is a very important concept for riders and trainers to wrap their heads around.

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.

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.

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.

Figure 8

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.

Work your 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 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…

Most importantly, that’s why the health of horse’s back is so important; so that self-carriage may be the pride and joy of your horse once again, with you aboard.

Further your knowledge: 24 Behaviors of the Horse Ridden in Pain

Balancing Act by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann

Collection or Contortion? by Dr. Gerd Heuschmann

Dressage Principles Based on Biomechanics Dr. Thomas Ritter

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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