The Long and Low of It
By Natalya Gryson
A “swinging back,” “over the back,” and “through” are terms used to describe a horse’s back in the natural state of elastic lift that allows him to move without restriction under saddle and allows the rider’s aids to act upon his whole body. I say “natural state” because only by working with the horse’s physiology can we preserve his free rhythmic gait while developing his strength and suppleness in training.
Let’s start with an anatomy refresher. The muscles that run along the top of the horse’s neck, back, and haunches are interconnected and form the horse’s topline. These three muscle groups are interlinked and consequently muscle reflexes in any of one of these large muscle groups affects the other two groups and topline as a whole. The muscles of the horse’s topline have two main jobs - forward propulsion and weight bearing. The muscles of the haunches and back are best designed for forward propulsion while the extensor muscles of the neck, those that run along the topline, together with the nuchal ligament are designed to support weight. The neck extensor muscles and the nuchal ligament start behind the poll and end over the withers, where they connect to the muscles of the back. When the horse’s head and neck is lowered, the neck extensor muscles and nuchal ligament create a lever which supports the natural lifting of the back. Without this support, the back muscles will tire under the weight of the rider, for their main function is forward propulsion not weight bearing. However, employing the neck extensor muscles and the nuchal ligament as a lever, the horse’s back’s natural lift is preserved and his back muscles are free to swing rhythmically and elastically under saddle.
It is only when the horse’s head and neck is lowered that the nuchal ligament is under tension and can assist the neck extensor muscles. Thus when ridden in a long and low frame, the nuchal ligament can support the natural lifting of the back and protect the neck extensor muscles from reaching muscular fatigue. In fact, when the horse’s head and neck are lowered, the nuchal ligament can alleviate up to half of the muscular effort of their neck! Over years of training we elevate the horse’s head and neck carriage relative to the bend in the haunches and to the the strength of their neck-lever to maintain the back’s natural lift with less and less assistance from the nuchal ligament. In relative elevation, the neck extensor muscles are extended but not lowered. Without help from the nuchal ligament we have to be careful not to exhaust the neck extensor muscles, because if they do exhaust then our horse’s back's natural lift will be lost soon thereafter. The careful trainer slowly integrates short periods in a relatively elevated frame, allowing the horse to lower his head and neck again before his neck extensor muscles reach exhaustion. Training in this way prioritizes maintaining the neck-lever and results in healthy, strong back musculature.
Equestrian literature references two types of elevation - relative and absolute or active elevation. In relative elevation, as defined above, the whole forehand elevates with the head and neck as a result of a correctly working topline and bend in the haunches. In absolute or active elevation, the head and neck alone are raised without the necessary bend in the haunches, the neck-lever is lost, and the horse’s back suffers. Are you are wondering, which type of elevation am I employing? Look at the base of your horse’s neck - the arch of the neck extensor muscles should extend all the way from the back of your horse’s head down into your horse’s shoulder. The triangular arena at the base of the horse’s neck, right in front of the shoulder, should be filled in as a result of muscular use. If your horse is young in training or has been trained incorrectly, the musculature in that triangular area will not be well developed. However you should still be able to see whatever muscle is there is activated during work and with time that space will fill in with more and more muscle. If it is not activated, it would benefit your horse’s back and entire way of going to lower and lengthen their neck. Ride them forward, long, and low until you can see this muscle activate.
So what happens when the neck-lever fails from fatigue or improper positioning of the neck, leaving the back unsupported? Tired back muscles alternate between dropping (complete lack of muscular tone) and cramped tension, struggling and uncomfortable without support in bearing the rider’s weight . For the horse’s back to be physiologically working correctly, it must have good blood supply resulting from rhythmical contraction and relaxation. Only muscles with good blood supply during work are well nourished and therefore increase in size. Cramped tension results in over-contraction, reduced blood supply, and ultimately atrophy. The fatigue toxins released during over-contraction are painful and spoil a sensitive horse’s desire to work. The culmination is a diminishing of the horse’s natural gait, and discomfort under saddle which can persist even after the saddle is removed.
The free, light movement of the forehand that dressage riders strive for is not achieved directly. It is the result of correct neck positioning, lift of the back, and action of the hindquarters. Therefore it is important for all levels of riders, riding all levels of horses, to understand the physiology behind the work they are asking their horses to do. I hope that a better understanding of the horse’s musculature will help riders make good decisions regarding their horse’s training. Long and low is not only natural, it is necessary for the health of the horse’s back and entire topline.
Bürger Udo, and Otto Zietzschmann. The Rider Forms The Horse : Function and Development of the Muscles of the Riding Horse. FN-Verl. Der Dt. Reiterlichen Vereinigung, 2003.
Denoix, Jean-Marie. Biomechanics and Physical Training of the Horse. CRC Press,Taylor & Francis Group, 2014.
A horse in her second year of training showing quality topline engagement, not in elevation.
An FEI horse showing quality topline engagement in relative elevation.