It’s a skeletal and not a load bearing muscle. Since the horse does not have a clavicle, the entire dorsal structure is relatively weak.
Originally, horses were not meant to bear the weight of a rider on their back. The dorsal musculature is a fundamental area, extremely fragile and heavily loaded in sport horse. A good physical condition is therefore essential if we want to preserve their health and be able to take advantage of their potential. Thanks to the proper functioning of the top line and its tonicity, the horse will be able to support the saddle as well as the weight of the rider and to propel itself with force to walk, trot, gallop, turn, jump…
When you get into the saddle, your weight affects the back of your horse and hollows it that can eventually cause him pain. Poor rider position, unsuitable saddle or poorly managed training can also amplify these pains. The rider must quickly take any weakness or contracture in the top line into consideration. By teaching him how to stretch his top line, use his back and contract his abdominals while he carries you, you improve his comfort.
Focus on the consequences of an unsuitable saddle
The saddle allows to distribute the weight of the rider on the back of the horse and to absorb the shocks. Having a saddle designed for the morphology of your horse is crucial to not alter his locomotion and injure his top line. Imagine going for a jog with shoes that are too small or too large. Each stride may be painful. The same saddle cannot suit Tornado, the fat pony with short back and Venus, the frail thoroughbred mare with long and prominent back.
On the physical side, a poorly adapted saddle leads to reiterated pressure spots, thus causing a lack of irrigation in the area concerned and an atrophy of the back muscles. The consequences can also be felt when training your horse: reluctance to bend, to change paces, to bring him on the bit…
It should be noted that the way you saddle your horse can also have consequences on the back muscles despite a suitable saddle. Too many riders place their saddle either on the shoulders or on the withers, thus blocking the movement of the latter. The back muscles being annoyed by the weight of the rider, the locomotion is then hampered by lack of impulse.
How to strengthen his back?
During the training session, your horse’s back flexes continuously and his top line changes according to the degree of collection, the bend and the way he holds his head. The most important condition for a proper functioning of the back is the freedom of the neck.
Here are some exercises to strengthen your mount’s back. It is important to know that trotting is the ideal pace for this. In addition, in order to relieve the back of the latter, it is better to work at rising trot.
➢ Neck extension work
Neck extension work, especially during the warm-up of the horse is often recommended. It is about working the horse with the neck down (not rounded) and the forehead vertically, the muzzle gradually finding itself at 30 cm from the ground.
This exercise stretches the top line from the tip of the nose to the tail and bows the back. In this position, the horse will be able to develop his muscles and to release the tensions accumulated in the area located along his spine. Extension work can be carried out while lunging or riding, always making sure to work symmetrically.
It is worth noting that when you work your horse down, it is not the back that is tightened in the first place but the abdominals. They are the ones helping the back to stand and then strengthen. We speak of antagonistic muscles. As for humans, to have a good back, you must have good abdominals.
➢ Bending work
Bending work is a good way to work the back sideways. From a purely theoretical point of view, bending consist in curving the head-tail axis around the leg. A good bend enables the engagement of the inner hindlimb, thus allowing the horse to bulk up and relax, but on one side only. The important thing is to balance the work at both hands for a harmonious musculature. The ultimate riding figure to work the bend remains the circle. Serpentines, figure eights and half-volts will also be your best allies.
➢ Work over cavaletti
Cavaletti are interesting to work the whole top line while working the engagement when taking off. As with other exercises, the most important is to work at the trot. Galloping is less beneficial but can be useful for some jumping horses. Start with two or three cavaletti and eventually you will increase up to six. The system must be built in such a way as to limit the rider’s actions in order to leave the horse free of his movements as much as possible.