Help Reform Your Horse's Hollow or Sway Back Part 1
The poor form in which gaited horses are commonly ridden predestines a high percentage of them to becoming hollow or sway backed. This results in saddle fitting problems, long term soundness issues and, too often, a horse that’s consequently not happy under saddle (read: sore, surly and snappish).
This has traditionally been considered an unsolvable problem, since gaited horse training methods have been based on the premise that our horses need to be ridden in a stiff, hollow frame in order to be able to perform smooth gaits. This is simply not true. What is true is that our horses need to be extraordinarily comfortable in their tack in order to gait in a functionally healthy way with a moderately rounded back. I fear that in the past there’s been far too much emphasis placed on methods, when it would have been better from the horses’ perspective to rethink the original flawed training premises.
That’s the bad news. The good news is that you can practice simple ground techniques and riding exercises to help restructure the back of even an older riding horse. I’ll detail on ground back re-forming approaches in this online article, and follow up with some useful back strengthening riding techniques in the next.
The most useful on ground technique for helping your horse to round up is the belly lift. If you were to go down on your hands and knees and stretch your back upward, catlike, it would involve tightening and lifting your abdominal muscles. This is what you want to encourage your horse to do, as it will lessen the compression on the disks between your horse’s vertebra while encouraging development of the abdominal muscles. As with humans, good equine abdominals make for a stronger back.
There are two ways of performing the belly lift, depending on whether you work with a partner, or alone.
If working with a partner, have the other person stand on one side of your horse while you stand on the other. Reaching under the horse’s barrel immediately behind the girth, link hands with your assistant. Work together to use your linked hands to lift up under the horse’s barrel, so that it feels as though you are trying to ‘pick up’ the horse’s belly. Be sure to bend at the knees and use your leg, rather than back muscles, to do the lifting. If you observe the horse’s back closely, you’ll soon note a very slight rise to the back. When you obtain this rise, release pressure. Repeat this exercise twice more, moving six inches back each time.
If you’re working alone, then stand alongside your horse on one side, just behind the girth. Lay your flat hand along the horse’s barrel so that your finger tips can press the midline mark at the center of the horse’s barrel. Use your finger tips to press firmly upward, while pressing the heel of your hand UP into the horse’s belly. Again, do the lifts from your legs, and press until you notice a slight rise in the horse’s back (this may be accompanied by a relieved sigh).
This technique should be practiced routinely at least once every day. When you ride your gaited horse, it should be done before mounting, once every hour during the ride, and again upon dismounting.
Slice a carrot up in thin pieces–not too large, or you may cause your horse to choke. Stand at the horse’s left shoulder with a thin slice of carrot in hand. Hold a piece of carrot low, near the point of shoulder, and ask the horse to lower its head down as far as it comfortably can to get a bite. Repeat this stretching exercise to the front and center of the horse’s chest, then move to the other side and repeat at the right shoulder.
Next, working at the horse’s side but placing the carrot from behind the horse’s front legs, position the carrot beneath the horse’s barrel, right behind the knees. Again, move the carrot so that the horse has to stretch out to gain a bite of reward. Use the carrot incentive to ask your horse to stretch his head and neck to the side–first to the elbow, then the lower barrel, and increasing the stretch until you’re asking him to reach all the way back to his stifle. Now repeat these side bending exercises, only ask him to reach up higher on his body–center of the shoulder blade, mid-barrel, and hip. Be sure to repeat each sequence to each side.
These exercises will take only a few moments a day, but will garner rich rewards both in the relationship that your hands-on work will create between your and your horse, and in a complete and healthy reformation of your horse’s hard-working back!