(It Don’t Mean A Thing If It Ain’t Got That Swing)
From time to time students in our online courses or in my clinics tell me about “helpful” comments from their instructors or other experts, such as: ”You can do all the movements and exercises in the world and they are useless if your horse is not working through the back,” or “If you don’t have the back, you have nothing”, or some variation on the same theme.
They are usually not intended to advance the student’s theoretical understanding and practical skills, but to make them feel bad because they point to a (supposedly) grave, detrimental mistake without giving them any practically useful tips on how to improve the situation. Or they pretend to be helpful by suggesting to ride the horse “lower and rounder”, or to “stretch forward-downward”.
However, these suggestions are usually useless, too, because they only mention an end result, without explaining the process of how to get there. Unfortunately, many horses won’t lower their neck or stretch forward-downward, if you simply release the reins, because the inversion or shortening of the neck is not caused by the rider’s hand. Consequently, the riders are unable to execute the suggestions and feel even worse about their riding ability.
But maybe we should ask ourselves what “through the back” actually means, how it feels, how it looks, and how you get there. Does the horse really automatically go “through the back” just because the head is down? What is the relationship between form and function? What do I do when I release the reins and the head stays where it is, i.e. the horse doesn’t stretch forward and down?
What do people mean when they talk about “the back” anyway? Who knows?! Sometimes everyone means something else, depending on their level of understanding and experience, and you have to translate their words into an objective, systematic, structural framework.
What Did The Old Masters Say?
When researching a subject it’s always a good idea to start by finding out what the old masters said about it. Interestingly, they didn’t say very much about it. The concept of the backmover or the swinging back is a relatively modern one. The first mention I could find in the literature is from the second half of the 19th century. Before that time, the swinging back was apparently not a priority, or at least it was not discussed in the literature.
Paul Plinzner (1888) writes: “The correctly raised back forms a firm, yet elastic, springy connection between the forehand and the haunches. It is therefore the prerequisite for regular, powerful, and elastic movements under the rider. Horses who arch their back this way in motion are called backmovers. One says they move with an elastically arched back.”
In a footnote to Gustav Steinbrecht’s Gymnasium Of The Horse, Plinzner writes: “The correct activity of the back produces a swinging movement and becomes evident to the rider by a swinging back and resilient chewing on the bit. A swinging back must therefore be one of the trainer’s main goals during the entire course of training.”
B.H.v.Holleuffer (1896) says: “The swinging (of the back, TR) is set in motion by the hind legs. It communicates itself through the spine to the head and the front legs and brings the horse to the bit at the same time.”
Otto de la Croix (1910) says: “If we look at the outline of the normal back mover, it becomes obvious at first sight that this frame is impossible to assume without a considerable stretch of the horse’s top line muscles. … But we can only stretch them by driving the hind legs underneath with a vertical nose.”
There are some important pointers in these short excerpts that we can work with:
- The back forms a firm, yet elastic, springy connection between the forehand and hindquarters.
- When the horse uses his back correctly, it produces a swinging motion.
- The swinging of the back originates in the motion of the hind legs and is communicated from back to front, vertebra by vertebra until it reaches the bit.
- The anatomically correct movement of the back requires a stretch of the top line muscles, which can only be created by engaging the hind legs with the horse being on the bit.
A Functional Description
When you read or hear descriptions about anything in dressage, you will find that in most cases crucial information is left out. Often people only mention superficial details that are more incidental while leaving out the really important factors. Or they confuse form and function, or cause and effect.
In my personal experience, the correct movement of the back is created by hind legs that not only engage under the body mass, but also flex in their upper joints, so that the pelvis tucks. This pelvic tuck raises the lumbar spine and the withers together with the base of the neck (which produces the so-called relative elevation), and it allows the poll to drop.
It requires well engaged core muscles in addition to engaged and flexed hind legs. As long as the core muscles are not engaged and as long as the hind legs are not flexing underneath the body, the horse’s back will drop and the top line muscles will contract. This is what is referred to as a leg mover.
The correct back activity results from an energy circuit that starts with the movement impulses of the hind legs. It travels along the horse’s spine to the bit and back through the rider’s seat to the hind legs. This energy circuit requires a certain rein contact. Without rein contact it will be very difficult to get the horse to engage his core and to flex his haunches. It is also impossible to utilize the weight of the horse’s head and neck to flex the hind legs.
How Does It Feel When The Horse Is Moving “Through His Back”?
When the back is “there” you are sitting on a so-called back mover:
- The back rises to fill your seat, and the ribcage expands to fill your legs.
- The horse opens his back, makes a comfortable place for you to sit, and pulls you into the movement.
- The neck stretches into the rein contact.
- The rein contact feels “alive”. You can feel the energy flow between the hind legs and the bit.
- The gaits feel smooth and round. They are comfortable to sit, even if they are big.
- The back feels like it moves in a big smooth wave that takes you with it without abrupt bumps or drops.
- You feel like you are sitting directly on the hind legs and the entire horse is in front of you.
- The withers are raised, and the base of the neck in front of the withers looks inflated. It’s the widest part of the neck.
- The aids go through the entire body and all parts of the body are within reach of the rider’s aids.
- All parts of the horse’s body are connected with each other and with the rider’s aids.
- The horse is connected to the ground and the weight through all 4 legs.
- After the ride, the loin muscles and croup muscles look inflated because of the increased blood flow to these muscles.
What Does It Look Like When The Horse Is Moving “Through His Back”?
- Harmonious, round, and smooth
- The horse seems to glide across the ground.
- The rider is able to sit quietly in the horse, rather than being jostled about on top of the horse.
- The legs seem to be moving like the spokes of a wheel, rather than stabbing the ground.
- The gaits are noiseless.
- All body parts seem to be connected and to communicate with each other.
- The withers are lifted and the top line stretches.
- The croup looks round, and all joints of the hind legs open and close, instead of just the lower joints moving.
How Do You Get There With Your Horse?
The descriptions in books and articles on dressage theory usually paint a pretty picture where everything is perfect. But the reality is usually not perfect. Many horses don’t react the way the books describe it. They won’t stretch down if you release the reins. They won’t go forward if you drive. They won’t bend around the inside leg. They won’t stretch into the outside rein. And they won’t lift their back because they don’t know that they are supposed to do all those things, or they don’t know how to do them because nobody has taught them, or their conformation makes them difficult, or they lack the necessary body awareness…
That’s why so many standard instructions are utterly useless. Most riders are perfectly aware when their horses are not on the bit, when they won’t stretch, or when they are not using their back properly. So it’s not helpful to point those things out. What the riders need help with is understanding WHY the horses are acting this way, WHAT is preventing them from moving correctly, and HOW to get them there.
When you go through the checklists above and find out that your horse is not using his back properly, ask yourself why that is. You can narrow it down by investigating the following questions:
- Are the horse’s legs moving on the correct lines, or is one leg escaping sideways?
- Are the hind legs stepping enough under the body?
- Are the hind legs flexing in their upper joints?
- Can you shift the weight from one side of the body to the other?
- Are there body parts that feel stiff, hard, or immobile?
- Can you feel the hind legs in your hand?
- Can you feel the reins in your core muscles?
You will most likely find areas that could use some improvement, especially if your horse is not moving through the back. One or more of the factors in this list are preventing the horse from using his back correctly. When you have identified the right ones, you already have the solution.
The old masters used to say that balance and suppleness are the corner stones of dressage. They are also the foundation of the correct back movement. Balance is established by riding accurate arena patterns in a steady tempo that is neither too fast nor too slow. That’s where we have to start.
As a next step, we scan the horse’s body for stiffnesses by riding exercises that address the shoulders, the hips, the spine, and the rib cage. If we find a lack of suppleness in one of these muscle groups, we mobilize it through exercises that target the problem area.
- The shoulders are suppled with voltes, figure eights, serpentines, corners, turns on the haunches, passades, and pirouettes.
- The hips are suppled with turns on the forehand in motion and lateral movements.
- The spine is suppled with changes of bend, and changes and direction.
- The rib cage is suppled by combinations of turns, lateral movements, and changes of bend and direction.
In most cases, we will have to bring the hind legs more under the body and flex them with the help of the body mass. The most effective way of doing this is generally to
engage the hind leg with a shoulder-in or counter shoulder-in related movement, and
to flex it with the help of the body mass by riding a corner or a turn on the haunches, by stopping into this hind leg, by riding a reinback, or a combination of two or more of these movements.
As you can see, there is not always an easy, straight-forward path to the desired outcome. Often, you can’t just release the reins, or lower the horse’s head in order to get the horse to go through the back. The horse doesn’t automatically go through the back just because the head is down and the neck is round. But the neck will be round and the poll will be relaxed when the back is moving correctly, and the back is moving correctly, when the hind legs are flexing under the body mass and the horse’s core muscles are engaged. Sometimes it’s a process of balancing, straightening, and suppling the horse, before he shows any desire or motivation to release his poll and lift his back, especially when his conformation is working against him, or if he has built up many years of the wrong postural habits. In those cases, you may not be able to change his posture fundamentally in five minutes, or in five days. But you need to be patient and gradually develop a better body awareness, a better balance, and a better posture in the horse.
But almost all horses will ask you if they are allowed to stretch and lift their back, once they are carrying themselves with their hind legs because it feels more comfortable to them. The rider needs to notice this moment and offer the horse a slightly lighter seat and a slightly longer rein to allow the lifting of the back and the stretch of the top line.
We have compiled a free PDF of all the important points and checklists contained within this article. Just click the button below to go grab it!
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