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Training Your Horse from the Anatomical Perspective. Part 1: Hollow Back Posture

Updated: Nov 30, 2022

This is the first in a series of articles focusing on common training problems, and exercises to correct underlying strength deficiencies.

The Problem

The Hollow Back

A hollow back is one of the most common poor postural positions seen in the horse. It prevents the horse stepping through correctly, leads to short unbalanced steps and is also the root of many muscular, ligamentary and osteoarthritic problems. Working horses with a good back posture from the outset will not only help to reduce the risk developing back problems but also improve performance potential.

gillian higgins horses inside out Horse's back - thoracic vertebrae, equine spinous processes, bones, vertebral body, articular processes, skeleton, intervertebral foramen, good back posture,

The area of the back on which we sit, the thoracic vertebrae, in good posture and alignment. Notice the spaces between the spines.

gillian higgins horses inside out thoracic vertebrae  in extension Horse's back - thoracic vertebrae, equine spinous processes, bones, vertebral body, articular processes, skeleton, intervertebral foramen, extended poor bad back posture,

The area of the back on which we sit, the thoracic vertebrae, in an extended posture with poor alignment. Notice the reduction in spaces between the spines. This posture is the cause of many performance and back health related issues.

The Signs:

  • Short topline - long underline

  • Dip between back of saddle and croup

  • Sagging abdomen

  • Hard in the mouth / high head carriage

Associated Problems:

  • Difficulties with submission and or contact

  • Difficulties with engagement

  • Difficulties with maintaining a round and /or low neck outline

  • Loss of rhythm

  • Difficulties achieving a soft and supple back.

Typical Comments from Dressage Judges:

  • Tense

  • Tight in Neck and Back

  • Not in self carriage

  • Horse needs to soften and stretch topline more and accept a softer and more gentle contact

  • Needs to show more swing through back

  • Not enough elasticity in the frame

  • Not always working forwards into a consistent contact and against the hand

How the horse uses himself correctly to achieve a round swinging back when working:

This is related to the degree of both mental and muscular relaxation and recruitment of the flexor chain of muscles. Lowering the head and neck will help to raise the back through the mechanics of the topline (nuchal and supraspinous) ligaments. Engagement of the hind limb helps to support back posture. The more the hind legs engage, the more the back can swing.

Flexor Chain of Muscles

gillian higgins horses inside out Equine Spinal muscle chains,  extensor chain, flexor chain,  ventral line, dorsal line, myofascial, semitendinosus, biceps femoris, gluteals, longissimus dorsi, rhomboideus, splenius, brachiocephalic, sternomandibular, pectorals, abdominals, iliopsoas, tensor fascia lata, digital extensors, quadriceps, horse muscles

A relaxed neck with no tension in the top line extensor chain of muscles is also essential for the back to swing. The first three qualities of the German Training Scales, rhythm, looseness and contact/acceptance of the bit are of primary importance in the quest to achieving this goal..

Core Muscular Problems:

The flexor chain of muscles, particularly the abdominal and iliopsoas groups, if weak, will inhibit engagement. Tension within any part of the chain will have a knock on effect, thus, discomfort in the extensor chain will inhibit the ability of the flexor chain to work correctly. This problem is particularly common with young horses. It takes many months to develop the necessary muscular strength both for self carriage and to work with a soft swinging back.

Fact File

The Iliopsoas Muscle Group consisting of psoas major, psoas minor and iliacus lies and attaches onto the ventral side of the lumbar spine, pelvis and the minor trochantor of the femur. This muscle group is one of the main contributors to hip flexion and movement of the pelvis through flexion of the lumbo-sacral junction.

Fact File

Abdominal Muscles. These consist of the rectus abdominae, the transverse abdominae and the internal and external obdominal oblique muscles. As well as supporting the abdominal viscera, aiding breathing and defecation , they also work together to help to create flexion (lift) and latero-flexion of the thoraco-lumbar region of the spine.


Ridden Work:

Encourage the horse to work long and low with engagement. This gives him the opportunity to work with an upward swinging back. As the horse increases in strength and begins to work towards a more advanced outline allow him to stretch down between sessions of greater collection. Use of poles and appropriate gymnastic jumping exercises encourage the horse to bascule and use his back.

Pilates Exercises:

These are effective when performed regularly, 3-5 times per week is ideal.

  • Carrot Low Between Front Legs

  • Carrot Low to the Side

  • Back Lift Scratch Reflex

These three exercises are explained in detail in my book Pilates and Stretching An Exercise Index for Horse Owners and in the Pilates for Horses DVD / Online Video.

Management Considerations:

Make sure your horse is not overweight as this can contribute to the problem. Have a sports massage therapist check your horse to ensure there is no tension through the back muscles which may be inhibiting the flexor chain. Where possible make sure your horse can get his head down when travelling.

Feeding your horse off the floor is much better for back posture due to the mechanics of the neck and back ligaments.

Copyright Gillian Higgins 2019

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Aug 23, 2022

Good article 😀


Wow. This is an excellent article. Concise, great pictures, easily understood! I've read about this many times, but often get lost in all the technical jargon and lengthy explanations. This is perfection!! Thank you for sharing.

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