Contributed by: Valerie Mellema
After our first horse show this season in June, I determined that something was not quite right with my 17-year-old Thoroughbred gelding, Mistic Gray. He wasn’t moving as well as he could be. He wasn’t using his back properly and he was also refusing jumps for no apparent reason at all. All of these issues were pointing towards some sort of pain or soreness that needed to be addressed. I decided that it was time to have an equine chiropractor look at him.
The first adjustment was two months ago. The adjustment started with the chiropractor watching Mistic walk up and down the barn aisle. He noticed right away that he was swinging his right leg out when he stepped, rather than tracking straight. The chiro found that he had a very painful pinched nerve and inflammation in his right hip. He was also out in his shoulder and jaw, which was causing an occasional head toss. He prescribed a week off after the first adjustment.
The first ride after the adjustment was a huge improvement. Mistic picked up his leads right away and was cantering from a walk almost instantly, something that was a real issue before the adjustment. His refusing issue wasn’t completely alleviated, but by this point he’d learned he could refuse, so it was apparent that a training issue had been developed as a result.
However, two months later, the same issues have begun creeping back, so we had another adjustment done. He’s still taking a break from that adjustment as I write this, but this right hip issue has me looking for exercises that we can use to build his back strength as well as try to prevent any future issues. This will be a multi part series as I explore these exercises and then see what sort of results we have over the next month.
I think it’s important to understand what these back exercises will do and that is help to build his topline. The horse’s topline consists of the muscles from the neck down the back to the loins and over the hip. A horse that has a nicely built topline will be balanced in all gaits and have self-carriage. Many people will refer to this as a “frame” but it’s important to note that many horses move in a false frame and while they may look like they are moving on the bit, they are actually still heavy on the forehand. The other benefit to a strong topline is that the horse will have impulsion and work from the hind end rather than being heavy on the forehand. A strong topline is the ultimate goal and is something that takes time to develop.
How Do You Know if You Need to Work on Building Topline?
There are a few problems that will help you recognize if this is an issue for your horse:
1. The horse is inconsistent in his gaits, both in pace and rhythm.
2. The horse feels heavy in your hands or heavy on the forehand.
3. The horse changes speeds within a circle or a pattern.
4. He uses his neck to lift his body when moving into a faster gait.
5. You don’t feel the horse actively engaging his back muscles.
Art2Ride is a fantastic resource for all riders and trainers, whether you do dressage or not. Will Faber talks extensively how to build your horse’s topline and back and most of his work is done on the lunge line. He has many videos on YouTube that are of him training riders, critiquing user submitted videos and educational videos as well.
There’s an art to proper lunging. It’s not just letting the horse run around in circles until it’s exhausted itself. I highly recommend watching Will Faber’s videos on lunging and there’s no special equipment needed necessarily. The work can be done in the round pen, but I recommend a lunge line and halter, as it allows you to use your line as you would a rein. This is a great video on proper lunging.
Transitions between gaits really get your horse moving its body and develops his balance. Depending on the age and level of training of the horse, you may need to start with some basic transitions, such as walk-trot-walk (walk-jog-walk) and then trot-canter-trot (jog-lope-jog). These are natural transitions for the horse, as it’s easier for him to go from a faster pace to an even faster one, such as trot-canter-trot.
Once you have those basic transitions down, you can make them a little more challenging with canter-trot-canter (lope-jog-lope), trot-stop-trot (jog-stop-jog), or walk-canter-walk. The more stop and then go you have, the more the horse has to engage his hind end, this is particularly true in a canter-stop-canter transition.
Finally, another transition to incorporate is adding a stop and back into all of these. For instance, trot, stop, back and then trot again (jog-stop-back-jog).
These transition exercises should be done in 10-minute intervals with walking in between to give the horse a break and an opportunity to stretch his neck. This is particularly true for young or unfit horses. It’s a lot more work than you realize and giving your horse the opportunity to stretch his head and neck down will help to release tension in his back muscles.
With Mistic, I’ve noticed a marked improvement in his hind end engagement once I incorporated the stop and back into these transitions.
Next month, I’ll have more topline exercises and some will likely include poles!