How to recognise when the horse is using his back correctly?

This is a question which often troubles me. Sometimes a horse looks quite good but I know that something is not quite right. As soon as I sit on it, it feels awful and I know that there is a fundamental problem. So when I look at some competition horses and I know that something is not quite right, how do I know? And why do the riders not know? Or if they do know, how can they not do anything about it? Don't the judges see it or is it just the difference between 80% and 100% and therefore seen as unattainable?. If there was an easy answer to these questions, the whole judging system would be turned on its head because while it is easy to see if a horse is above or behind the bit, hollowing his neck or going over bent, it is far more difficult to see what the back is doing or what the rider is (or isn't) feeling under the saddle. Most people are fooled into thinking that the back is correct when the head is correct but this is only true if the rider truly leaves the head alone and allows the horse to put his head where it naturally wants to be. (As I have said before, Erik is the only trainer I know who teaches this.) Generally the rider and/or trainer asks that the horse adopts a specific head carriage and then asks the hind end to "catch up" to the outline. Many riders/trainers are extremely clever at doing this and so it really is difficult to tell the difference. The action of the hind legs is quite a give away - out behind, crooked, over active hocks and little flexion in the hips - but again, a horse can look very active behind and appear to extend and shorten spectacularly well and yet be incorrect. One should be able to tell from looking at the back but it can appear to move quite substantially behind the saddle with lots of swing and yet still be either locked or disconnected under the saddle. The true, correct gaits of the horse is an excellent guide to good work but, as we have seen in our Observation Skills sessions, photos can be incredibly deceptive and what appears to be "correct gaits" when frozen in time are actually hurried and choppy when seen in motion. However, the fact remains that if one has had the good fortune (or skill) to have sat on a "good" back, one can feel the difference.

So what is a "good back to sit on"?

It should feel swinging and comfortable - some people say "loose" - but more than that, it should "carry" the rider. What does that mean? - it means that the whole horse is pulsing energetically forward under the riders seat so that the rider feels "buoyed up" by the horse. It feels a little like when the horse is fresh and feels like it might buck but without that nervous or excited tension. At the same time it feels like you can just sit really easily and quietly and all the aids go through your whole body. And yet there is elastic, energetic movement under your seat.

The great thing about lessons with Erik is when he rides your horse and brings it to that point so that when you get back on you have this amazing feeling in the horse which you can't explain but which you will never forget. Unfortunately, once felt it is a like a drug and you want more and you will no longer accept the cheap imitations offered by others. Even worse, you have to strive to perfect many small details in your riding over many years before you can reproduce that feeling on your own. As Erik says:

"Does practice make perfect? NO! Good practice brings us closer to perfection"

Here are some other "pointers" which I have found helpful in recognising a "good back"

  • If the horse was trotting on concrete, would he still look soft and elastic or would you worry about the damage to his joints?
  • Does the muscle in front of the wither seem to be full and pulsing?
  • Do the muscles of the horse appear to be working evenly?
  • Is the head and neck arched with the poll the highest point and the nose on or in front of the vertical?
  • Does it look like the rider is sitting easily and vertically or are they "water skiing" or pinched off their seat or very wobbly?
  • If the reins broke would the horse run away, fall on its nose or would the rider fall backwards?
  • Does the rider have a secure but light contact with the horse's mouth and does it look like it is 50:50 between horse and rider?
  • Do the diagonal pairs of legs in trot look parallel?
  • Is the extension of the foreleg, the toe, in line with the horse's nose?
  • Does it look like the withers are carried up or do they look dropped, especially at the base of the withers?
  • Do the paces look "uphill" or is it just a high neck?
  • Does the rider have to keep lifting the hands to keep the horse "up"?

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