How to Tell if a Horse's Back is Weak or Strong (and how to strengthen it)
A back standing in a stall is a back losing muscle tone.
Why do we care whether a horse has a strong back?
- We ask the horse to be an athlete for us. At the very least he must go somewhere carrying us like a backpack, which means he has to be stronger and better-balanced than if he were not carrying our weight. If we are not a very balanced rider, he has to be athletic enough to compensate for our frequent losses of balance.
- If we ask for higher levels of athletic performance, we are asking the horse to be supremely balanced, to be collected so that he can change directions on a dime, and to produce huge power (impulsion). All these require a strong back.
What does "strong back" really mean?
The backbone (a row of vertebrae like spools strung on a string) would sag if it were not held up like a suspension bridge - it is suspended from above by cables (a series of small muscles) attached to bony wings that stick up above the spools. Unless they have lost tone (see reasons below) these muscles are just strong enough to support the horse's own ribcage and belly. When we sit on the bridge, it's more weight than the horse's back was designed for. There are no supporting muscles on the under side of the bridge (except the psoas under the lumbar vertebrae, which has a different job). So the horse uses his belly muscles (abdominals) to help keep the suspension bridge from sagging. Deb Bennett refers to this as the "ring of muscles" and explains how it works in her excellent 3-part book, Principles of Conformation. When we "strengthen a horse's back" we are toning up the back muscles and especially strengthening the abdominals. You can feel the use of the abdominals if you get on your hands and knees and have a child ride you.
How does a horse's back get weak?
There are many things we do in "caring for" the domestic horse (often for our own convenience) that actually prevent the correct use of his back and cause the muscles to lose tone.
- Horses that live in stalls don't get the constant moderate exercise that a free-living horse gets. A back standing in a stall is a back losing muscle tone.
- A horse whose hay is in a hay rack high on the wall is forced to use his back in the worst possible way. Hay should be at ground level and always available. A horse needs to spend most of his time, day and night, with his head down, stretching and relaxing his back. Similarly, a stalled horse that has to raise his head to see other horses around him is forced to use his back in the worst possible way.
- The rider may not have developed a good seat, may be upsetting the horse in some way so that his head goes up, or may not understand how to use her own body to help the horse use his back well.
- A saddle that doesn't fit well causes the horse to use his back in the worst possible way, to avoid pain from the saddle.
- Hoof or other pain may cause the horse to move cautiously rather than freely, thus losing tone in his back muscles.
Making improvements in these basic conditions will go a long way in strengthening your horse's back, or can at least stop the loss of muscle tone.
Some horses have weak backs due to poor conformation, and some of these may never become strong enough to carry a rider without damage, even after a careful rehabilitation program.
How to recognize a weak back
If you can get someone to lead your horse on a firm, level surface at the walk while you watch from the side and from the back, there are four fairly obvious clues to back strength in how he moves (appreciation to Dominique Barbier for these).
- Watching from the side: the length of a weak-backed horse's stride is shortened -- the hind foot doesn't step up into the footprint of the front foot. If the back is strong, the hind foot lands in the front footprint or even farther forward. A very strong-backed horse can over-reach as much as 12 inches. You can also look at your horse's footprints in an arena or on a dusty or soft road.
- Watching from behind, the tracks of the left and right feet are close together under the weak-backed horse, as if he were walking on a tightrope. In a strong-backed horse, the tracks of the left feet and the right feet are wider apart. (Hooves trimmed too long on the inside will also make the feet land closer together.)
- A weak-backed horse's walk is "pacey" or "lateralized." This means that the timing of his footsteps shifts away from a totally regular "1 - 2 - 3 -- 4 - 1 - 2 - 3 - 4." Instead you will hear or see, "1,2 - 3,4 - 1,2 - 3,4." Watching from the side, you can see both left feet move forward almost at the same time, then both the right feet move forward almost at the same time - like a giraffe walks (next time you go to the zoo you'll head right for the giraffe area!). Watching from behind, there is a side-to-side rocking motion (different from a normal walk) as he shifts his weight onto both left feet, then onto both right feet.
- Due to the short stride and the pacey walk, the weak-backed
horse lacks impulsion (power).
- Since he can't reach the hind feet way forward underneath himself, he doesn't get as big a push for his effort.
- Heisting himself along with the side-to-side rocking motion wastes or dissipates his forward motion off to the sides.
How can we strengthen a horse's back?
There are a variety of exercises we can use. It's good to begin on the ground and build up some strength before adding your weight. (I am assuming here that you have some knowledge of "natural horsemanship" methods, especially patience, and that you release your signal as soon as the horse begins to do what you asked.) (Appreciation to Balance Saddles, Deb Bennett, Alice Brown, and many others for these.)
- Begin by leading him out in a good, brisk walk. Encourage a loose, relaxed, long-strided, head-swinging walk (you'll get in shape, too). This loosens his back and shows him what you're after.
- Every so often, ask him to stop and back up a step or two. Be calm about this, because a horse cannot physically back up when his head is way up in the air. Ask him to lower his head, then back up one step, then go forward again. As he learns to back up relaxed, you can gradually ask for more steps. Eventually he will be able to back 50 or 100 yards/meters calmly, with his head down. As he gets stronger, you can also ask him to back up a slight uphill slope.
- Add some lateral work such as yielding the hindquarters (the hind foot closest to you needs to cross over in front of the other foot) or the Parelli "sideways game" - with his head facing a fence or wall so he can't go forward, ask him to move sideways away from you, one step at a time, for several steps. This makes him reach farther underneath himself with one hind leg; be sure to go the other way to exercise the other hind leg equally.
Saddle him and do these - if anything changes in his movements, his saddle fit/ comfort will need to be addressed. When he's strong enough to start carrying your weight, you can do all of the above exercises while riding at the walk. Don't stay on his back very long at first; you can over-tire the muscles you're trying to build, causing them to cramp instead of stretch.
After several days you can move on to doing lots of transitions, which strengthen his back by alternately needing impulsion (power) to go faster, and collection (gathering himself) to slow down. Instead of riding for 5 or 10 minutes straight ahead at one speed, use lots of changes:
- From a slower gait to a faster one, and back to the slower (e.g. halt to walk to halt, or walk to trot to walk). Leave the canter until he's stronger and has got the idea.
- Within each gait, ask for slow, medium, and fast (e.g. slow walk, medium walk, fast walk, and back to slow).
- Change directions often, or steer around obstacles in the arena or trees/bushes/rocks in the outdoors. Changing direction asks for collection (gathering himself for the change) and impulsion (moving out in the new direction).
- Finish with a long-strided walk; you may be able to feel an improvement after these exercises.
On a several-times-a-week program, you can strengthen a horse's back quite a lot in a month or so, especially if you find and change the conditions that weakened him in the first place. You will notice his athletic abilities improving, and as a side benefit there will also be gains in how closely he pays attention to what you might ask him to do next. Every week or so, observe his walk; you can learn a lot by watching the changes in the four clues.