Horses Low In The Back, Swayback

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Question: Hi Julie,

I first saw you at the Midwest Horse Fair. I enjoyed your presentation. I have been riding for over 40 years and teaching riding for 30. I take lessons my self periodically to correct bad habits I may have developed. In some lessons I took about four years ago I was very pleased to be able to say that with the help of my instructor and many hours on a lounge line I was able to change my position. I sit much straighter and on my two seat bones. It is a deep seat with a long leg, I used to lean somewhat forward which attributed starting the many young horses we raised. The horse I took the lessons on had a somewhat “low” back. My instructor had me asking him to lift his back from the ground. I asked her if I made his back like that. She didn’t think so. The two young horses I am riding now seem to need the same exercise. I still wonder if it is me. A clinician I was watching on TV the other day instructed a rider to curl her butt under and round her back, saying if the rider has an forward curve in her back the horse will drop it’s back (and pop it’s head up). My back is soft and absorbs the horse’s motion. My hands and shoulders are quiet, but my horses are talking to me and I don’t know what they are trying to tell me.

Cheryl

Answer: Cheryl,

It is more likely that your horses are getting low in the back due to conformation, age and condition. The longer a horse’s back, the weaker it is. If a horse has a long back, as it ages and loses conditioning the back will begin to sag. Keeping those horses fit will certainly help. But the horse does have to get good exercise in a frame that causes him to use his back and abdominal muscles.

It is true that a horse will hollow out its back if the rider hollows hers (they will actually do this even when you are leading the horse from the ground). Interestingly, in almost everything that you do when riding, the horse will mirror your body position. If the rider drops her shoulder when she turns the horse, the horse will drop his shoulder. If the rider leans forward, the horse will get heavy on the forehand. But you do not need to round your back to get a horse to work in a rounded or collected frame. If you ride sitting nice and tall with your back straight and your pelvis open and you use your seat, legs and hands to ask the horse to work in a more collected frame, he will drop his head, flex at the poll, round his back and bring his hind-end up underneath him, elevating through his back and withers. When he does this, he uses his back and abdominal muscles more and that is what keeps his top-line muscled.

You may want to work your horses in a round pen to condition them in a rounded frame. Most people like to use side reins for this but I prefer to use an “elbow pull,” which teaches the horse to come off of the bit pressure and hold himself in the rounded frame rather than lean on the bit to hold the frame. I’ll attach another Q&A on that subject.

Don’t worry about causing the horse’s problem. Instead, work on conditioning your horse is a frame that requires him to use his back more.

Good luck!
Julie Goodnight, Clinician and Trainer

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