It’s important for every rider to pay attention to their horse’s shape. While we should look at the whole picture, in this blog entry I am going to focus on 3 natural shapes of the horse’s back.
- Level – meaning neutral or straight
- Round – meaning lifted or convex
- Hollow – meaning dropped or concave
Each of these shapes is natural for the horse. Each one effects the horse physiologically as well as psychologically.
Level & Round:For riding, the ideal shape of the horse’s back is to be level or lifted. In these frames, the horse’s hindquarters are engaged as they reach well underneath his body. This creates impulsion as his hindquarters are driving his forward movement. His head and neck can work as the balancing mechanism they are built to be. The further the hind legs reach under the body, the more the back naturally lifts. The horse can move with elegance and ease through all transitions and in all gaits. He can collect and extend his stride, jump obstacles gracefully, and comfortably carry a rider
Hollow: Unfortunately, it is far too common to see horses being worked in a hollow
backed frame in all disciplines of riding. The hindquarters trail behind and the front end pulls him forward. His balance is compromised because his head and neck become braced and tense. He moves awkwardly and inefficiently through transitions and in all gaits His movements are jarring and uncomfortable. He looks and feels uncomfortable as his muscles, joints and mind are stressed and strained.
Riding a hollow backed horse presents more challenges to you physically, but also mentally because the hollow backed horse is:
- mentally in flight mode
- difficult to control at all gaits and is usually out of control at the gallop
- difficult to slow down because he cannot get his hindquarters underneath himself
- unbalanced especially when starting, stopping and in transitions (both upwards and downwards)
Of course, all of these situation can create more tension in the rider – especially a nervous or inexperienced one.
Nervous Riders & the Hollow Backed Horse: Many nervous riders end up with hollow backed horses. The tension in the rider’s seat, back, legs and arms are mirrored in the horse’s body. The horse drops his back as he feels rigid, driving pressure from the riders’ seat. His neck braces as the rider uses the reins for support.
A viscous cycle has started with both horse and rider feeling stressed, tense and unbalanced. The problem is compounded as the physically stressed horse is also more mentally stressed and reactive because he is in constant flight mode. His movements are faster and he becomes more and more easily spooked.
An inexperienced or nervous rider who has a good basic position will still find it difficult to maintain her position, balance, posture and suppleness when riding a hollow backed horse. It takes an experienced and relaxed rider to work through the horse’s hollowness bringing him to a level and eventually a round frame.
If you find yourself in this situation, it is time to go back to basics and to get help from an experienced, empathetic horse trainer and riding coach. Find someone who can work with your horse as well as with you.
The trainer/coach should have a good foundation in ground work that improves your horse’s frame – no running around high headed, hollow backed, counter bent and unbalanced on the lunge line. Your horse needs to be balanced, relaxed, stretching and in true bend to strengthen his hindquarters and back muscles. He or she should also be able to do the same for horse in the saddle without using gadgets to create a head set.
As your horse’s shape becomes consistently level (and eventually round), you will find that he is more calm, graceful and less spooky. You will find that your own riding reflects these changes.
Enjoy the journey. It takes as long as it takes and there is no destination.