Don't Sacrifice Suppleness For Strength
Yoga for Your Horse: Exercise 1


For any horse to develop self-carriage, especially under saddle, he must have a supple back that swings evenly side-to-side as well as lifting and dropping to match the push from his hindquarters. Many horses that have been worked in restrictive equipment or confined to frames that force them onto the forehand will lose the suppleness necessary for correct balance and engagement.

If your horse's back muscles feel tight or he has a weak topline, here's a pair of exercises that will start building the core strength and releasing the braces that impede correct carriage. If you've ever done yoga, you might recognize this as the "cat/cow" exercise that's good for human backs and cores as well.

Start with a horse whose back muscles are warmed up from some light work; a few minutes of walking in-hand or a brief longeing session is plenty. Run your hand down your horse’s back on each side from wither to hip, pressing down a little to feel the quality of the long back muscle. Is it springy and elastic or hard and tight?

Tie your horse with a safe amount of slack in the line or have a helper hold the lead with room for the horse to move his neck, then stand next to the horse’s shoulder facing toward the opposite hip. Place your hands, with fingers curved and fingertips pointing down, on either side of the spine about a hand width from the midline. Press straight down, starting with light pressure and increasing until you feel the back drop slightly under your hand. Your goal is for the back to stay slightly hollow, not to reflexively pop back up.

Next, move your fingertips two to three inches toward the tail at the same distance from the midline. Apply pressure, asking the horse’s back to drop again while you take two or three slow, deep breaths. Repeat this along the back all the way to the loin.

When you put pressure on the back just in front of the hip bones, you’ll probably notice the contraction causes the horse’s croup to flatten. (Take care here to stand next to the hip so you’re not in range of a kick if your horse objects to the stretch. If he does, back off the pressure to ask for a little less contraction.) That’s the “cow” portion of our horse yoga exercise.

For the “cat” stretch, move back to stand just behind the horse’s shoulder, facing straight across the base of his withers. Place the hand closest to his head on his shoulder or over his neck and reach the other hand underneath him just behind the forelegs. Feel for the hard structure under the skin right on the ventral midline – that’s the sternum or breastbone.

If you follow that bone back toward the tail, your fingers will find a depression at the end of the bone at about the spot where your girth or cinch crosses. If your horse doesn't object to being touched there, place your hands side-by-side with fingertips curled and start tickling/scratching with along the midline just behind that sternal depression. Some horses will respond better to one hand and just one or two fingers. And you might find a little fingernail pressure is needed at first, especially if your horse’s back muscles are generally tight.

Again, hold this lift for two to three breaths. You don't want to create a quick, reflexive bump up that falls right back down. Instead, you're looking for a sustained lift, likely with a corresponding deepening of breath and increased movement of the entire thoracic area. Watch for the ribcage to expand and the hollows at the base of the withers to fill in while the neck and head fall forward and down.

Move your hands an inch or two toward the tail and repeat the lift, noting whether more of the back seems to lift this time. Try another lift an inch or two farther back, again holding for two or three long, deep breaths. This exercise puts the abdominal muscles to work. You should also notice the horse's weight shifting from front to back, placing his center of gravity closer to his hindquarters.

Give your horse a few minutes to process the exercise and praise him for doing it, then move to the other side and repeat, first asking the back to contract and drop (cow) and then having the abdominals contract to lift the back (cat). Pause for a few minutes and repeat a third time from whichever side was most comfortable.

Now run your hand down the horse’s back like you did at the start. Has anything changed? It might not after the first set of three, but if you do this exercise several times a week – always when the horse’s back muscles are warm – you should start to notice more range of motion. And for horses that started out with very tight backs, you’re likely to notice a change in the elasticity of the back muscles that should translate into better balance and ease of movement. Stacey Kollman

© 2010 Desert Horse Services/Stacey Kollman



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