Improving The Horse’s Topline

The question is asked every day: How do I improve my horse’s topline?

The answer is both simple and complex: Everything you do with your horse either promotes improved condition – and thus improved topline – or it doesn’t.

If you are seeing incremental monthly improvements, then you’re doing it right. If your horse’s topline is stagnant (assuming it hasn’t reached its full condition potential already, which encompasses the vast majority of horses – even those at a high performance level) or is losing conditioning (thinning, becoming more angular, tighter, stiffer etc…) then you’re doing it wrong.

Once you recognize that your horse’s topline needs improvement, you’re likely to ask: What exercises can I do to improve it? The answer is again both simple and complex: ANY of them. ALL of them. There is no one exercise, no 12-step program. It is not the exercise but the execution of the exercise, whether walking down the long side, transitions within the trot, cantering a 10m circle, jumping a gridline, or hacking out. The key is not what you do, but how you do. Anything that encourages correct movement from the horse will improve the horse’s topline. That’s it. That’s all.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record (I still own some vinyl!), correct movement is that which promotes health, soundness and longevity.  Correct movement protects the body by reducing the stress and strain associated with carrying a rider, for which the horse’s body is not well designed.  Correct movement is the horse using its ring of muscles, taking deeper, more center body steps with the hind legs, swinging easily through the hips, loin and back, contracting the core, and lifting the back, the withers, and base of neck.

If your horse is forced/held into a ‘frame’, its topline will be negatively affected. If your horse is breaking at C3 and behind the vertical, its topline will be negatively affected. A dropped base of neck, wither or back will negatively affect the horse’s topline.  If your horse is stiff, blocked, braced, tense or crooked, its topline will be negatively affected. Itty bit steps, uneven gaits, trailing hocks, or forehand heaviness will negatively affect the horse’s topline.

A healthy topline is full and rounded with a double back. Think of the visual plumpness of botoxed lips – a well done job. The feel of the muscle is an equal balance of firmness and giving, similar to the feel of a high quality, firm memory foam.  Pliable.  There should be no hollows, lumps, bumps or dips, but rather all the body parts from poll to dock should flow seamlessly into the next.

Conformation can play a significant role in the ease or difficulty of improving and maintaining the topline. Indeed, horses that are physically challenged in this regard will often never reach desired results and can quickly revert to poor condition and posture if not consistently worked, and those with solid riding conformation will often display a good topline even under less than ideal training and riding, as they can’t help but move correctly.  This is one of the biggest reasons why most people should try very hard to get the best horse conformed for riding as they can manage. The amount of time, knowledge and resources it takes to bring along a conformationally poor animal are not typically in the realm of possibilities for the average owner.

Stretching and massage can help improve the topline, particularly as part of the process of breaking a bad cycle. Of course any sort of injury, disease, or discomfort anywhere in the body can negatively affect the topline. Yes, this means even slightly ouchy feet, an upset tummy from poor food stuffs, minor arthritic changes, or achy muscles from pulling the horse out of the field once a month for a trail ride can negatively affect the topline.  Poorly fitting tack will have an adverse affect.

Not at all the answer you wanted to hear, was it? I make no apologizes for telling it straight. Improving the health of your horse’s topline is time consuming hard work, especially if you’ve decided to purchase a horse not ideally suited to riding, or haven’t had the good fortunate to have learned excellent riding/training skills from a knowledgeable mentor. Don’t feel disheartened, you aren’t alone. More importantly, it’s (probably) within your ability to learn, get better, and do better.

Below are 49 pictures (numbered for convenience) of different breeds of horses being ridden in various disciplines, in different gaits, by random people. (I have done a bit of grouping to help you more easily compare.) Can you identify which riders are helping to improve their horse’s toplines, which ones are not? Can you identify what rider changes would help the horse be able to move more correctly? Can you identify which horses are fighting significant conformation challenges? Which ones are likely suffering injuries? Which ones are just suffering bad riding? What else pops out at you when looking at the pictures and comparing them to each other?  Yes, this is a test, but the answers already exist on this blog. Feel free to cheat by rereading past articles. I’ll be posting a number of summary articles over the next couple months, as there is much to talk about and refresh in our minds.

1. Topline14













































And a few groundwork pictures:






110 thoughts on “Improving The Horse’s Topline

  1. Because of this blog, I see so much more than I would have a year ago. This is going to be fun!

    I’m working with a couple horses that need to improve their way of going. One wants to run forward when asked to collect, the other balks. The balky horse has the telltale cluster of bound up muscle on her lower neck along with a “jump bump” and stiffness throughout her body. We’ve made a few changes, gone to a softer bit (this would be another great topic!) and are asking her to stretch, lower her head, raise her back. Interestingly, after she’s ridden her “jump bump” diminishes significantly. What I find sad is that this horse and rider have been under weekly instruction from a professional for several years. She had behavioral issues, was put in a ridiculous bit to fix it – which only gave the rider more power to cause pain (completely unintentionally) and the mare to brace harder, get more sore and act out. The mare hasn’t shown one iota of bad behavior since we changed up how she is ridden. She w/t/c around and jumps crossrails with her ears up and eyes happy and relaxed. As a side note, no horse should be jumping until it has a solid foundation, yields to leg, bit, bends, lengthens and shortens. It takes time but seeing GP jumpers in their mid and late teens (Cedric) shows that proper training, conditioning and care can keep these athletes going for a long time.

  2. Maybe I should have marked what I did not like, but here goes what I did like.

    2 3 4 5 8 9 14 16 17 19 20 21 28 31 32 33 38 39 41 43 44

    No groundwork, I don’t like horses lunged for more that a short time.

    8 was the funniest. Was 13 a knappstrupper? 41 was my favorite.

    • Why those pictures? Are they simply pleasing to your eye? Do you think all are showing solid riding basics that are helping the horse? Or is it a case of the horse looks happy?

      I don’t know the breed of #13.

      • Yes, the horse looks happy, and I thought that these riders were doing their best to improve the topline and the general condition of the horse.

  3. I’m going to vote the #2 Icelandic in tolt as the better mover of the 3.

    Well moving horses regardless of conformation: 8, 16, 20, 23, 28, 31 is confusing, good and bad, 33, 35, 44 (for a WP horse this is quite nice) and 48

    Top pics: 17, 37, 41, 49

    • I did not choose 23 because of stiffness through the riders hand and the horse’s mouth seemed like it was open. 31 seemed to be braced though the head and neck. I’ll give you 35 and 37, the horse may have been temporarily behind the vertical.

      • 23 could have a more open throat and more lift of the base of neck, softer attachment to the rider’s hand. Actually a softer hand from the rider. Also on the forehand but I do like the use of the back and reach from behind. Average – +5 over a bunch of these.

        31 baffles me. The horse is taking a huge step under its body but the opposing hind is dragging behind. Good lift but yes, tight in the neck/jaw. I’m hoping someone will jump in on this horse, maybe the angle is making it harder to critique.

        35 could be taking a bigger step from behind and the rider could let the front end out more, open the throat.

        37’s rider is perched, pushing down on the front end and not allowing the horse all the way through. Love the use of the haunch.

        • 31, look at the horse first, see low set point of shoulder, widest part of base of neck? This horse will be heavy on the forehand and feel like a freight train pushing down hill on many occasions, with less forward reach of the front legs than you might expect from such a big leggy horse. Look at rider’s overall balance, pushed against back of saddle, hands low and braced, elbows out too much, outside hand has lost some elbow bend and is reaching outward, inside hand at wither and puppy dog, horse behind vertical, not lifted at base of neck, and fighting being pulled into vertical when it really needs the use of its neck to offset its conformation. Rider’s being left behind, and thrown back by back end, but also preparing for worst as both back feet leave late, and the ‘dive, all dive’ effect of gravity ( as weight starts going over onto the forehand without any lift left over) wins. Trying to pull head in and up will not keep horse off the forehand.

          • I do see the flat humerus, I got hung up on the haunch and the oddness of movement. Doesn’t look like all the parts are attached, like multiple horses.

          • I agree, you can see the spur in on the right and the toe of rider out. A leg position which also contributes to not being to go with the big motion behind. The problems with the braking up front is that the hands don’t encourage roundness at all. Compare 19, downhill build, heel in, look at white knuckle, amount of muscle engagement in arms, but better overall balance in rider’s body, butter use of elbows and hand position, and horse is lifting through base of neck. The horse is still being driven into too much hand, but with less negative effect IMO.

  4. I want to know a little about your choice of what to include. How much did you try to balance numerically the bad, the ok, and the good?? And how long did it take to find the good compared to the bad? *BEG*

    To address 1-3, without researching to make sure, I would say the first three are Icelandics tolting in the fastest gait, basically the equivalent of racing. Given what we’ve covered about the difference between racing and riding, one would not expect to see the roundness, lifting of the base of the neck, impulsion, etc. of collection at this gait. Speed is inimical to collection and vice versa. Collection asks for energy upward, racing asks for energy forward to cover ground.

    Icelandics are not particularly uphill, they are all around horses, meant to carry great weight, act as drafts and for riding.As ponies, they are known for their stoutness, short backs, strong backs meaning well place LS joint, breadth across the back, and of course you get a short neck not inclined to a graceful arc with those goals. But you did get an animal that should eaily develop a double back and still show good muscling.

    I love the little grey, the rider, like most gaited horse riders tends to be at the back of the saddle and a little braced, short rein that does not encourage any roundness, but this rider has given more rein to let this little guy stretch and uses a snaffle, not a big long shanked bit as an ASB or TW might be toting in America. Further the rein passes above the base of the neck which would allow rounding more easily if they weren’t moving at speed. The horse is not particularly broken back in the neck, but does show enough muscling under the neck to indicate that he spends some time that way. He is fairly deep at the loin girth, a sign of the back strength, and has coiled his loin to the maximum. His ungrounded hind foot shows one of the maxims, the lower joints of the leg reflect coiling of the loin, the lower joints can’t close more than the SI but if operating correctly (ie, without injury or bad tight muscles in the butt) will close as much. This guy has a small butt, looks fairly smoothly muscled with some tightness in the cats, but for such a short legged guy with a little butt, that foot is going to meet its maximum potential to reach forward and hit the ground and push while still under the butt to some degree. If the rider were a touch better balanced over his/her feet and closer to the withers, and varied his work routine to include suppling and rounding with this guy, the couple of small issues of tightness in the cats and the undermuscling would be improved and that would probably improve the other gaits that are not intended to be racing gaits.

    The second horse (dark bay or seal brown), whatever his coat color would be called, is a slightly different angle, but I would say at this moment, a tiny touch less broken back than number 1 as a matter of everyday riding, though still the characteristic heavy short neck that isn’t going to look like a pretty rainbox arc of an arab on its best day. Again all the same breed characterisics, wide, broad build, deep through th loin girth. Maybe a little bit tight towards the rear of the glutes. Showing excellent reach and a touch more balance toward the collection continuum, not the hind foot has left the ground, not even the toe is grounded out behind the horse, pushing less, going up more. The outside hind is going to ground about the same time as the inside fore leaves the ground, there could be a tiny moment of suspension, the hind will also be well placed up under the body, the outside hind also differs in the angling of the leg, it will land slightly more to the inside of the body shadow, typical of a slight bit more roundness (not ‘collected’ but remember we are talking about a continuum from totally hollow to totally rounded up into a mamimum drawn bow look.) The rider is also a little to the back of the sadlle, but overall still better balanced, probably very capable of riding this horse round, and given no absolute horrible hollowness along the top line, though maybe not as fully rounded as the muscling of the loin and glutes could be, probably spends time suppling this horse.

    The number 3 horse, is very hollow at this moment, back clearly dropped. The muscling shows some angularity and tightness, the neck is clearly broken back and the rider has the ‘watersking’ on the horse’s mouth look going. This horse also has the least amount of depth to the loin girth, a weaker structural issue that should be addressed The rider is well balanced with in him or herself, but again, more back in the saddle and bracing. Could also be we’ve caught a little guy out for a run in the great outdoors who is ‘running away’, but the muscle and loin girth suggest that the broken back neck, running against bit pressure is typical. Nevertheless, the leg position is almost identical to the number one horse, also supporting the idea that this may in fact be one of those rare moments in time where the picture caught a bad moment. If this a young horse, then the muscling may be a little bit juvenile in that he hasn’t been in work long enough to have developed weight carrying ability and the depth of loin girth an older hose would have. So in essence, we see a bit of a contradiction in action, broken back, hollow, some muscling questions, but still the rear legs are moving fairly freely forward to carry weight under the body, though at basically a running gait. Again, a horse that needs more suppling work to insure that he has full flexibility and good muscling over all, while still understanding part of his job his to move at a racing gait.

    • Include anything that strikes your fancy, catches your eye, or that you think is noteworthy. The idea is to help people develop their eye for what is good, bad or indifferent movement for each individual and whether or not the person is helping, hindering or neutral. And then of course the whys and whatfors of it all.

      There was no conscience effort to balance good vs bad vs okay. I didn’t specifically look for good vs bad vs okay, but rather grabbed photos that showed at least one important thing to discuss. If I happened upon a ‘good’ photo (spoiler alert for others – there were very few that I would truly classify as ‘good’) then I was happy to include it for comparison sake.

      Grouping is as such: I started with gaited horses, then into trot, walk, canter, groundwork. Within those groups, I had subgroups of drafts, dressage horses, western horses, hunters, whatever, and then stuck a few others that sort of belonged to the group ahead and the group after.

      • as time permitted, I was going to talk about all of them, but I might run out of time, have several work deadlines this week. I would probably run out of people reading what I had to say as well. ;P

        Interesting approach, an opportunity to see the same riding discipline across several ‘types’ of horses, very illuminating about form/function issues on multiple levels. You don’t need my approval, but for what it is worth, that was an excellent decision.

        • You have plenty of time. I won’t be doing the first summary article tomorrow or anything. There’s a lot to look at and think about, so I’m going to give people plenty of time to ponder and discuss. So I encourage you to add whatever you’d like as time permits regardless of word count. You’ll point out different things than I will (I plan/planned on saying different things about the Icelandics as an example) and you have an excellent way of explaining that I’m sure many appreciate.

          Thank you for that last. I hope it’s a successful approach and people will start to see things differently.

  5. I’m looking forward to your input on #47. I hear a lot of people raving about the “Passoa lunging system”. Not sure if thats the exact brand in the photo but I’ve always been wary of these contraptions! Great post, looking forward to reading the replies 🙂

    • I’m going to say this horse is not ‘through’. He isn’t lifting his back well, it appears a bit short and tight in the loin. He’s also breaking at P3 in the neck rather than the poll and his overall energy is in the legs, not through the body. Some use of the abdominals but not nearly enough.

    • StephC,
      You be the judge but I thought I’d pass along the following regarding the Pessoa Longe System. It’s from another website/blog I follow.
      Not my words, quoted right off the web-site:

      “The Pessoa Training System used for longing. This system is supposed to get the horse to stretch down AND engage the hind legs forward, and thus be good for the back. I have seen it at work several times, and whilst it does get the horse to lower his head on the lunge, the most glaring effect of this contraption is that it succeeds in jabbing the horse in the mouth with each push of the hind legs.

      It has a semi-intricate pulley system that via a longe-girth connects the gaskins with the mouth. I guess the rope is supposed to encourage the horse to grasp forward with the hind legs as it tightens around the hind leg and at the same time limit the height of the head. But which is more sensitive – the skin on the hocks or the mouth!? The horse will be encouraged to roll down but not stretch to the bit, because the bit jabs at the mouth with each step. Now this is mechanical if anything!

      I have also never seen any horse truly engage in this “system”, only go on the forehand and curl behind the bit. It can be adjusted lower (for more stretch) and higher (for collection) but it seems to have very little such effect.”

  6. Hmm there’s so much so its really hard to write all the thoughts on this or that horse. I see a lot of conformation issues, stiff bodies, poor hand to bit connection, behind the vertical or just tense necks from tight reins, etc. I’m not the best to speak to any of this and I’m tempted not to speak up in case I’m totally off but I will anyway. I like 17, 18, 36, 33 and 49. Why? My eye always goes towards the horses that seem, well healthy for one and the most relaxed in the back and neck (to me anyway), along with a nice long, even stride. Okay now as I write and I look again I’m debating again. Maybe 33 is a little stiff? And maybe 34 is good? And I’ll throw in the pony at 48 using its back well. Now, how off am I? I’m definitely bad with spotting injury issues from photos so I won’t even go there.

  7. OK, here are my responses to the first 30, the trot photos. I realize that anyone can have a bad photo if the horse isn’t moving up and out at the moment, so it possible that some of the horses that seem to be trailing behind might have been momentarily lazy. The things I’m looking for are: equivalency of the triangles between front and rear legs; rear legs not trailing; evidence of hunters bump on the pelvis; hollow back; position of head (in front of, on, or behind vertical); where the neck flexes (at poll or at 3rd vertebrae).

    1, 2, 3. Icelandic ponies. I have little experience with gaited horses of any breed, and because they move so differently from 3 gaited horses, they always look a bit “wrong” to me. That said, #3 looks clearly upside down and hollow. But I can’t tell as well about #1 and #2. The rider on #1 seems to be sitting back a bit far in the saddle for this very short back. #1 seems a little more downhill, and #2 a little more even/uphill.
    4, 5. They both seem to be trailing their hind quarters. Is #5 doing a gait? Doesn’t quite look like walk or trot to me.
    6, 7. Hurt my eyes.
    8, 9. Draft horses. # 8 seems to be trailing its hindquarters, though the head positions and neck muscles look OK., maybe a bit thickened behind the poll, but could be angle of light. # 9 is moving out nicely and has full complexus muscles and head in front of the vertical. But the angle of the front legs is a bit larger than the back legs, so on the forehand a bit?
    10. Oh dear. Why would you want to put a saddle on this? On the forehand, though on a loose rein. And I don’t like docked tails.
    11, 12. Behind the vertical with low, fixed hands. The horse is “stepping through” behind but I think its because he has a long stride, not because he is collected. There is lump to the loins I don’t like, looks like hunter’s bump (pelvic rotation).
    13. Hands are higher but still tight, head is in front of the vertical. But this horse also has a hunter’s bump.
    14. Head is only on the vertical, but neck is breaking at the 3rd vertebrae, not flexing at the poll. And back looks hollow.
    15. I think this might be a naturally downhill little horse being ridden OK?
    16, 17. Like. #17 is stretching to the bit and the traingles between the front legs and back legs are equal. In 16, the front legs are making a slightly larger space, indicating the horse is slightly on the forehand.
    18. broken at the 3rd vertebrae.
    19. At first I though OK, but the front legs are moving larger than the hind.
    20. Hard to tell about legs from the angle. Broken at the 3rd vertebrae.
    21, 22. Hurt my eyes. The dressage version of 6 & 7.
    23. Neck is breaking in the wrong place but otherwise going OK?
    24. Western pleasure with an English saddle. On the forehand.
    25. On the forehand, hindquarters dragging.
    26 & 27. The horses seem to be on a looser rein but they are still dragging their hind-end. Falling on the forehand, not an active stretch; still rolled under too much for the lower head position to help?
    28. This horse is stepping under a bit more and seems to be stretching; maybe doesn’t have enough scope with its hind legs?
    29. Like 26 & 27, but with the head raised.
    30. Upside-down tbd with a functionally “ewe” neck and hollow back.

  8. Something interesting to me was how much I don’t feel able to judge types of horses that aren’t what I see everyday. So I kinda skimmed over the icelandics, the saddlebreds and the drafts. My favourites are 17, 18 and 41.

    17 – looks a big stride with swing, even triangles. Soft rein, relaxed head neck with calm expression, standing martingale in use but not overly restricting.

    18 – I like the impression of uphill movement, big stride that I think would look even but for that the photo is around a corner, I don’t think the horse is behind vertical, that looks like firm contact but not restrictive

    41 – it was that gleaming coat that caught my eye, but I like this pic because it’s a moment in the stride when most horses look downhill if the camera catches them here but this one still looks even. I like how the horse has maintained balance with that loop in the rein which speaks volumes. And I like the horse’s cute little face.

    I like photo 40 too but wish the camera was drawn back a bit… It looks to me like this is just before the next jump and this horse is backing off with the front end a bit and getting ready to step under and then push off. I take that from the facial expression, that looks to me like a horse who is keenly processing how he’s going to handle the next jump, and I like horses that do that.

    • I like all three of those horses as well, but only the grey is ‘riding’ horse type. As for 41, notice the angle of the fence post and the line of the sand along the edge of the arena. The horse looks more level because the background isn’t, I think it was rotated, who knows whether is was purposeful. The horse is pretty much down hill in reality in my opinion. Again, the horse is moving well given that it has a downhill build, but could it be better, and what keeps it from reaching level?

      I like 17 and 18 as well. But on both, look at where the inside hind is going to land, it is going to track to the inside of the front foot, which is still on the ground indicating both horses are spending too much time on the forehand. Why would a horse set a hind foot to the inside of a front foot? Or to the outside of it for that matter? In most cases, depending of the ‘movement’ the horse is doing, going straight, bending on a circle or doing a two track movement such as a shoulder in, what does that tell us? Are these horses supposed to be doing a two track movement in those pictures?

  9. I find a few oddities with horse 22. This horse is behind the bridle and held tightly there. It appears that the right front is going to land toe first and looks to be caused in part by the overbridling. The step is very short on this leg with a near vertical forearm. There is no forward reach. Hind legs are trailing, the left hind is going to land in short order and push off from too far behind the horse. Horse 21 is in similar ‘frame’ but is still going to take a bigger step behind. I wonder what is prompting the high, short action of the non weighted leg beyond the tightness in front – it’s as if the horse has sore hocks or stifles. Reminds me a bit of stringhalt. Does anyone else see this?

  10. I am not saying these horses have perfect balance here and there aren’t issues. Nevertheless, we often never see a collected horse in real life of photographs to let us develop our eye for what should happen. As I mentioned in the discussion of horse 1, he illustrates a biomechanical maxim for horses, as the loin (SI) more fully engages, in a healthy normal leg, it folds up to the degree the loin is engaged. In both 21 and 22, the riders are getting a degree of engagement and the limb trajectory is more folded than say the hunters with their long low strides, also, if the bone proportions of the rear legs are optimal for riding, ie, favor collection, they will be capable of folding more than say Mercedes explanation of a draft or stock horse geared for first gear.

    I won’t vouch for every word in this article, but it has some good graphics and basic explanations of what should be happening.

  11. I disagree with jrga on #21 & 22. In her post on the trot a month or two back, Mercedes taught us to look for two things in the trot: the overall length of the stride, and whether the triangle formed between the front legs matches the triangle formed by the back legs. In #21 and #22, the triangle formed by the front legs is considerably larger than that formed by the rear legs. The rear leg is not going to land anywhere near the footprint of the front leg. In #21 in particular, the horse is also leaning way over the front supporting leg. These are all signs that the horse has been forced onto to forehand, in order to get the flashy front leg movement. That’s why I said in my comments that this is just the dressage version of the nasty saddle seat photos in #6 and #7. 21 in particular is basically the poster child for “what’s wrong with contemporary competitive dressage these days?” It is however such a common posture or “frame” that it can start to look completely normal, particularly when people ride like this and then say that their horse is engaged and collected.

    • I don’t think there’s a disagreement. jrga talked about there being a ‘degree’ of engagement, but she didn’t say that amount of engagement matched how much engagement should be happening. She also talked about hind limb bone ratios conducive to riding and therefore engagement. Basically, she was pointing out that as the loin coils more, the hind limbs articulate more. #1 is coiling the loin more than #2 and #3. It’s unfortunate that #2 and #3 are at a different point in the gait, otherwise it would be more obvious. But #2 and #3 are a great comparison of subtleties between each other.

      21 & 22 are more suited for riding and engagement. It’s why, even though there are clear issues, the horses are still able to have a ‘degree’ of engagement. What would they look like if they weren’t being ridden by their faces?

      Let me be a guinea pig here and show three trot pictures of my post-legged, downhill built, low set neck, entirely unsuitable riding horse for engagement (and trot gait) comparison sake that might help clarify some things for you. Which photo shows the horse with the most engagement (loin coiled, hind limb articulation, weight shifted rearward etc…)? Which photo shows the horse the least hollow and the most balanced? And how does that all connect to what you and jrga are saying?

      • It’s easy to see as in photo 1, that your horse is reaching well for his conformation, taking big steps front and rear and covering ground, albeit hollow through the back. In photo 2 he has rounded and appears to be stretching his nuchal and ridden more ‘through”. Photo 3 shows very nice hind limb articulation indicating a dropped haunch and more engagement. As I find there are benefits to the horse in all 3 of these movements, do you have a rule of thumb for warmup based on these movements? Would a normal work consist of all 3 or would you focus only on 2 & 3 with more engagement? As you know, I also have an unsuitable riding horse with stubby legs and a long back. I would expect that long and hollow would be one to avoid for his topline and that rounded and collection should be our focus though there must be some benefit to occasional encouragement of limb stretching. Or should any type of hollow movement be avoided at all costs?

        I still find something odd about horse 22 in the rear. The horse appears to be using its back well and engaged behind but it seems more like a park horse movement than dressage whereas horse 21 is typical modern movement to me though more hollow than 22. I’d need to see that one in motion.

        • Those are good questions that start to get to the meat of training and conditioning horses with intent. It needs to be noted that the even spaced trot and cavelletti shot are much earlier photos – 3 years earlier. Training goals were significantly different than in the later rounder trot photo.

          Short answer is, no, I don’t want my horse travelling hollow like that, ever. It serves him no useful or healthy purpose to travel like that.

          I can’t recall off hand that particular moment (even trot photo). It looks like I’m either going across the diagonal or starting a circle. My inside hand has clearly checked him pretty hard, and not in a very correct way – I’m yelling. He’s given me his attention, but also tilted his head, so I’ve blocked him quite hard with that hand. Knowing all the behavior issues I had with him, extrapolating the time period, where I’m riding him, and the fact I’m riding him on a shorter rein than I should be (note in the rounder photo the rein is considerably longer and yet not slack – horse has lengthened his neck and is seeking contact), my guess is that I was being proactively super defensive and cautious. The cavelletti picture is from the same day, and I view it as ‘defensive fetal and anticipatory of something bad happening position’. Whereas in the rounder trot picture 3 years later, I’m pissed at him and determined he’s going to go along with the program. I remember exactly what was going on in that one. 🙂

          So what a normal work would consist of is determined by many, many, many factors, but no, I’m never aiming for hollow travel as okay at any time. When bringing a horse along, though, especially one that has suffered from poor riding/training/conformation, you’re not going to get a full ride of roundness to any degree. You have to build up to it by systematically remolding the muscles. But even a highly correctly muscled horse isn’t going to live at its ’roundest’ for a whole ride. We need warm up, rest periods and cool down, but presumably even during those periods we’ll have some roundness/correct posture as part of all the work we’ve done to get them to the point where they can round as much as they physically can given their conformation.

    • The point I was trying to make while still leaving room for people to go learn for themselves by looking at the graphics at sustainabledressage is that as a horse does begin to properly engage the loin and start to sit down behind, the hind leg will articulate more and there will be less reach forward from the hind feet. We see working trot or gaits from hunters or stock horse moving balanced perhaps but with relatively little engagement or sitting behind (excluding work cow horses and sliding stops in rekners of course). So the folded rear leg isn’t string halt but merely a leg doing what it is supposed to do as one requisite part of the whole process of collection. The back and front have to be properly engaged as well to get the whole enchilada. Working from memory, the first horse has left the track of the arena and is moving diagonally away crossing S so we are probably looking at an attempt at an extended trot in a test. The horse is still ridden over tempo keeping the front foot tending toward anchoring too long and the elevated front foot is a Spanish walk stride but not toe flicking as the horse isn’t totally tensed or.pulled behind the vertical. I left room in that answer for people to go explore the link that had illustrations and discussion. The second horse is horribly over ridden by the hand but still shows greater articulation in the hind that is part of engagement.

      If you follow Mercedes link you can see the first trot show a nice trot, balanced in the sense of the triangles and the two beat nature of the gait is clear. You can also see a bit of hollowness to the back and the nose out with no lift to the base of the neck. The second shot shows a much rounder horse, much more articulation to the hind leg and a shorter stride. The third shot shows the beneficial affect of cavaletti work, while not as round overall, the horse responds to the need to clear the pole by articulating the hind leg a fair amount. The horse will have more lift in the next stride and that loaded spring will help the horse train the.muscle for collection. It will improve the top line in other words.

      Collected strides are short strides, the hind feet aren’t supposed to track up to the front feet. Again in the Icelandic review I mentioned that collection is inimical to speed. Collection is up not forward.

      • And maybe it needs to be mentioned that the extended trot is a lower and longer frame than is pictured in #21 and that is part of the problem. The extended trot would/should have a longer step behind than what we often see (and without the Spanish Walk/Trot front end action that we see – and you mentioned). Making it quite ‘even’, when done correctly.

      • Summary: To get the ‘even’ trot on my horse requires I let him hollow, pop his croup up, and swing just in the legs. That does not help his topline.

        When asked to round a bit, his stride shortens quite a bit because he has to obey his post-leggedness, but it helps his topline.

        I can increase the engagement with the cavelletti, but if I don’t set him up properly (which I did not in the photo, and my position is not helping him), I won’t get full benefit for his topline. Note that his planted hind leg is actually trailing a bit. It’s not under him as it should be. He has lowered his haunch to take extra weight (rear fetlock shows deeper flexion than front fetlock and there’s significantly more closing bend in the hock and stifle than in the other two photos). Unfortunately, I don’t have a photo of the next step, which would have been better than this one because I did get the added loin coiling, articulation and step under for the right hind. But what would also have shown was the limitation of the engagement because of his post-leggedness.

        • That’s very interesting. Can you get an even trot on him by getting him to telescope his neck and reach to the bit? Would that encourage roundness without losing the length of stride?

        • I’m trying to get this reply to fall in the right sequence, under the 3 new photos, but don’t seem to be able to find the right clicky place. I’d have to say no, when he is playing hunter on the lunge, he doesn’t seem to be able to stretch for the bit and also have the large, even trot. He does seem more rounded, same as in your “fix trot” photo, and his trot steps are actually even, just short. When he’s playing Arab, you’ve got the big step, and he is more rounded than in your “Trotlong” photo, but I think still throwing out the front feet more than you’d want? This is interesting to me because I’ve been understanding stretch to the bit, open poll, round the back, and take bigger strides behind as the all-purpose fix and goal for problem solving. But perhaps it doesn’t work with all conformations?

          • The settings only allow so many ‘under that reply’ levels. After that, they just all fall under one another regardless of which comment you’re replying to. It’s a poor set up for lots of commenting back and forth.

            Sometimes (many times) hollow does get you shorter steps behind. See #14

            Now look at #15. Shows a similar ratio of smaller step behind to front, but this horse is rounder and stretching more than #14.

            #16 and #17 are both right about neutral, neither hurting the topline nor helping the topline, but look at the difference of the front step vs back step. #16 stepping way smaller behind than in front, while #17 is very even. Do you know why?

            Your last is where you start, yes! It’s not wrong. Adding that the step behind has to be more toward the center of the body.

            What you aren’t maybe understanding is the seriousness of the post-legged fault. For my horse to do that ‘fix trot’, he’s working VERY hard. Look at how much more compact his frame is, while having lengthened his neck (compare it to the long trot photo). Compare his croup height to the back of the saddle in those two photos. And finally compare the slope of his pelvis (point of hip to point of buttock). Draw a line from point of hip to point of buttock on both pictures and measure the slope. Note that the pelvis is steeper (therefore loin is coiled more) in the fix trot picture and yet you are looking at the pelvic slope on that side with the leg ‘out behind’ (as in ‘opened’). If the horse was equally coiling the loin in both photos, we’d expect the pelvis to be steeper on the leg that is FORWARD, and it’s not, it’s more horizontal. That’s the difference between leg mover and back mover. And even though the trot photos show a slightly different phase of the trot, you can see there’s more joint articulation happening in the fix trot photo.

            Conformation is going to play a big role in how the gait looks, but the body as a whole doesn’t lie about what’s going on.

            It might help to go back and reread the Trotting Up A Storm article.

            Yeah, it’s complicated. Or if you prefer – sophisticated. 🙂 I try to keep articles to singular points, but there always comes a point at which everything has to be understood as a whole. Just as looking at individual conformation traits is important to understand, it’s just as important to understand how they all fit together as a whole and how different combinations change the whole outlook.

  12. This is great! I tend to focus on riders and go from there.
    1. So cute, but the horse might not be so tight in his abdominals if the rider wasn’t sitting so far back. Could use a little more give in the hands (although I know this is how Iceys are ridden??
    2. Much better. Better conformed than the stubby cutey, but his rider is also giving him enough room even with the firm contact.
    3. Pretty nice horse. Unfortunate neck developed on the underside–it’s easy to see why. Notice how high this horse’s head is, thanks to the death grip of his rider. Strung out and hollow.
    4. This rider isn’t causing any problems, although the saddle/pad seem to be about to eat the horse. Just a very unconditioned horse, seems to be relaxed. Its front legs may be placed far back? I sense this is gaited breed, and many of those look strange to me.
    5-6-7. All horses that have been/are being abused in the mouth, among other problems.5 is so stiff it looks like a breeze would snap his back (note the reins from bridle tied to girth, loose here). 6 is criminal. But 7 is too–harsh bit, really strong hand, and the horse’s frame is upside down. He’s really suffering. I know his neck is part of his breed, but is this a stallion? His neck seems big from so much resistance.
    8-9-10. No amount of pumping is going to get these guys moving, no matter how high the rider’s hands are, or how far forward the rider sits, or how high the posting! I’m glad their riders aren’t pulling on the reins. 9 might be rideable once his sticky-ness and lack of forward can be addressed.
    11-12-13-14-15 All the same problem! These horses are responding to very heavy/harsh hands. Some by coming behind the bit, and others by poking their nose up or out. Notice most riders have their hands (or fists) practically planted in their crotch. These horses are all being cranked in. One rider has her hands high on the neck, but still in a death grip. 15 has a longer rein, but from the rider’s body position s/he looks like s/he’s got her whole body braced on that inside rein. I don’t see any major problems with any of these horses for low level work, or even more. Buy them some new riders, or buy their riders some better instructors! More seriously, it took me a long time to figure out how to have soft but effective hands. Seeing the pictures of horses with heavy-handed riders really shows the damage it does to the horse’s mind, let alone the body.

  13. #41 is my favourite photo. The rider is clearly a novice who is doing some work on her base of support. She has a loop in her rein, and is working on a light seat. She isn’t really doing a whole lot to help her horse (she’s working on her own self), but she is not hindering him in any appreciable way. The horse has decent natural posture, and is doing plenty to help his own self out. Based on his expression, I’m guessing he knows a lot about protecting himself, regardless of the rider. I like him.

  14. I have a question – As someone who has a horse who I am really struggling to get topline on. As far as I can tell from what I’ve learned from this website, he’s a bit post-legged, long backed and he has a huge sharkfin whither. I understand a lot more about how horses work and how they should work than I used to (sometimes it feels like ignorance was bliss!) But it means that I’m noticing a lot more than my horse is lacking top line and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. He was out of work for 12 months when I was overseas in 2013 and though I’ve been riding consistently for the past year, it still looks pretty dire. Ergo, I’m doing something wrong.

    I understand the circle of muscles and how they’re supposed to work, the question I have is this – I know he’s breaking at the 3rd vertebrae, and his poll isn’t up. I suspect this is where some of our problems come from. Except I don’t crank him down or have a lot of contact, he just bends like that himself. I have no idea how to fix it though? I can add some photos if that would help.

    I’ve found this blog really helpful and informative and I like to think it’s improved my riding and my relationship with my horse. So I hope someone can help me. I am planning to get lessons later this year, but I don’t have a float and there’s not a lot of good instructors in my area either so I’m trying to learn what I can where I can.

    • He may be physically locked/blocked/braced/stuck and needs some therapy to break the cycle. Pictures and video would help us narrow down the possibilities and suggestions for moving forward.

    • You can absolutely learn a lot from this blog and apply it to your riding. I also have a horse that is long backed plus a long neck and he wants to break at the 3rd vertebrae. This blog has helped us get back on track without the need of regular instruction. Merc can help you with the direction you need to go so pics are a great idea. Then you can have a friend take pics / vid as you move forward and you can assess your progress. Bad instuction is worse than none as long as you form a plan and ride towards it.

      • Thanks Merc and blondemare, I am doing my best to apply the things I learn on this blog to my riding. I find myself staring intently at photos of my boy and trying to measure his trot triangles and what not. Unfortunately my internet is too slow to try and upload a video, but I’ve got a few photos from october last year and from this month (I didn’t ride at all in between because I broke my arm, so if my position in the later ones is a bit rubbish, that’s why. Two months off kills your muscles!)

        So basically he’s a reining bred paint horse but was pretty much a reject because he’s a much more thoroughbred type than what the breeders were looking for. He’s 15.2hh. He was 5 when I bought him and only had basic groundwork, so he was broken in for me over about 12 months, with me being closely involved with his training – but he is my first horse so it was and still is a big learning curve. It’s only been in the past 18 months or so that I’ve really started to think about how I’m riding and how he’s using his body. He’s had some Bowen Therapy treatments before I broke my arm which improved his metabolism, but because I was off work for so long with my injury, I wasn’t able to afford to get any more done. It’s certainly on my list on things to do though. He’s ridden probably between 3-5 times a week depending on when I’m working and the weather.
        As far as myself, I know I need to pull my shoulders back a bit and turn my toes in more, both are things I’m working on correcting when I ride.

        These first photos here were the oldest, I realised I had my hands quite high in these and worked on bringing them down next time I rode.

        This was a couple of weeks after

        And this was our second ride back after the 2 months off for the broken arm.

        Hopefully those help. He tends to hollow out if you don’t keep him moving forward into the contact, but when you pick up the contact, he breaks at C3.

        • To me he looks like he’s in the habit of moving heavy on the forehand and wanting the rider to carry him. His length of stride isn’t at issue IMO and I’m thinking more lateral work would be in order – more collection. I would ride him on more circles of varying sizes and focus on bending and suppling to get him off the inside rein by positioning him in proper bend and then releasing the inside rein and asking him to carry himself for a few strides. I’d do a ton of leg yields at the walk and encourage his inside hind to step under himself always focusing on your release when he ‘weighs nothing’. I’d also do a lot of counterbending on a circle – again focusing on lightness to the hand – get in then get out. I’m a huge fan of backing as well – remembering that all impulsion forward and backwards needs to come from leg, not hand. As your guy is naturally downhill, you will always have to work at it as I do with my stock types but we have moments of brilliance so it can be done!

          • Hey blondemare, yeah, I know he’s heavy on the forehand – but believe me, he’s getting better! You should have seen him before. I used to feel like I was actually carrying his head, which as I’m sure you know, isn’t fun. We’ve started doing bending and counter bending recently, but it’s taking a while for him to get the hang of it. Sometimes he does it really well and sometimes he gets really jacked off about it. I will definitely work on the leg yields and circles when I can (unfortunately my riding surface is a bit less than awesome which complicates things). Thankyou for your advice! 🙂

        • He is significantly downhill with an upside down neck at this point. Forward into contact, especially hurried into forward only makes him drop the base of his neck more. He has a massive engine with a decent placement of the LS joint so you have something to work with.

          At there is a horses inside out image of a rider in skeleton body suit. It illustrates a dropped base of the neck from riding forward into contact, horse on forehand and some rider faults. You can find the image by searching Sylvia Loch images as well.

          The rider doesn’t fit her saddle. Her position is forced by the deep constricting seat and knee blocks. note she really can’t get her seat bones on the flat of her saddle. She has not hollowed her back as so many riders do, but her head has the weight forward of her shoulders which are collapsing and she is leaning back in the upper body but allowing her elbows forward to try to have a giving contact. She has contorted herself to try to look aligned while being a piece of cooked spaghetti.

          If she could open the angle of her pelvis and knees slightly (imagine side ways v that get wider at the open ends) it would allow the seat bones to come under her more and onto the flatter part of the saddle. Her knees can drop and leg relax and weight will flow more easily down her leg so she has a long rekaxed leg and gravity heps her keep the weight in her heels. Allowing her elbows/upper arms to come back in line with her torso will allow her shoulders to straighten and chest to open, letting her head to come back slightly puts the weight down the spine.

          There are only a couple riders in 40 plus pictures that come close. The high level dressage riders could do it, but they contort themselves to unnaturally pull in big horses.

          Mostly the point of that long diversion is to allow you to see how position of the riders body messes up contact and balance for the horse.

          Your horse has significant challenges of his own which will require you to always be working on your form. He also will drop the base of his neck at this point in time to firm contact because he simply doesn’t have the muscling to lift the base of his neck and hold it.

          Lots of long and low for this guy, don’t try to force a dressagey look on him. Lots of walk where your hand can follow more accurately and encourage stretching of his neck, lowering his head and letting the nuchal ligament system over the withers to mechanically create a less hollo position for his neck. You will actively engage his hind feet to step under towards the center line of his body, and encourage him to become straight without any tension in his top line.

          you need to do ground work as well, stretches where he reaches down and under with neck straight, no head tilt, and has to lift the base of his neck. also, once he gets the idea of how tonlift, ask him to back with base of neck lifted and head lowered and body relaxed. It will encourage engagement of the haunches and creating strong belly muscle as well as communication.

          • So jrga, do you think removing or using smaller knee blocks would help my position? This saddle has removable blocks, so I can take them out and there are smaller ones available. I only have the big ones in because I used to have a lot of trouble keeping my legs under my body and the blocks helped me train myself to sit better. And are you saying if I spread my legs more from my hips and knees that will also help?

            By long and low, am I looking to get his neck stretched down, with his head vertical or close to? Or is it alright to let him poke his nose forward as long as he’s low? After he’s warmed up a bit, he often wants to go low, putting his head down and forward (think reining sort of low), is that the sort of stretch I’m looking for? And then once he’s starting to build up the muscle on the top of his neck and back do I ask him to start lifting his head little bits at a time?

            We do some stretching on the ground – mostly belly lifts, bum scrunches and nose-to-shoulder type stretches. Should I be getting him to stretch his head between his knees sort of position?

            Thankyou so much for your help, I am looking forward to starting to work on getting him looking and working better and improving my own riding and knowledge as well.

          • Let me take this in parts. First rider position.

            Use your first picture as one example. Take the next to last as the other example. Compare where your seat is info from the saddle front to back. In the first you have closed the angle of your hip and knee too much, forcing your butt up the cantle and your seat bones off the flat part of the seat and out of good contact with the horse’s back. You have also lost all stability of your seat the way, if the horse yanks on the reins you’re going to be pulled forward. Also this forces your knee up and over the knee block and takes the weighty out of your lower leg. You no longer have a long draped leg that gives aids quietly. You will bounce yourself out of the saddle and bump your horse’s back creating the dreaded feed back loop where you bounce, he get’s hollower and tighter making you bounce more, etc. The horse will never stretch to the bit while that is happening. In the second shot, your hip is more open, there is less bend in your knee and you have a longer leg and better align meant of your torso, so weight flows more naturally down your leg without needing to try to force the heel down or create muscular tension. You don’t need a knee block if you get balanced on your seat bones and open the hip angle, think more of kneeling in a church. If your legs are tight, stretch them with yoga using some of the lunge and back bridge type positions until you can sit in almost a kneel in the saddle without tension. I suspect you are at the beginning of a rise at the trot here, nevertheless that is where you need to be all the time with your hip and knee angles, and more to the front of the saddle so seat bones are on the flat. You also have a tendency to stand at the rise, not use your core to pull you slightly up and forward through your hands while your hands remainstationary. Part of what you see as high hands is because they have to rise as you stand, they are connected to your torso after all. This also pulls on your horse and prevents a consistent contact and he will hollow. Yoga breathing exercises can help here, as a good instructor will teach you not to inhale and inflate the chest, but to relax and fill the belly. In other words, don’t have your diaphragm only lush up on your lungs, use belly/ core muscles to pull air INA and your belly moves out,pooches slightly. This also allows you to deepen your seat into the saddle.

            Next, the lower back must be relaxed and not hollow. Women never can round the lower back into the c of a man’s lower back because the pelvis is built differently. But you have to stretch and loosen it enough to hit neutral. This means that you make it more likely your seat bones are correctly on the saddle and you haven’t rolled forward and out of contact. Find a hard surface and practice finding this seat bones, getting your lower back relaxed and neutral, and breathe by filling the belly, not up high in the chest.leave

            Next, getting the shoulders back but still relaxed. This also directly relates to elbows.and hand position. Despite form for hunter showing, which tends to require hands the withers, contact that encourages a soft place for the horse and lifting the base of the neck requires bent elbows. So bend them and keep the bend. For most people this will bring your hands up out of the withers and more at your waist and over the pommel of the saddle or if you have short arms propotionally, slightly behind the pommel. Leave them there. When your elbows go back to your torso and you have your palms facing inwards, and no tension in your lower back, your shoulders relax back and the shoulder blades tend to lay flatter over your rib cage. If you use muscles not balance and gravity to bring your shoulders back, you create tension in your back, shoulders and arms. So it may look pretty OK to humans watching you,but there is a world of difference in what your horse feels from you, and he is going to stiffen against your stiffness. Then it is a tug of war with his jaw and neck locked against you.

            Next piece is to get the chin up but not by tilting it up, that’s like horse sticking it’s nose out, it will hollow your neck and create tension. Any tension carries through your back and arms to the horse. Lift your eyes and allow the weight of your skull take your chin up and get your head balanced over your shoulders. We spend too much time over keyboards and straining to see TV, computer or phone key boards, so we tend to jut our chins out and heads forward of our shoulders. In your first picture you lifted your chin but you can see the weight of your head is in front of your shoulders even though they too are collapsed forward because you tried to create a giving contact without elbow bend and a natural hand position. Close your fingers but don’t squuze them into a death grip, open fingers doesn,’t make for soft contact either.
            In the second oicture your head is preety good without neck tension but still in front of your shoulders. If you’ve never read Sally Swift get a copy.

            Once you get head and spine relaxed and aligned,weight falls down and onto your seat bines which are correctly placed on the flat of the saddle. The leg is relaxed and falls down from the hips with no tension.

            One reason I suggested lots of walk work is because it is easier to relax and stay properly balanced, and to run self checks to fix your position. You do not need to begin to fix a top line in trot or canter. As both Mercedes and I mentioned much can be done with ground work.

        • You have significant conformation issues to overcome; downhill build, low set neck, longish loin and straighter hind leg. Individually they are tough to deal with, together they are super tough. I do want to say, though, that I think there’s been improvement particularly the neck muscling seems to have smoothed.

          I agree with jrga – lots more groundwork to show him how to move correctly without the burden of weight. Regular massage, daily stretching (do them all), tons of groundpole and cavelletti exercises, longeing in a longeing cavesson followed later by long lining and in hand gridwork, and hillwork. Something as simple as a small jump onto a bank (jump) in hand would help tremendously. If the bank was also on a slight uphill slope, even better.

          I also agree with jrga, this horse needs to live in long and low. You are closest to that in the last picture, but you stopped him from achieving it by worrying about bringing his head in. Let him want the contact and stretch to it, rather than trying to hold him together. As long as you want to package him, he won’t stretch correctly. Let him fall on his face if he’s going to, he’ll only do it once – or twice if he’s bull-headed. 🙂 Stop riding what’s in front of you and start riding what’s behind you. That’s the key.

          I’m old school philosophy when it comes to leg yield (so disagree with blondemare on that point). I believe its purpose is to introduce lateral movement, nothing more. Once a horse understands the concept, we don’t leg yield anymore, but rather move forward to shoulder-fore and shoulder-in. Most people allow way too much bend in the leg yield – the horse should be quite straight with some flexion – and because that bend is away from direction of travel, it does not provide the gymnastic gains of shoulder-fore and shoulder-in, which is a transfer of weight to the inside hind and increased engagement.

          I think shallow loops in long and low are more appropriate for your horse at this stage. I also think no sitting trot and that you should do some 20m circles posting on the ‘wrong’ diagonal. It appears to me that you apply your inside leg on the sit phase of the posting trot, instead of during the up phase as you should be. Posting on the ‘wrong’ diagonal will allow you to apply the inside leg on the sit and get a very desired result from your horse. It’s also going to change your horse’s balance, bring him back to you, and help even out his musculature.

          You should be doing lots of groundpole and cavelletti work under saddle as well, and not just a few poles in a straight line, but on the circle and on shallow loops.

          It may help you to do (as in write down) a weeks work of lesson plans ahead of time. Include all stretching, warm up, cool down, break and work exercises in detail with the purpose of each and to what the goal is for that lesson.

          There is a tendency for many to be stagnant in their rides. No experimentation, no creativity, but rather a redundancy of what their last lesson/s included. When was the last time you rode a square corner? A half 20m circle then straightened and went across the short diagonal? Did walk/trot/walk/trot/walk/trot transitions every stride all the way down the long side? Purposely posted on the wrong diagonal? Rode to music to relax horse and rider?

          • Thanks jrga and Merc, I have copied and pasted your comments into a word document so I can keep them for posterity and I’ll work at applying everything you suggested re. my position and working Bob the correct way. We have plenty of hills as I live in the mountains, so hill work is easy – we have all gradients! I ride to music sometimes though I always did it because he can be a bit reactive sometimes and I wanted to desensitise him. Sometimes we do some different things in the trot – switch diagonals back and forth every couple of strides, and I do rise on the wrong diagonal sometimes. Not usually intentionally though, haha.

            Thankyou again for all your suggestions. Long and low, interesting rides, cavaletti and ground work.

  15. I looked at the ones that looked happy, relaxed, were giving their face with apparent softness and remained naturally balanced. Those are the type I like to ride and think 39 40 and 43 were the guys I might take home.

  16. I love this blog! My comments without an in-depth breakdown of “why”. 6-Big Lick TWH. Need I say more? 7-Probably flat shod walker-smooth gait and a rather nicely put together horse. 8-10-no real comment here. 11-Baroque horse, nice quality, deathgrip on reins, C-3 broken. Head is too big for the rest of the body. 12-No development where it is needed. 13-This horse is not as awful as he looks. The saddle should be moved back maybe 6 inches. You seem to have grouped these horses with their riders doing particular things-13,14,15 all have riders with deathgrips. In contrast, 16 and 17 are useful, forward horses with good riders. 18 through 24 have horses behind the bit due to exceptionally tight reins. I think these show how a horse behind the bit cannot really move forward and how it throws the entire balance off. 20 and 23 of this sequence are not so bad. They still have forward movement and could be very nice horses. Next we have a “loose rein” sequence in 26 through 29 with horses behind the bit despite a loose rein. I think these are horses who lack “self carriage” altho the picture could have been snapped at a point where they pulled their nose in. 29 is a cutie though! Looks like a very useful hunter-pony! 30-Not sure what to make of this one. To me, he looks like an old hunter-condition, hunter’s bump and he is a school horse who is used only over small fences. He probably has an iron-mouth but teaches the riders to get a ride out of an old warrior despite his limitations. (I may be totally wrong on this, but I have seen many similar in HJ riding schools). 31 through 38. People fighting their horses with the exception of #33. He is very nicely developed-and he takes the big fences too! 40 and 41-forward horses, atheletes, light hands on the riders (note the wrist!). The best ones of the lot, I think. 42-this is what you get when the horse spends his life at a gallop with a tie-down. Collection neither expected nor useful in a polo pony. He looks like a jackrabbit! 43 and 44-two very nice western horses, doing their job, and built right for it. 45-no development where it counts. Too bad. Rider is trying to work with this horse but her good seat and yielding hands cannot fix everything wrong with this horse. I know my comments are more aimed toward the rider than the horses for now. I very much enjoy all the comments above. Keep it going!

  17. Thanks for the reply, Mercedes! My current horse life involves observing a lot of fairly good horses being spoiled by deeply flawed training practices, so I tend to think that everything can be fixed by changing up the riding. My early horse life was fugly horses ridden by hooligan teens, so while I saw a *lot* of bad conformation, I never saw anyone trying to overcome it.

  18. I am going to deny myself the pleasure of ripping apart what look to me like the obvious “fails,” and comment further on the horses that looked like they were being ridden okay. I feel like I need more practice looking at the subtleties of “pretty much OK, but…” and also thinking about the limitations of the horse as opposed to the limitations imposed by the rider.

    #9. I think this draft horse is moving out OK, and has a full complexus muscle in the neck and no obvious hunter bump. But when I enlarge the photo, I see that there is something funky about the reins: looks like a running martingale is pulling the rein downward. I don’t like the rider’s seat; she looks like a tentative beginner or re-rider who is tipping forward and letting her heel rise, and the saddle is too small for her. Perhaps these factors are contributing to stall the horse behind a bit, so that it’s moving more on the forehand with a perceptibly bigger angle in the front legs? The condition of the horse looks better than you might expect with this riding and gear, so maybe a sturdy draft with a strong short back isn’t going to show damage as quickly as a light horse?

    15. I know one of the other posters included this in the “death grip” category but I don’t see this. I see “clear contact” but not a death grip. I think that the rider is asking for a bit of inside flexion to the head/poll, which is a good thing. The rider is looking at the horse’s head, not up ahead, with a thoughtful look, and the hands seem “thoughtful” to me somehow, even though they are the dreaded “piano hands,” not thumbs up. I think this is a naturally downhill little horse being ridden OK, and in a way that will benefit him. The horse has a rather thoughtful, listening look as well, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this was a fairly green horse early on in its education.

    17 is stretching to the bit and the triangles between the front legs and back legs are equal. I’d like the rider to slouch a little less, but he looks like he has a nice secure leg and the reins are very slightly draped. This seems like a very nice “hunter” posture in the horse. As I think others have pointed out, he is a bit slow in getting his front foot out of the way of his rear foot, so he is stepping to the inside with that foot to not kick himself. Maybe this shows he is a little on the forehand and needs to be encouraged to shift his weight back a little? maybe if the rider didn’t slouch?

    16: the front legs are making a slightly larger space than the rear legs, which could indicate that the horse is a bit on the forehand., restricted a bit by the tighter reins. But Mercedes told me to look again 🙂 and I now see that if I compare 16 and 17, it looks like 17 has a larger hip and perhaps better hip angles. So 16 could be less able to compensate for less than optimum riding.

    20 & 23 strike me as nice horses performing well under heavy contact, but they are broken at the 3rd vertebrae and would move out nicer if they were ridden with more tact. If they are kept in this “frame” for long periods of time, they will start to show physical degradation somewhere along the ring of muscles.

    28 looks to me like a draft that is not really meant for riding. His hip is small in comparison with the length of his body and the size of the shoulder and neck. I can really see him leaning into a plow. This might be his maximum of stepping up and under himself, as his loins seem rounded. In comparison, 29, the heavy pinto pony, is hollow in his loins in this photo, but might have more scope behind than the draft horse if he were ridden better.

    I’m just commenting on the trot photos as I find it harder to tell what’s happening in canter photos. I think I can “see” a canter in action, but am sometimes stumped by the various poses you get in still shots of a canter.

    • What I’m most happy to read in this post was a change in perspective. When you do that, you start to see and understand all sorts of other things you never have.

  19. Thanks (if that was meant for me specifically rather than the whole crew 🙂 )! Actually, I’ve been mulling over these pictures for another day. And if the question is reframed as “who is actively schooling the horse in a way that improves its posture?” then there is only one out of the whole 49: #15, the modest little black pony. All the other riders divide into one of two categories. Either they are in competition, pushing the horse into stylized movements with the eye of a judge on them. Or they are just passengers, either neutral or negative. #15 has some technical “flaws: in lessons, you’d get reprimanded for “piano hands,” or looking down at the horse’s head. The elbows could be more bent and relaxed. But the hands are open and the fingers are working. The horse is on “clear contact” with an open poll, and the rider is asking something. I think it’s a slight inside bend, but it might be the start of a volte or a turn. The horse and rider are paying attention to each other: the rider is asking a question, and the horse is listening and saying “is this what you want?” From the fence lines in the background, this horse looks like he is naturally downhill, but the medium head set and the inside bend are helping to counteract that. He is getting his front foot out of the way before his hind leg lands, which shows that he is lighter on the forehand than you might expect from a downhill build.

    Out of the groundwork pictures, I’m drawn to #48, the buckskin pinto pony. His poll is a little too vertical, but the handler seems to be getting a bit of neck stretch and telescoping out of the pony with no accessory aids. Pony seems rounded in the haunches and is stepping out nicely. However, I’m not 100 % sure what I’m seeing. Maybe what looks like a stretch is just attacking the dog! I do know a couple of trainers that can get horses to telescope on the lunge in just a rope halter, by encouraging lateral movement out on the circle. It takes a few minutes, and then the horses relax into it.

  20. Forward down and out is hard to come by in a photo on the web

    This horse has truly stretched out while many such as the grey (45) is down but a tight grip on the mouth and too short rein keeps the horse from being out. So if your reins are too short to let the horse to fully stretch and be out, you need to fix that.

    This horse has lifted the base of the neck and shows some engagement behind, this is what you want to see when the horse has started to understand how to step under towards the midline as it moves.

    The purpose of forward down and out is to teach a horse to engage the hind correctly without a restricting hand up front. A horse always held back by the hand may lower its head, but it holds its nose in, and many times it is obvious how strained the neck muscles have become, and hypertrophied by wrong work.

    • With my history of riding having been primarily reining, allowing or asking for a horse to work without the support of the rider’s hands holding it together was the norm for me. I was taught to ‘get in, get out’ and to leave the horse alone and allow the horse to carry itself. My trainer insisted that we do bending exercises first and foremost as a warmup before moving onto circles, stops, spins, to fine tune responses to hand and leg and to limber up the horses. Bending was in essence half pass at a walk between cones, changing direction of bend at each cone. The idea being to maintain bend, sideways and forward motion, having the horse respond to inside leg (bend) and outside leg for direction and impulsion. This was the basis for training response, lightness and self carriage and eventually, spins by closing the outside aids and releasing some of the bend. We worked in reverse bend to free shoulders, to teach proper crossover of the front legs if either side was sticky.

      I teach leg yield in the very beginning of riding a young horse. When the horse understands to move off leg, I then ask for a few steps of pivot against the rail which puts the horse on its haunch and allows the shoulders to move with the weight rocked back. I find it helps balance and teaches the horse that it can turn without weighting the front feet and doing a turn on the forehand.

      Mercedes mentioned that leg yielding is often done with too much bend and I agree. If I’m in right leg yield, bent left, I will soften my left rein and increase pressure on the right – this catches up the hip and avoids overbending and puts the horse on the outside rein which is what we want. I can increase right rein and left leg and move the shoulders around the the right hip in a reverse bend. This really lightens up the front of the horse and can and should be done with light, driving aids from the leg more than heavy hands dragging the horse around. Backing is also wonderful for building strength.

      I find it hard to imagine not utilizing these exercises as part of my daily warmup. I believe they strengthen and limber as any stretching or yoga type exercise does and the crossover of legs in bend strengthens muscles that forward motion alone cannot. As this is not in the standard succession of dressage training but bending is something taught early for reiners, cutters, etc., disciplines that also require a great deal of collection. So my thought is, how can this not also benefit any horse by building strength followed by our preceding long and low zero contact forward riding?

      • Reining horses are notoriously wet noodles, heavy on the forehand, with haunches often displaced when being asked to canter/change lead. Lightness in the hand is often evasion, and collection often isn’t collection. Just sayin’. Cutters have their own issues, as do dressage horses.

        You know that your horses tend to have the same issues (which you’re working on), so something about what you were taught is at the very least, incomplete. No?

        Backing ‘can be’ a great exercise. It can also be extremely uncomfortable/painful if not done right and with much consideration.

        • I prefer engagement of the inside hind without first worrying to much about the head or trying to move sideways. So walk forward on lunge or long lead, and use a hand, whip or tail of the lead line to encourage the inside hind to step towards the midline. Rather than the disengagement idea that has the horse turn to face you, the horse needs to keep moving. The stepping under helps to set the horse up to bend, is, to be straight on a circle. When the horse understands the movement, then one can start to ask with the lunge line for the horse to respond to half halt to get a better bend and some stretch thought the top line. Done from both sides it usually shows you which side is stiffer and let’s you get a young horse more balanced even before you start to ride. It can also be helpful with an older horse that has been ridden tight and crooked for a long time.

      • The four frames of leg yield pictures shows exactly what I was talking about – too much bend. It also shows unevenness of the exercise. The horse takes a significantly bigger lateral step with the foreleg than it does with the hind leg. The first frame shows some lateral step behind, the last frame none, yet look at how much the horse crosses in front. That is not a correctly executed leg yield, which should be significantly straighter through the body, with a touch of flexion, and equal lateral step back and front.

        • Try finding an image of a leg yield with a bigger step behind! This was the best I found. What I do like about the leg yield is that it will, if done correctly, place the inside hind deep under the horse’s body. I find that this lightens the front end and the base of neck naturally elevates to maintain balance. I ride for a ‘feel’ more than a position and I focus on the hip, not the shoulder. When starting the exercise the horse will overbend. I still reward the response to leg, the try. As the exercise becomes stronger, I ask for less bend, take up the outside rein and ask the inside hind to step deeper. I ride bending exercises with more thought than in the past but I still find them very beneficial to collection. I also ask for backup in both bends and straight – implusion comes 100% from legs, not hands and I want shoulders elevated and diagonal pairs crisp with an even tempo.

          And yes, we have a way to go as I learn to stay connected to the horse without overflexion and I encourage a more open throat and higher poll. We ride forward and I do allow my horse to reach down though his tendency with his downhill conformation is the dump heavily on his forehand, poke his nose out and shuffle along. This is why I suggested bending exercises for Silverhorses as her horse is also quite downhill and I feel that lateral exercises would help him build strength through his loin and self carriage by his hind coming deep under his body. I picture him long and low being too low and heavy. I would think that both long and bending exercises would help him. I hope Silverhorses will continue to post pics of her progress!

          • Read jrga’s next comment, where she explains that leg yield is not a collection exercise. Shoulder-in is, though! Silverhorses’ horse isn’t ready for SI yet. I did agree with you that bending exercises would help her horse, but I specifically chose a much more elemental ones in shallow loops and 20m circles. I don’t think her horse is anywhere near being capable of correctly executing the kind of bending you are suggesting.

            As the owner of a very downhill horse with a low neck set and very posty legs behind, I can tell you that the quickest (and I think best way) to prevent dumping on the forehand and shuffling along is FORWARD, which means the horse is in front of the leg. Long and low doesn’t put a horse heavily on its forehand because part of long and low is the horse being forward. But the point of long and low is to stretch the topline so that the hind legs actually have the ability to step deeper, more center body, which they can not do as long as the topline is tight and hollow.

            I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a horse poking its nose out, which seems some sort of sin in Western riding disciplines and other English competitive events. Instead of viewing the head position as a result of what the rest of the body is doing, in particular the hind legs, the nose is forced or held closer to the chest as if that just collected the horse. It did not. The nose of the horse automatically comes back on its own when real collection and self-carriage happens. And then sometimes, a horse can not bring the nose in because there’s not enough room for the neck to fit in the spacing between the horse’s jowls. Forcing a horse’s nose in that has that kind of conformation restricts the throat and can create all sorts of tension, bracing, evasions etc… My horse is such a horse. There is also the conformation fault of hammer-headedness that will also make coming onto the vertical very, very hard for a horse.

          • I don’t particularly mind a nose sticking out, what I don’t like the feel of is the shuffling gait. My guy wants to quicken his steps or break into canter when I ask for long and low in trot. I find the need to use my reins to counter this, sometimes only with small touches but most often we end up back into bump, bump, bump with my leg and putting him back on my outside rein. Walk works well and feels fabulous on the buckle with my legs tapping his side when the hind is about to step forward. He swings quite nicely. There’s a fine line between forward and quick though!

            What feels right is when I’m driving softly with my legs, he’s on the outside rein, and I can release it forward and he maintains the gait with lift and follows my seat. When this happens, albeit not as often or long as I wish!, there’s no better feeling.

          • I don’t think he understands what you’re asking for. It sounds like he thinks you want faster. There’s no reason for him to interpret your leg aids as canter unless you’re telling him that, or he doesn’t understand. Part of it may of course be that he’s losing his balance, panicking, and then switching to the faster canter gait to try and comply with what he thinks is your request and to regain a comfortable position for himself. Try these two exercises:

            1) Put down half a dozen cavelletti set at the middle height at an appropriate trot distance for him – somewhere around 4’6″ give or take. Then send him through in long and low and keep him forward and in front of your leg. He won’t quicken unless he wants to end up on his face. The cavelletti will show him how to articulate his joints, increase engagement, and helping to improve his balance.

            2) Trot in long and low, and the moment he thinks to quicken, put him on a 15m circle. Having to bear more weight on the inside hind immediately will bring him back to you. Let him settle back into the long and low, and then ride out of the circle and carry on. You may only go two strides and have to put him back on the circle. Rinse and repeat until he starts to get the hang of it.

            Of course, I’d be inclined to do this on the ground first (in a longeing cavesson). 🙂

          • do you have a dusty arena or are to ride in? A shuffling gait creates a ton of dust. Toes dig in and fling up the dirt. A horse moving correctly, picking up and gently placing down his feet, albeit slowly, creates very little dust and very little noise of footsteps. So what may feel too slow to you and like a shuffle, may be one, or may in fact be your horse’s natural tempo. Many of the big time dressage horses are tipped onto the forehand because they are ridden over tempo, not giving those back legs time to bend, fold,reach and unfold, ie, carry the weight. Too many traditionally trained dressage instructors want forward without recognizing good forward. Speed is inimical to collection. You seem to concentrate on ‘is my working trot good enough’ without realizing it will get better when you stop working working trot and start working collecting exercises. They tell us trot is trainable, which means you do a lot of things that build a part of the trot, isolate a hind leg, improve bend, in exercises that have nothing to do with the trot you want, maybe aren’t even ridden in trot, and then one day, the trot you want is there because you put all the pieces in before worrying about the final product.

            What Mercedes is describing in her exercise she gave you is a way to resist the rush, both for you and the horse, you have to think less forward and more round to ride the smaller circle, and so does the horse.

          • My horse’s natural tempo is slow and ‘get from point A to point B with the least amount of effort’. If left on the buckle and asked to jog, he will shuffle along kicking up dust. He looks / feels neutral to me. Neither hurting nor helping himself. He doesn’t toe stab terribly but he also doesn’t articulate his joints or lift his back / base of neck any more than absolutely necessary to maintain tempo. He does, however, maintain a rhythm at the canter and has taken WP Championships at the few Open show we went to Pre-WD. He would most likely lap the “real” (isn’t that an irony!) WP horses in triple speed and I’m perfectly fine with that. I would love to take him to a breed class just for that fact and watch the jaws drop and soak up the giggles. That’s my sarcasm talking.

            This is our partial journey, I offer myself as guinea pig 3 on this post.

            Pre “Dressage” jog – Shuffling along

            Early attempt working trot – Overflexed

            Current working jog – A bit too heavy in hand but a good effort

            He easily breaks at C3 and this is our struggle. Our tempo is too slow for “Dressage” people and “Dressage” tempo feels too fast for me. There is a place between reining and dressage that feels appropriate to me and this is where we ride. There is a lot to be learned inter-discipline. And a lot to be fixed. There is a middle ground where I feel I belong where there are no extremes but boundaries to be broken that cross into fun without worry. I can’t imagine it’s much fun for a horse to know nothing but extension, collection, round & round. We need to ride for the horses as well as ourselves, reward them with certain freedoms, a hand gallop across a field, trotting through the snow, swimming in the ocean. These things will always remain an integral part of these partnerships for me as will the perfect ride, the perfect test.

          • He seems to have improved greatly in the way he carries himself, the development of his hindquarter, a full complexus muscle showing in the third trot picture. He lacks suspension in his trot, but that is hard to come by with his build.

            Cantering isn’t a bad idea if he likes it and moves out more freely. Many horses prefer canter. Does he round up more naturally for you in canter?

            How much pole or cavaletti work do you do with him? That is another way to get him to start making more effort to use himself more fully.

            At this point I will echo Mercedes as well, he has the basics in place, it is now time for him to start living in shoulder in at walk and trot. Do you have any pictures of him on a circle? I really see no real flexion in him in the straight line down the track, is he stiff through the jaw and poll? If he isn’t releasing softly to a slight squeeze on the rein to create inside flexion, he’ll stay locked in the back and not develop towards collection.

            The breaking at C3 says he can’t handle as much hand at this point, it is really hard but keep working on your hands to find the sweet spot.

            And, yes, having fun is important, drilling takes the life out of a horse.

          • why leg yield doesn’t have the same ‘collecting’ affect as shoulder in, or even a smaller circle. Yes the horse reaches farther under its body, but it does several things when that happens. One the leg isn’t folding up to do this, but extending, since it is moving away from the bend, you don’t get the same fold of the leg, placed closer under the hindquarter and spend all the time on the loaded spring of the leg and lift upwards as the leg straightens. It is reaching across the outside leg that carries weight, but is to the outside of the centerline of the horse’s body. Neither leg then is ‘collecting’. In addition since the leg yield moves the weight of the body away from the bend, it doesn’t isolate weight over that one leg as much as half pass, which moves the bend over the inside hind, and that why it is a collecting exercise as it passes weight onto the fully articulated rear leg.

            All dressage collection is about creating appropriate bend for the track you are on and asking the rear legs to carry weight. Even on a straight track, one should have flexion to the inside, it is slight, but there is always the suggestion of a bend, the flexion increases on a circle and the smaller the circle the greater the bend, and correctly ridden, the more the hind legs carry the weight.

          • Yes, he has a much better canter than trot. He tracks well under himself and adopts a rocking gait that he can stay in quite comfortably. We score much better in canter than trot – no surprise there. He is also very bendable and supple and we were corrected for overbending by a judge. As his initial breaking to saddle was loaded with suppling exercises, he has a lot of buttons. He can carry himself quite nicely IF I ask him to and encourage him to get off my hand, he would much prefer to lean and have mom hold him up. He will shoulder fore, shoulder in, half pass, turn on haunch or forehand, back and collect. The key is to do them correctly and with fluidity and the rider to keep moving, stay on the appropriate seatbone, no piano hands, keep up impulsion, soft connection, legs, legs, legs, tempo, open hip angle, look up, stay on the outside rein….

            I very much agree with Merc also on not always circling to slow down…I think this is fine for a very green horse but after a while, the horse needs to be more responsible for his tempo and follow the rider’s seat. I prefer to add some form of lateral exercise with more impusion from my body rather than trying to slow the horse down. The exercise itself will slow them down and refocus them back on the rider to be more attentive. I find long and low is something I generally close with rather than begin with during a riding session as the horse is more willing to relax and stretch when tuned up.

          • I will echo Mercedes again, from her answer below, the responsibility is on the rider, if he leans on hands it is because the hands are there to be leaned on.

            I am not sure what you mean by your body creates impulsion? Are you talking about something different than a leg aid and correct balance from you?

            Circling is not about slowing the horse down. That isn’t the point of it. It is asking the horse to better use the inside hind and straighten to his path. A circle makes it easier for the rider to find crookedness and braces in the horse, because a correctly bent horse traces the circle correctly and anything other than that comes out an egg or some kind of polygon. A smaller circle requires more strength and balance but a few steps along one may help the horse understand how he is to carry himself, ie, what we are asking for, so that as he gains strength, that is the quality of movement he gives more of the time. The result of a correctly ridden circle on a correctly bent horse is more engagment, a step forward on the path to collection, so more energy is up, impulsive, rather than forward. The horse’s legs should be moving at the same tempo, it is the length of step that shortens and hence forward speed decreases. Thinking of it as a speed issue will keep one from finding the value and the progress that comes from the exercise.

            Work starts and is punctuated by stretching, it isn’t an end of the work session thing unless you usually work ten to fifteen minutes. Especially on a horse who finds the work challenging because of conformation issues.

  21. There are reasons to use leg yield, but it really isn’t a top line building exercise in its fundamental functions, as it isn’t a collecting exercise. Collection is a process of increasing the bow in the spine, engaging hindquarter at SL joint, raising back, raising base of neck and extending the neck to flatten the ‘s’ curve which forms the arch of the neck and makes the poll the highest point. The spine must be straight, the poll unlocked and the muscling strong but flexible for these things to happen.

    Hence, making sure to sue FDO to stretch the topline and as a release after any collecting exercise. Collecting exercises tend to isolate a hind leg and ask it to bear more weight in the grounded phase (which because of kinectic energy or some physics stuff many horse people slept through, releases more energy upward from the loaded spring of the hind leg). The more one engages at the LS joint, ie, closes the joint, the more the leg closes, the more the spring can be loaded. So just stepping up towards the center line of the body smoothly and evenly, in groundwork, at a walk, isolates a hind leg and asks for engagement/articulation. Later, one can do it at a trot, but start at the walk. Shoulder in, haunches in, ask for engagement, articulation and greater weight bearing of a hind leg. These exercises also tend to straighten the horse, align the spine over the track of the feet, straight ahead, that means the hind step under to move in the track of the front feet (not necessarily track up and certainly not overtrack as that breaks up the even four beat nature of a walk) but follow directly behind, in a working walk, the horse should leave two footprints as the rear steps into the front footprint. In more collected walk, the horse should not track up, it should be taking shorter steps with more articulation of the hind stemming from the greater engagement of the LS (my sophisticated point!!).

    To truly get a horse to be straight in the spine and engage, no tension can exist in the toungue, poll or neck. Hence, if you ride on ‘contact’ in the english disciplines sense, you need to work on you all the time, or ride on the buckle a lot so you aren’t balancing on, bumping or applying intermittant pressure or positioning with your hands. Another old maxim, the hands belong to the horse. Your shoulders, those relaxed shoulders, belong to you. It is from the shoulder, by stopping the following motion in your back and from the swing of your arm from the shoulder, and from a slight squeeze of the softly closed fingertips, that you tell the horse, this far and no farther. Otherwise, at walk and canter, the horse moves and your hands follow the movement of his head by swinging forward from the shoulder (not by straightening the bend out of your elbows) because then your hand/arm won’t belong to the horse and you’ll hit them in the mouth. At trot, horse shouldn’t be moving his head so you shouldn’t be moving your arms by swinging or popping up in the air by standing at the post. Don’t overbend your elbows and get your hands up to your chest or even your chin (don’t laugh, I’ve been guilty of that TOO!).

    Transitions are collecting exercises, the horse should over time be trained to engage and articulate the hind legs to do soft transitions, ‘sitting down’ to move up or down in gait. Changes of direction are transitions too, requiring rebalancing if done correctly. Never ride the training out of a horse by doing the same thing for any length of time. It will ruin muscles and brain cells.

    Another thing, if your horse likes something, and becomes happy to do it or go somewhere, that is great as he will volunteer better movement. The little buckskin pony on the lunge, notice articulation in his hind, the lifting of the base of his neck. It would be great if that was because of the lunge line and handler, but its all about that dog. Stallions show the same kind of reactions to a mare. Cow ponies will show it for a cow. My guy does it for the opportunity to cross bridges and teeter totters. Go figure that one. But it is his reward after completing an exercise. I don’t have to ask him to move better just point him at that teeter totter and he takes care of the rest.

    • I think there is some confusion of responses here due to the ‘reply’ becoming unavailable on multi-comment posts. Silverhorses had stated that she takes her horse into a circle when he wants to rush and doesn’t want to push and Merc responded to her on that. I use circles to help a really green horse to slow down but I ask a horse to work harder in a circle than on the straightaway. I find that my horse excels more at smaller, harder tasks even with his lousy conformation. He will trot and canter 10m circles quite easily – he leans more on the straight when I ask for extension than he does in collection.

      What I mean by my body creating impulsion is that I set a tempo with my seat and legs and encourage him to follow it. I try to maintain the motion through my pelvis without getting stiff which will block him and cause him to slow or halt. I can either drive or slow by adjusting the motion, I can contribute to the bounce of the trot to encourage more articulation of his limbs.

      As far as stretching goes, I work more on lateral stretching at the beginning of the lesson (avg 45 minutes total) and lengthening further along into the session. I lengthen the muscles on either side of the horse before asking for self carriage or extension. Whereas, Dressage teaches lengthening before bending. I’m not yet convinced that either is wrong as there are benefits to both exercises for the horse. Though the sequence of training is very different in Dressage vs Western dressage and the tests are so designed.

      • This thread and most of the blog’s biomechanical posts address how to improve the weight bearing capability of a horse. A ‘riding’ horse is born with conformation that tends to let it carry a rider more easily. Every other horse needs a lot of help. Longitudinal stretch is a major part of that. Lateral stretch is about maximizing longitudinal stretch. A horse can’t stretch properly over the top line if it is crooked, both naturally or by influence of the rider. A major part of stretching laterally is to address crookedness in the horse’s body. If the horse is less crooked, the more likely it can stretch longitudinally, ie, round up the spinal column from poll to tip of tail. Just doing one kind of stretching, especially if you are looking for more impulsion, means you are missing the importance biomechanically of building the muscling and flexibility so the spine can lift and sink with resilience, to give you impulsion. The spine moves up, down and to both sides, each training session you need to work them all.

        In addition, longitudinal stretching helps muscles that have been contracting to relax and refill with blood, that is how muscle builds, the stress of contraction and the blood that carries of by product and helps heal any microtears, plus bring the energy for the next round of work (contraction). A muscle that is always on, contracted, atrophies. For a healthy horse, every work session of any length should have a longitudinal stretch and relaxation period to spell the muscles. You may find your horse is better able to work and stop breaking at C3 if he gets the rest and stretches.

        This blog isn’t about traditional dressage or western dressage or traditional western though Mercedes herself may come more from the english/dressage teaching method. Any riding that promotes biomechanically correct movement is correct riding. She doesn’t think western dressage as it is now constituted is correct or will promote correctness as it will be competition dressage in a western saddle with less impulsion. In large measure, she is correct. I believe it has the potential to be more if the participants insist on it being more.

        If all you want is to work on is a test, not on biomechanics than a lot that is said here by Mercedes or me is irrelevant. The tests and the training for the tests are at best misunderstood standards of what should be happening biomechanically. Sometimes those tests are at direct odds with what should be happening. At no point do I personally put any one discipline’s approach over another, the question is always ‘does this technique make sense given what I know about how a horse’s body works’. I have ridden western, I have competed on cutting horses, I have taken traditional dressage lessons, I have worked in clinics with Deb Bennett and Ray Hunt, and audited in many more clinics with natural horsemanship gurus and dressage riders from national olympic teams and the SRS, and I am now taking lessons from a hunter/jumper trainer. There are things to take from every discipline. But the way a horse’s body works trumps all of them as the final arbiter of what is correct.

  22. The number 4 horse and one of my personal prejudices against the gaited horse disciplines. What kind of bit is that on that horse? Why, it looks like a curb bit. Why is someone riding two handed with a single bridle fitted with a curb bit? A curb is intended to act differently than a snaffle and is not meant to be used two handed, it isn’t a suppling bit to ask for direct flexion side to side, it is to encouraged the horse to reach, telescope the neck and flex at the poll. In addition, with a curb chain, it produces significantly more pounds of pressure in a horse’s mouth, so it doesn’t need to be pulled tight, in and held. Once upon a time the classical high school riders rode on a loose curb (granted the shanks were long) and used a cavession, ie, actually had a rope attached to a cavesson and asked for suppling with that. Then when double bridles became common, it was common to ride three in one, ie, both reins for the curb in one hand, and the snaffle in two hands. But we keep dumbing things down, now two in two is more common, but not necessarily better, that is part of what makes it so easy to override the head.

    Much of what is wrong with this horse’s movement and the way his neck is pushed out but not lifted is that overtight curb.

    This looks like a Tennessee Walking Horse, fairly ordinary in the smallish butt (no TB or QH butts by percentage of body length), total hind leg length is long with a little too much in the gaskin by length. But this is a breed choice, the belief is that the horse will move in gait better with that long leg and to a certain extent that is true, but like most human choices for horses in the 20th century, it can be exagerated. He is long of back, adequate but not great loin, neck too low, point of shoulder could be higher, long in cannon, but again, a typical breed choice, believed to give the high action desired in the big lick walk. Together, not a riding horse conformation. The good things, he is not pulled back into the elk neck, has adequate bone and he has normal feet, no stacks, huge elongated toe, etc.

    With a little work, this guy could build a better top line, he won’t ever be meant for collection, but as a walker, perhaps chosen to save the rider’s back given what looks to be a brace on the rider, he can do his job and stay sound. That is what most of us want from our horses. If you wanted him to do dressage and collect, he’d have trouble.

    • Blondemare, he is cute! Not perfect conformation wise (but who is? we have to work with what we’ve got) but he’s obviously very well looked after, shiny, and I love his little blaze. My gelding likes to canter too, he’s a lot softer and less likely to go hollow in the canter than he is in the trot. Sounds like he’s very similar to your guy, he kicks the dirt a lot in the trot as well, and getting him to go forward without the rush is a challenge – but I’ve always used Merc’s suggestion wih quite a bit of success. When I ask for forward and he rushes instead of pushing, putting him onto a smaller circle makes him work harder and realise that wasn’t the right answer. I wish I had a bit more room in my arena to do some bigger loops, grids and things. Unfortunately my “arena” (which is on a slope, critically lumpy and full of tussocky grass) is half the size of a dressage arena, so by the time I put some trot poles in there I’ve used most of my available space.

      I definitely agree about having fun though. It’s always a great feeling to go for a trail ride or a gallop and feel them get to stretch their legs and just enjoy themselves.

      • ‘When I ask for forward and he rushes instead of pushing, putting him onto a smaller circle makes him work harder and realise that wasn’t the right answer.’

        This thought process isn’t quite complete with the responsibility directed a bit too much to the horse and not enough toward the rider. Some will argue that it’s semantics, but just a small change in your perspective can make a world of difference.

        If the horse isn’t understanding what’s being asked of it, that’s on the rider. If the horse rushes, loses balance, changes gait without being asked et al – that’s also on the rider.

        Yes, the circle is harder (in the moment) and that’s a partly correct answer for why the horse comes back and slows. The full answer is one of two things; a) the act of being put on the circle in combination with rider aids has caused the horse to disengage its haunch which slows it down, or b) the act of being put on the circle in combination with rider aids has caused the horse to have to take a deeper, more centered body step with the inside hind, thus causing the horse to engage some and carry more weight on the haunch, improving balance and changing some of the forward energy into up (impulsion) energy. All of that is on the rider, good or bad.

      • Downhill horses will always be a struggle for us riders but there is a lot to be said about the mind of stock horses and their work ethic. Trot poles are at the top of the list for spring training this year, when and if the snow ever melts……

        • Right, but as I’ve said before it doesn’t have to be either or, it’s perfectly within our abilities to put the stock horse mind into a level built body and bypass the struggle all together.

    • When your refer to a curb bit, are you speaking of a fixed shanked “grazing” bit “with a curb strap and ported mouth? Or any bit that works with leverage? I find a bit didstinction between a fixed shanked and loose shank bit and its ability to be used 2-handed. My favorite bit is a hand made hinged snaffle that will only break back and slightly forward, never up and down and won’t bend enough to cause a nutcracker effect like snaffle bits do. This bit is fabulous for riding 2 handed though it was designed as a reining bit and I showed in it one handed, of course.

      I wouldn’t expect a Weymouth bit to work in the same manner as the shanks are fixed and a I would expect a pull on one rein to cause the mouth to tilt and the horse to lean on the opposing rein which is why I would guess that the snaffle (bradoon) remains to be used laterally. I would personally like to see what happens when any flash is removed from upper level horses in full bridles.

      One of the biggest mistakes I see, IMO, is a rider pulling on both reins in a bracing manner – leaning back, throwing their legs forward and yanking both reins equally. Horses respond much better to varied rein pressure, even if ever so slightly. There is less tendency to lean when the contact is feathered utiziling one rein then the other – there’s now nothing to brace against. A lot of riders get through a lesson without doing this only to put both reins in one hand while talking to someone and yanking when the horse walks off, a snaffle becomes a nutcracker, head flings and body stiffens. A definate pet peeve of mine.

      • basically any bit that works with leverage on some form of shank, regardless of how short, is a curb bit, it includes the english style weymouth, the pelham if reins are attached any placy but the snaffle ring, and the western bits, such as a grazing bit, but also a spade, and all the oddities in between. The swivel bits and the tom thumbs that try to bridge the gap between the curb and the snaffle are not to my mind of any practical use. I would not want a swivel curb used two handed, the swivel swivels out away from the mouth so one can reach out away with the rein but that doesn’t engage the mouth of the bit to act as a snaffle does, otherwise to touch it is to pull the bottom of the shank and engage the curb strap and if you do that with different pressures, you still have a crooked bit engaged to different degrees of leverage on mouth and chin, as well as poll, if it is a ported mouthpiece it is going to hit the roof of the mouth too. Nothing about the bit is a like a snaffle designed to put pressure on tongue, bar on one side of the mouth. Others argue that when you use it two handed it moves out first (but only if you pull it out, there is no forward/backward motion to the swivel) to pre-signal that you are going to engage it. The physical restrictions on how the shank may move undercut that claim. People tell themselves stories about how things work without really looking critically at what can happen.

        Granted some snaffles, generally single jointed models also have a nutcracker effect, particularly when equal pressure is put on both reins. Snaffles are to be used two handed so that equal pressure isn’t put on both sides of the mouth. Misuse can be improved by french link style where the center of the three piece lays flat on the toungue (as opposed to Dr. Bristol that is designed to bite into the tongue).

        But mostly, no horse not prepared for self carriage, no horse that moves downhill with no lift from the base of the neck, is ready for a curb of any type. The curb is the bit for an educated horse ridden by the educated horseman that understands self carriage. Anything else is the proverbial razor in a monkey’s hands.

        A curb bit belongs on a horse that will already create bend off the leg and seat, lifts itself and generally understands reaching to the bit, ie, telescoping the neck, in other words a horse with significant training and a degree of self carriage.

        • I’m not totally convinced as to which bits cause additional discomfort over others. Most people training / riding lower level Dressage are using snaffle bits of some type. I ride in a sweet iron, loose ring snaffle mostly and will choose a sweet iron mouth over copper or ss any day. I wish I could say that the snaffle bit is by far the best choice but some horses have said otherwise. I’m not fond of the nutcracker effect and found that it tends to cause a horse to open its mouth which leads me to believe that the upward flexion of the mouthpiece can be uncomfortable to horses, especially green horses. I think that this is ‘fixed’ in many cases by slapping a figure 8 or flash on the horse to prevent it. I’m doing that very thing myself with a horse that consistently gets the tongue over the bit. A habit we hope to change as time progresses and the horse continues to relax more.

          There are many advocates of the bitless bridle, I have a horse that hates it and head tosses like a fool wearing one. But I do like the concept. There is also the bosal which I rode in for many years and discarded along the way in favor of a snaffle. I don’t feel this was a necessary choice and question why I did this.

          Then there are the leverage bits in 1,000’s of styles, shanks, mouths, headstall attachments and the like. There are low ports to cathedral ports (for those of you wishing to encourage a horse to balk or rear), snaffle mouths, spades, spoons, etc. I’ve put quite an array of bits in my gelding’s mouth and he rides fairly well in all of them given time to discover the new feel and purchase of a curb strap. I tried a short shanked correction bit – too much steel in the mouth IMO, a low but wide port, a large twisted mouth and my hinged mouthpiece. By far the hinged bit has the best response – neither too fearful from an abrupt purchase or too slow to react.

          My point is that the rider’s hands are the most important element in bit selection. I think the kindest bit for learning hands would be a snaffle with a french link style mouthpiece in a large diameter. If the steering isn’t so hot yet, I’d opt for a full cheek with keepers. Kids are still being taught every day, all day, that the key to riding is the pull. They aren’t taught about push or about the importance of release. There is no reason to be taking a right turn with the right rein pulled back toward the hip 18″ away from the horse. The finer details of riding are being missed entirely and not just by backyard teachers but successful competitiors as well. From what I see, the hunters and jumpers are the worst by far. It needs to be about more than the fence.

          • Again, I have no illusions about disciplines, there are good riders with educated technique in every discipline, and there are horribly crude riders with no good education in every discipline. And every discipline has its share of educated riders who will ignore their education to make a buck, they are probably the worst of all. I am hypercritical when I review these pictures, not because I haven’t made many of the same mistakes, ridden badly, still have horrible moments, but because if people don’t have anyone to point out how horses’ bodies really work, how the tack really works, when saddles clearly don’t fit rider or horse, when body position is impeding balance for horse and rider, when hands are wrong, then people reading here can’t learn. I also try to point out the postives, but as Mercedes said, it wasn’t easy to find ‘good’ examples. I don’t think that’s a modern problem, there has always been more bad horsemanhip than good. But I do think the opportunities to get quality education have diminished with the decline of horses as important working animals in war and commerce. I don’t regret those changes for the welfare of the average horse, but recognize the loss of collective wisdom and experience, money to fund training, that disappeared with the loss of cavalry schools.

            SIngle jointed snaffle bits become nutcrackers because people don’t know how to use them, nor do they know how to ask for release of the poll. The single most important step to unlocking the spine, creating straightness and suppleness, and a few hundred people in America can probably do it consistently. Pulling back with pressure in both reins makes a single jointed snaffle into a nutcracker. Don’t want that to happen, don’t ever pull. No one should ever pull back on a rein. Ever. Period. Absolute rule. We are human, so we will. We learn from birth to reach out and pull things to us. An almost impossible reflex to retrain. But the less you pull back, the more your horse will like his bit.

            I choose to work with a local hunter/jumper trainer because he did have a dressage/eventing background, and I watched him work horses. He doesn’t get in pulling matches, he doesn’t get angry when things go wrong, he has an impeccable seat, and he is not busy with his hands or feet. He is well educated in the use of poles and cavaletti, and he works the back end of the horse without concern for the head first. I could do much worse in my rather rural area of the arm pit of the educated horse world. There are some competition dressage folks and mostly after that, not much else to choose from aside from the kind of kiddie instructors that you complain of.

            Just as a horse’s body doesn’t work well if we mess up some part of it by constriction or keeping the horse crooked or sore because he has stacks on his feet, etc., a rider can’t have educated hands if the rider doesn’t have good body position, none of this works in a vacuum. People need to look hard at these rider’s across the disciplines, look at where people have given up their balance, and realize each time it has robbed their horse of their balance to some degree. If someone can’t see it, but they know the horse isn’t moving level, evenly, has trapped a forefoot on the ground in the way of the hind foot, then ask. Mercedes will tell you. I’ll try to tell you. Bad hands negate good body position. Bad body position means you’ll never develop consistently good hands cause you will need to move them to save yourself, not cue the horse.

            Concentrating on bits is a diversion from dealing with the basics. When one has a good body position, educated hands and knowledge of why that horse needs to release at the poll and how to get that release, then the bit is a refined aid that may help the rider. And a snaffle is a suppling bit, if you don’t know why it is or how to do it, the horse will never actually be prepared for a curb. There are lots of reasons horses don’t like a bit, past negative experiences, mouth problems that are undiagnosed, nothing to do with the bit but a pain issue because of locked vertebra and tight muscles, or it doesn’t fit or the bad hands of the rider.

          • We all have and will be less than stellar with our methods of communicating with horses from time to time, hopefully less as time passes as we develop a deeper understanding and feel for the horse in its entirety. Our disciplines of youth have molded us into the riders we are today and though that is no excuse, it is difficult to change without “feel”. I may think I’m knocking it out of the park when in all actuality, I’m failing miserably. It’s difficult to change habits, both human and horse, and it does take time and the acceptance of failure, which is the hardest of all. Riding is more mental than physical, if we see if properly in our heads, the aids come easily and the struggle is lessened. Some days I’m better than others for no apparent reason and it baffles me. I ride on.

            I’m schooling a couple of horses, one of which was completely misunderstood and corrected. The trainer ‘fixed’ the horse by putting a crazy hand-made brutal snaffle in the horse’s mouth. The first time I saw the horse ridden by the owner, all I could see was how terrible the horse moved and how upside down the neck was. Massive bulging muscle on the underside of the neck, stiff back, poll, everything. Very sad. Second time I see the horse is at a show being schooled by the trainer. Same complete body inversion, petrified of the rider’s hands and head bouncing to avoid contact. After enough canter by the trainer, kid got on, did a class and all was status quo. It was very sad.

            The horse is now in a french link and starting to reach forward again. Recent schooling ride and the horse is gaining trust in my hands, allowing me to touch the reins, extending out of a choppy trot and covering ground. The horse will walk and even trot a bit like a Bloodhound taking all the rein I offer. I’m a nobody. The previous trainer has moderate success over fences. There is no reason the horse should have improved like night and day going from a ‘professional’ to a back yard trainer. But it did and continues to relax with a happy rider no longer fearing a bucking episode. And now the rider knows why the horse bucked to begin with. People ruin horses every day thinking they’re doing right by the animal and I find that incredibly sad and frustrating. This horse is a gem.

          • I’m glad you are able to help this horse and its owner to a better way of riding. But I don’t believe for a moment that merely changing the bit changed the horse. Further, if you pulled its head up and back, the bit wouldn’t have mattered.

          • No, it goes beyond changing the bit but I’m miffed at the whole ‘stronger bit’ theory to begin with. Too bad the kid had to get tossed a couple times along the way, too, and everyone blamed the horse! The horse is keeping weight better than ever now as well. Adding a handful of tums before riding isn’t hurting either. Definite ulcers in the past IMO. We’re on a better road, not sure if the kid or the horse being so relaxed makes me happier. Probably the horse.

  23. …one could type a whole lot… I only got to 22…
    1-3: Icelandics – sorry, know nothing about them or the ideal. I will say that although working hard, I think 3 looks most engaged yet relaxed as does the rider.
    4: Lacks muscle but appears to be tracking up. Relaxed at least
    5: Horse seems tense through back. Almost looks like he’s shying from something. At least the reins are loose!
    6: I’m crying for this one too! gaping mouth, hyperflexion of fetlock…. geeze, how can you not hear that horse screaming in pain… poor thing.
    7: hollow
    8: Although the horse seems happy enough, I don’t think drafts are best suited for dressage. Yes yes, I’ve seen some awesome drafts do upper level but they are rare. Either this horse is a giant or that lady is teeny weeny.
    9: Doesn’t appear engaged, wimpy hind end. Horse is neither happy or sad…
    10: It would be unfair to critique this horse. To the rider I say “Go home and do it again”. How the heck did this guy even make it to what appears to be a well attended show? Running shoes??? Really? That horse is a saint and is going perfectly under the circumstances.
    11: Hmmmm…. if the rider is holding the frame then no. If the horse is holding the frame then there might be some training in there and at least it is trying.
    12. Looks like they are trying. Horse appears relaxed and attentive. Rider a bit tight
    13: Not engaged. Perhaps a beginner rider on a school pony?
    14: Trying I think. Horse seems happy but not fully engaged from behind. No “throughness”
    15: A youngster that’s downhill. Just riding but not actually schooling perhaps? No engagement at all.
    16: Stiff through the back, post legged.
    17: hard to tell… is the horse off balance (think speed wobble) or just really forward. Is it an attempt at long and low? Nice loose rein at least but that makes the horse on the forehand. Rider seems a bit stiff but horse appears like he likes his job.
    18: Pleasant picture I thought. Horse and rider appear in balance and relaxed.
    19: I think the rider is trying to help. A decent schooling picture?
    20: Same as 19 perhaps. Rider position could improve. I wonder how that horse would go in a regular snaffle bit?
    21: Seems a decent picture. Rider and horse trying.
    22: horse seems tight, not round. Rider looks like they are bracing but could just be a bad picture/timing.

  24. …managed to do a few more….
    23: Pleasant picture. The flash seems really tight though.
    24: Downhill! Period.
    25: Hollow, bull neck, tight reins… all suggest poor training. Rider position could greatly improve.
    26/27: Looks like they are working on bend/flexion. Sure it’s not perfect but I think they are trying.
    28: Another giant horse and pea sized rider. I think this is a classic “Steady Eddie” that just carts the kids around.
    29: Is it just me or does that kid look sour? I also get the feeling the pony is naughty considering the hardware he’s wearing.
    30: Hollow, bull neck, not reaching underneath…. etc.
    31: At first I thought it looked alright but rider looks like they are holding/bracing. It’s not a picture of relaxation or flowing movement…
    32/33: Hmmm… both these rings have some pretty big jumps. 32 I think is a bad moment in time and he’s in fact not that bad. Despite a lack luster expression the horse seems to be focused, well muscled and able to do his job. Yes the rider is looking down but again, I think a bad moment in time. I think this pair is better than the picture let’s on.
    34: Don’t mind this pic. Yes the horse is behind the vertical and and a bit tucked in but I think the rider looks really relaxed and her position is good. I think these two are getting some good coaching and they are trying.
    35: This is a hard one for me. I think they are okay….
    36: Okay I guess. I think it’s hard for the big guys to fully collect but it appears that he is trying. He’s behind the vertical and broken at incorrect vertebrae.
    37: Horse seems to be trying. Rider position could improve, they seem really tense.

  25. Horse 5, the picture is also rotated some, making this horse look like it is moving more level than it really is. Tack issues. The saddle is probably sitting on the top of the area that the shoulder blade moves into as the horse reaches forward. That can be an issue with canter departs and generally reluctance to stretch and move well. The ridercould be a western pleasure type (but obviously not QH breed show WP). The horse has a naturally high head carriage so the rider has a version of a training fork/martigale that attached to the bit. That is just a leverage device that gives a horse an opportunity to pull against something and drop out the base of the neck, it will not make the horse relax or drop its head. This one is adjusted loosely enough it really isn’t causing a problem, but with the metal clips of the bit, plus the clips of the trail style reins, it just adds a lot of weight to the bit. They will impede any feeling of release that the loose rein is meant to give to encourage stretch.

    The rider is pitched forward, as discussed elsewhere, the head and shoulders out in front of the body mess up balance, don’t encourage the horse to step up and under and feel forward energy from the rider as a subtle cue, It takes the seatbones off the saddle.

    The horse is more a ‘riding style horse’. The neck can easily be too curled up on a horse built like this, don’t mess with heavy hand pressure or a tight device on this horse or the horse will always be behind the bit. Toes are too long. The butt of this horse is larger proportionately than number 4, and the length of hip and gaskin are more evenly divided, but a little shorter gaskin would be better. Never the less, this horse could round up to move a little more easily than the others we’ve seen up to this point.

  26. Horse 6. The one many felt was painful to look at. Of course it is, which is why we should look all the more closely. Because this is the logical extreme, ie, the worst of the worst of what not to do. Ultimately, you need to look at lots of good so you can imagine yourself in the same body position, same lack of tension, same giving, open posture of body, arms and hands. But first you need to know why this is so horrible, and yet it is the embodiment of the philosophy of many horsemen about how horses work. And it is wrong, wrong, wrong. Yet it is defended, admired and pursued by many. It is unconsciously pursued by many in lesser forms as they seek to hold up a horse’s head, or to make the neck arch trhough rollkur or lower the head through devices or control a horse that gets too strong with heavy hands and stronger bits, to create ‘frames’, to rock a horse back on its haunches like it was a rocking chair on rails, to use a Passoa system to pull its frame together, or any other number of absurdities. Yes, absurdities of thinking that people don’t want to let go of because that is what they saw rewarded in the show pen, or what their first teacher taught them or how they’ve ridden for years and it works pretty good, mostly, except sometimes.

    So go back to some old threads with skeletons pictured and re-read them. Study those bones, and think about how they fit together, and how those interior structures, determine how the outside looks, but more importantly, how it will move. Those bones are rigid, the joints supply some flexibility, but they only move so far and, in most cases, in very limited directions. Any time you ask them to move in a way they were not meant to move, you are setting yourself up for failure, failure to achieve fluid movement, failure to get cooperation from your horse, and ultimately, failure of your horse’s health and well being. No one should deliberately choose failure for their horse. No one reading this blog should choose ignorance and, thereby, failure for their horse.

    Number 6 is one of the better conformed horses (not perfect, but nicer than most) for riding of all the horses pictured. What is being done to this horse is criminal. It represents every bad idea in horsemanship, except the tie down device that was left off because they can’t be used in the showring, but you know they use it in training.

    Look at the spine first. The spine is what you ride, it should be as close to level as the horse’s conformation will allow when you are sitting on it, it should be flexible enough to lift, from the arc of a bow as it is tightened, and then to relax, actually go hollow, as well as bend side to side within the limits allowed by the vertebra. In this case, this horse is built close to level, with minimal training and strengthening of the belly muscles, this horse can easily carry a rider’s weight because it comes naturally to this horse. So where did it all go wrong?

    In the most fundamental way it went wrong because the rider rides from a fundamental misconception. A horse doesn’t move like a rocking horse, it doesn’t rise in the front end by its head coming up and back, its back going hollow and its butt going down relative to the head. You can’t rock a horse back onto its haunches. It’s a phrase that gets used, but it is not what happens anatomically, so any attempt to rock a horse back will ultimately fail and the horse will get sore. So loose the thought. Replace it with a new fundamental image.

    To create a horse that can carry weight (carry weight) on the haunch and free the forehand from its purpose of carrying most of the horse’s weight at rest, you work with the spine, the whole spine from tip to tip. The spine starts at the atlas where the horse’s head meets the first vertebra. That is the joint in the neck that provides the greatest range of movement and also serves as alock that limits the movement of every other vertebra in the spine. At the atlas the head can move the nose out, tip it up in the air, tuck it back to its neck, turn side to side to a certain extent, and make the most powerful movement of all, to offset the nose slightly and tuck the head/jowls to the side of the vertebra column. Deb Bennett calls it head twirling, others might call it release or a give, it is the position from classical literature in english riding where one sees the eye on the inside of the horse. Why is it the most powerful movement the horse can make? Because it is the movement you can’t take from a horse, he has to give it, but it is the key to unlocking the poll and freeing the rest of the spine to achieve maximal movement in a soft fluid bend side to side, and to lift. You can push and pull the neck into any number of contortions, but it will involve vertebra behind the atlas and you will always be pulling and holding that position, feeling sides like cement even if the horse moves laterally and never get the hind feet to engage and fold and become the loaded springs that carry the weight of the horse on the haunch, freeing the forehand of its normal extra share of weight.

    Horse 6 shows a bulge of muscle at the poll, that sucker is locked tight, it can’t release any more without physical therapy. That big old long shanked bit, the rider water skiing with hundreds of pounds of pressure distorting the jaw so the horse looks parrot mouthed, pulling the head back, hollowing the spine, making the legs stiff, look at the fine muscles of the upper legs straining to move feet they weren’t designed to move, causing contortions of the tendons and check ligaments, ruining the horse’s legs, setting it up for injury and pain, damaging the ligaments in the back, and destroying the mind and spirit of the horse. And we don’t even have to mention how cruel and useless those weighted feet are and how they multiply all the negative affects just mentioned.

    So you start a horse in a bosal or a snaffle, not because it is a kinder bit or softer or any nonesense like that, but because by the lateral affect of the action one can ask a horse to release at the atlas, to give, and unlock the spine. That’s why a told Blondmare one always rides with a bend, because that atlas is unlocked one side or the other every step it takes, or you stop worrying about taking steps until it does. It really is that important to unlock the spine. And you can’t pull it out of a horse, hold its head down with devices, or get it with a curb bit.

    So you either learn to unlock the atlas correctly and then gymnasticize a horse that has given you control of its spine, or you do to some extent what is being done to horse number 6. Your choice. Learn, or to some extent, make every horse you ever ride, uncomfortable. It won’t be perfect, it won’t always be easy, there are times you will fail. I still fail. But at least I know it and I start over to do it right and change how I do something. This is not about disciplines or believing only one school of horsemanship has all the answers. The answers are with the horse and how its body works. Work with it or against it, those are your choices. Only one of those choices helps your horse.

    • If you keep this up I won’t have to do hardly any writing in my first summary, since I can just keep quoting your posts. Which is fine by me!

      Great post/comment. There’s enough information in there for a book.

  27. On a positive note, anyone found soring or abusing will now face federal charges, Class A Felony by the FBI. Their definition of abuse “intentionally, knowlingly or recklessly taking any action that mistreats or kills any animal without just cause, such as tortuting, tormenting, mutilation, maiming, poisoning or abandonment. Included are instances of duty to provide care, e.g. shelter, food, water, care if sick or injured; transporting or confining an animal in a manner likely to cause injury or death; causing an animal to fight with another; inflicting excessive or repeated unnecessary pain or suffering, e.g. uses objects to beat or injur an animal. This definition does not include proper maintenance of animals for show or sport; use of animals for food, lawful hunting, fishing or trapping.” Goes into effect January 2016

    If anyone watched any of the live stream of the Scottsdale AZ Arabian show, there was one blatant trainer with a horse in rollkur so tight, so continuous, so cramped in canter (I think that’s what he thought he was doing) that he should’ve been removed from the grounds – this was in warmup and he just went round and round with the gray’s chin on his chest in a horrific scene of non-horsemanship. Did anyone see any of the western classes there by chance? I had to shut it off.

  28. Federal soring rules have been out there a long time, they may keep adding to them, but nothing stops the abuse. And deliberate abuse by chemicals or chains, etc., isn’t really the point, as it is the tip of the iceberg, the kind of abuse almost everyone outside big money people in the the show world can agree on, like the jockey caught cheating or the man starving his cattle and horses. And there are problems in greyhound racing, big study just came out about how many dogs die from abuse or neglect in that sport. We need an attitude change in society at large about the importance of humane treatment of animals in general without getting to the crazy side of PETA where they steal pets to free them, thereby condemning them to starvation, predation or becoming road kill.

    The subtler aspects of bad riding don’t get considered active abuse, and yet as we can see from dozens of pictures, many horses are having a really hard time with the way they are ridden. It is much easier to condemn the blatant abuse without examining ourselves for how much we make our horses’ lives better by consciously striving to improve how we ride. But this blog is about making life better for horses in general, its not the SPCA.

    • I saw the FBI story on FB and there was a picture attached to it. It showed a cadaver foot, with a full set of stacked pads. Of course this foot showed terrible imbalance, stress rings, shelly condition etc… Beside that cadaver foot was the shod foot of a live horse. Ironically this shod foot was also quite imbalanced, though not stacked, shelly or showing stress rings.

      Point being, the non-abused horse was in fact suffering, so that goes directly to your point.

  29. Horse 7 appears to be a gaitedvmorgan, lovely mane. Fairly typical saddle seat ride, too much of the long shank bit is engaged, broken back at neck and hollow behind the saddle. Morgans can be a little heavy in the neck to begin with, but riding with the head pulled back increases the build up of the bracheocephalus muscle. Such muscle development makes it hard for the horse to reach with the neck and develop weight bearing posture. The horse has a very angular croup because of loin strain from habitually moving this way. This type of riding stems from the same school of thought as horse 6, but this horse is not quite as extreme. No anti-soring law will
    address this. Grotesquely misinformed horsemanship isn’t criminal. But we still need to speak out against bad riding that slowly damages horses in more subtle ways.

    • Horse9, I like horse 9. No he isn’t a riding horse,m too drafty, meaning geared for first gear. But a stout build, adequate bone, a good back and loin. If you want great temperament and the ability to walk along comfortably for miles, this could be your guy.

      How do I know he has a great temperament? Look at the rig holding his head with absolutely no room to move it as he moves, mouth pulled down and back, and yeah, he is showing some stress around his mouth, but his rider is still up there and alive. And see that trailing front foot still firmly planted on the ground, it is right under this poorly balanced riders weight who would otherwise be pitched over his neck by her own top heavy build and exacrable body position.

      The trot is on the forehand, but given the ride, not horribly so. Now you know why you want a strong back strucute and good loin, it makes up for a lot of other crap. But horses shouldn’t be asked to do this. So lose whatever excuse you have for a tie down, fix your balance and don’t take advantage of a horse’s good nature. Return kindness with kindness.

  30. hmmm….re: the comment that a healthy back is a double back….this is only true so far as the configuration of the rib cage will support it. a truly a-framed horse (one whose rib-cage is narrow on top, not just a skinny horse) will never develop a double back unless it is incredibly obese. having said that it will still be able to develop correct muscling along the l. dorsi and around the wither…but it ain’t gonna look like a horse that has a ’round on top’ rib cage.

  31. Wow, comparing number 23 and 24 breaks my brain. I’m not a huge fan of the dressage industry, but what the heck is number 24? Is that the Western form of dressage? It look monstrous compared to 23. I’m looking forward to the discussion of those two. It’s especially interesting to compare because the horses are in the same phase of the trot. Although a Haflinger and a Quarter (?) will always look different, I don’t think the differences should be this extreme…

Leave a Reply to Mercedes Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s