It is important to know what effect training should have on your horse. Preparatory work in hand and on the lunge strengthens the correct muscles in the hose’s body so that he can carry a rider with ease. This also depends ultimately on the rider’s ability and posture, but that is another subject. As a comparison, a 600kg horse ridden by a 60kg rider is working carrying 10% of his body weight. This is equivalent to a 60kg person working out with dumbbells totalling 6kg.in weight.
The effect of stretching
In order for a horse to move well his back muscles have to be relaxed, i.e. extended. If your horse can stretch forward and down with his neck fully extended when he is moving, then his back muscles are relaxed, allowing his dorsal spine to lift. His spine is supported from underneath by the abdominal muscles. As his spine lifts, his loins coil under, and his hind legs come under his haunches. His hind leg joints become more able to flex and carry weight. By extending his neck, and supporting his forehand with the muscles surrounding his withers the horse is able to move freely through his shoulders, relax through his poll, jaw and mouth.
This ability to stretch through the back is the foundation of training your horse to work into the bridle. Stretching can be achieved by simply lungeing your horse over a pole on the ground. He will lower his neck to look at the pole as he approaches it, and then have to bend his joints to clear the pole. His back will relax, and his stomach muscles contract. Lungeing in a chambon prevents him form contacting his back muscles and pushing his hind legs away, encouraging him to relax and stretch his neck correctly. A horse cannot hollow his back with his neck stretched.
Circle work on the lunge requires lateral bending of the horse’s spine, which he cannot do with a tight hollow back. Conversely, a horse with contracted back muscles goes along with his head up, his back dipped, slack stomach muscles, flat loins and his pelvis pushed away behind him, resulting in his hind legs appearing to paddle out behind, rather like a duck swimming in a pond. Forcing the hind legs under to coil the loins before the horse has developed strong abdominals by stretching can cause neck and shoulder problems. All horses have the same number of vertebrae, but a longer horse’s spinal joints are further apart. They need time to develop strong muscles to support their framework so that they can become as supple as their counterparts.
A correctly stretching horse, sometimes called ‘working deep’ when under saddle, will follow the bit as low as it is offered by the rider. This does not mean dropping the contact, it means lengthening the reins so the horse fills them with his stretched neck, and nose reaching forward.
The horse’s head should never be behind the vertical. If it is, then the poll muscles are under strain, the angle between jaw and jowl slammed shut, restricting space for the tongue. Bear in mind that a horse’s tongue begins far back in his mouth, and if he has no room to relax it, mouth problems such as teeth crunching or sticking the tongue out to the side, or over the bit are common. Strapping such a horse’s mouth shut will only make the problem worse. Once the tight noseband is off, the problems will worsen. The only remedy is to go back to stretching with the nose forward and down to the ground on the lunge so the horse relaxes through his back and neck again. A quiet mouth is a sign of a correctly moving horse. Changing nosebands and bits in an effort to stop the mouth problem are futile if the problem lies in the mechanics of the horse’s back movement.