Top 3 Riding Tests, Tips and Exercises Every Rider Should Do To Improve Their Horse's Topline ..... and Their Own Core and Back Muscles Too!! (part 2 of two part series on topline improvement)

This blog post is the second part of a two part series discussing the topline of the horse.  We are very fortunate to have guest blogger, Rebekah Larimer, a European and Olympian-trained USDF Bronze medalist, who will discuss the top 3 riding tips and exercises every rider should do to improve their horse's topline.
A Quick Reminder
In case you missed 
last week's blog post, I discussed key topline basics and shared 3 DIY exercises and stretches contained in the Stretch Your Horse App that any rider could do to improve their horse’s topline from the ground.  There are many factors that can affect a horse’s topline including conformation, feet issues, nutrition, saddle fit, age, exercise level and type, riding ability and pregnancy status.  A healthy horse with a “good topline” will typically have excellent muscle tone and suppleness, move well, and display athleticism. That is why riders would like their horse to have a good topline (and why horses want one too!  :)  )   But remember…. Every horse is unique.  Some may be older and have a sway back (large dip in the back.)  Others may have conformational challenges.   It is not about comparing your horse to the ideal topline, but rather helping your horse achieve the best topline they can have given the myriad factors affecting the topline mentioned above.
Ok…..  Drum roll and applause as I now introduce Rebekah Larimer!

Horses Are Like Humans with A Backpack On Their Back
Horses typically naturally move their best when we are not on them.  We have all seen a gorgeous horse who is a stunning mover when loose out in the field.  Put a saddle and rider on, and suddenly they do not move as well.  Their head and neck may pop up and/or their back may drop blocking impulsion and forward energy which in turn prevents the hind legs from fully coming underneath them.  This happens because our weight changes their balance and how they naturally carry themselves.   (Saddle fit may be a factor as well, but that is whole separate topic.)
Think of the human back as being similar to the topline of the horse (except it is vertical instead of horizontal). Most people unconsciously arch their back to carry the weight of a backpack instead of consciously engaging their core and retaining proper posture which is needed for optimal movement.  This strains the back and changes the pelvis angle which in turn changes the leg stride. Arching the lower back also changes the upper back, shoulder and neck position and can cause soreness, pulled or torn muscles as well as spinal alignment issues.  
It is the same for horses. Since our horses allow us the privilege of riding them, it is our job to be their physical therapist and teach them how to properly carry themselves when we ride. This applies to all breeds and riding disciplines and whether you are riding with a bit, bitless bridle or without a bridle.

Top 3 Riding Tips, Tests and Exercises to Improve Your Horse’s Topline
Here are 3 riding tips, tests and exercies to help improve your horse’s topline, assuming you and your horse are healthy.

Riding Tip #1: Determine Rider Balance
I make an initial evaluation of all riders when they have their first lesson with me to establish a baseline and a plan.  Here is a typical story.  “Cindy” mounted her horse and warmed up at the walk.  Initially, she seemed to be a competent rider.  Once we started trotting, she was still doing pretty well, but there were a few subtle red flags. I asked her to ride on a long rein without holding onto the saddle or the horse. Cindy immediately lost her balance.  Even though it was somewhat subtle, when her reins were short, she was balancing on her horse's mouth.  This is a very common scenario. I was not surprised.

Test #1: Determine Your Own Balance When Riding
There are many things riders can do to improve their balance. The most important first step is to honestly evaluate it.  In all gaits, are you able to repeatedly pick up and drop your reins without losing your balance, affecting your horse’s gait quality and tempo, or the horse tossing its head?

Exercise #1: Finding Your Balance Watch the Videos!
If you did not pass Test #1, focus on yourself by riding with a long, loose rein on a safe horse. Learn how to move and flow with the horse in each gait.  In order to appear relatively still and relaxed on a moving object, you have to move in harmony with the object.

Here is a short video demonstrating this evaluation test and exercise at the posting and sitting trot.

Please note my goal was to simply pick up and drop the reins. It was the horse’s choice to go into a nice position or not during this video. He sometimes did, and sometimes didn’t. I was not asking him to be perfect since that was not the goal. The goal in this exercise is to evaluate how smooth you, the rider is, in picking up and dropping the reins without interfering with your horse.  If your horse changes tempo/gait or tosses their head, you know you have some work to do.

Another way to evaluate and improve your balance is to take a lunge line lesson from time to time and tie up your reins.  Ride at different gaits.  While riding, with your arms, do the “backstroke,” some gentle twists from the core, put your arms in stick ‘em up, up over your head etc.  Use your core but keep flowing with the horse’s motion.  Be sure you do not overarch your back to stay balanced as that blocks the horse’s motion.

Watch this short video of ideal rider balance.
A great way to improve your balance and core strength off the horse is to balance while sitting on a yoga or horse ball with your feet off the ground!  Taking a pilates or yoga class can help too!

Why Do These Exercises Help Improve Your Horse’s Topline?  Think:  Independent Seat
Often times riders unconsciously use the reins to balance, which means they are literally balancing or bracing on their horse’s mouth.  This is one of the most common reasons horses do not want to “put their head down” and engage their core. Balancing on the mouth causes the horse’s head to stay up, which drops their back, and blocks their hind legs from coming underneath themselves.  It also builds the wrong muscles in an undesirable pattern and can cause other muscles to atrophy.  The extreme opposite is a horse that has its nose to its chest to avoid the rider’s hands. This is too extreme and builds undesirable muscles as well.

By gaining proficiency with these exercises, you will gain an “independent seat” which will enable your horse to use the desired muscles unimpeded by you and start to build their topline.

Head and neck postures courtesy of
Head and neck too rounded.  Nose behind vertical.

Riding Tip #2: Determine Your Horse’s Balance and Flexibility
I commonly see horses constantly being ridden in the same frame which is detrimental to balance and flexibility and causes injury.

Test #2: Determine Your Horse’s Balance and Flexibility
Can your horse go smoothly back and forth between a collected and stretched frame in all gaits? The “stretch frame” is also called long and low or gently chewing the reins out of your fingers. Your horse should be reaching down with its neck while maintaining their nose on or slightly in front of the vertical while keeping or improving the gait quality and tempo.

Exercise #2: Helping Your Horse Find Their Balance
First, your horse needs to know how to put its head and neck down (aka collection or in a connected frame) on cue. There are many ways to accomplish this since each horse is an individual with their personal preferences.  Here's one method.  Hold one rein steady while the other rein is “playful” (like squeezing a sponge with your fingers). Stop "playing" with the rein as soon as your horse gives or puts its head down even a little.  Give or soften with your hands as soon as you get a response even if it is not as low as you would like long term. Giving or softening is your horse’s biggest reward!   But, be careful not to throw away the reins.

A bob of the head is okay in the beginning since your horse may have no idea what you are asking them to do. Expect and allow them to briefly put their head up again for 3-4 strides. Then ask again. This way your horse learns the cue, realizing they are not being forced or held in position.  They will want to be in that position since it feels better especially as they gain muscle strength and suppleness, and understand they are not being forced.   

Each horse learns this best at a different gait.  Some horses learn this best at the halt, others at a trot.  I typically do not train this at a walk in the beginning since walking is the hardest gait and easiest to mess up. Be happy with your horse learning this exercise one gait at a time and slowly build from there. And, when your horse’s get it right, be lavish with praise.

Over time, you will “glue” the asking and giving pieces together.  Your horse will appear seamless with their hind legs engaged, back lifted, and core/abdominals engaged and connected.  Your horse will be light in your hands, relaxed, confident and working with you. Remember, it is our job to be their guide and their physical therapist and show them the way. This process can take a couple of years to achieve in all gaits for some horses, others are naturally more gifted.

There should never be any holding, yanking, cranking, seesawing, or anything of the sort with your reins. Otherwise, you are going to have a stiff, braced horse who doesn’t understand what you want, will not trust you or your hands, and you will be building the wrong muscles and causing atrophy in others.  You will also end up spending a lot of money on vet and bodyworker bills!

Check out this quick video of a horse flowing between collection and stretching.
Great stretches! Neck is gently rounded. Nose at or slightly in front of vertical.
.Horses shown are in nice collected frames for their respective disciplines.
Why Does This Improve Your Horse’s Topline?
Doing this exercise correctly means you are able to help your horse: a) Find their own balance; b) Become more flexible and adjustable; and c) Build more of the desired muscles Ilene discussed in part one of this blog series. This means your horse is using effectively using their whole body and the ring of muscles without bracing (as long as the rider isn’t braced), and stretching their muscles from nose to tail while under saddle.

Also, you do not want have your horse to remain in one position or direction for more than 5 minutes, even on an advanced horse.   

Imagine being at the gym doing a specific exercise. You maintain a certain position for 20 seconds and build from there.  You could most likely do that, right?  Now imagine if I told you to hold the same position no matter what for 10 minutes let alone 45 minutes, otherwise you will be in trouble.  Do you see what I am getting at?  Riders actually expect this from their horses when they expect them to be collected throughout the entire workout!  It is our job to be our horse’s personal fitness trainer and physical therapist in order to avoid injury and pain.

Please keep in mind while doing this exercise that placing or encouraging your horse’s nose to be close chest is way too extreme. Your goal is to always have your horse’s nose on or slightly in front of the vertical.  (Just ask Ilene about how many horses she has to help put back together via bodywork because of extreme neck positions.  That really gets her going!)
Riding Tip #3: Hill Training
This is one of Karin Doncker’s (6 Time Olympian for 3 Day Eventing) favorite exercises for optimizing the topline and one of mine too!

Test #3: Determine Your Horse’s Strength
Is your horse able to work in all gaits at a slight grade of 15-30 degrees in a stretch and collected frame while maintaining good balance, energy, and relaxation?

Exercise #3: Systematically Strengthen The Muscles
If not, start with a lot of walking, making sure your horse is straight (hind hooves directly behind front hooves) whether going up or down the hill switching from time to time from a stretch to collected frame.  This means your horse's head is not up in the air which causes the back to hollow. Progress gently and slowly! Once this is easy, increase to trot sets with lots of walk breaks. Advance to canter sets on both leads only when your horse shows the physical strength to do this in a relaxed and balanced way. Do this no more than 2 times per week. Remember not to push your horse more than you would yourself in your own human exercise work outs.  No pain, no gain does NOT apply!

Why Does This Improve Your Horse’s Topline?
This exercise helps your horse automatically use its hind end, whether it is going up or down a hill. The hind legs must come under their body toward their center of gravity, which means they need to lift their back, which lowers their head and neck. This builds the entire topline in one of the easiest manners for all horses and disciplines. 
The Bottom Line…. Well Actually the Topline!
There are many different ways to help enhance and strengthen your horse’s topline.  These are 3 progressive tests, tips and exercises riders can do to help accomplish this important goal regardless of riding discipline.  

What do you do to improve your horse’s topline?  Do you have any questions or comments to share on this topic?  Please post here or join the conversation on the Stretch Your Horse Facebook page.

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