To begin to develop a horse’s musculature, it’s important to start slowly and take the time to create a solid foundation to build on later. This can be a young or green horse that’s never worked, or it can be a horse that’s had some time off or that is changing disciplines or repairing after incorrect riding. A big part of this means developing the horse’s topline and carrying power, so that he can carry you comfortably, and to make him a lighter, more comfortable horse to ride. When he carries himself correctly, he will move in a way that is easier on his body, helping preserve his long-term soundness. He will also be in a position to use his body effectively, whether you will later be asking him to do more advanced dressage, jump, or conquer miles of wilderness trail. To help develop this foundation strength, asking the horse to stretch is a great tool. It helps get the muscles moving in a loose way to promote range of motion and suppleness in his body, and lets the horse travel in a comfortable frame while he develops the strength and stamina to carry a more collected frame, as well as being a great tool to promote mental relaxation, and down the road, a way to reward the horse and rest his muscles after he does more difficult work.
It’s also an excellent test of the correctness of your work. If you can keep your horse reaching to the end of the rein like the picture below shows, and while in this frame ride basic transitions and figures, then you have your horse responding beautifully to your seat, weight, leg, and soft rein aids! Many riders will find they are not using their seat effectively enough to keep their horse connected, and will want to resort to over-use of the reins, which will cause the horse to raise his head (as his back drops and he falls on the forehand) or drop behind the vertical, hiding from the contact, indicating that the back has dropped and the energy from the hind legs is no longer travelling through the horse’s whole body. If your horse drops the connection, try to stay still in the saddle and resist the urge to start jiggling on the reins to get his head back down. Instead, try to feel his back and back legs, and do a “position double-check” of your own body. Experiment with making some changes, and see if you can find ways to reconnect your horse without going straight to the reins (hint- when the back legs step under the horse, his back can lift and his head will drop).
The key to maintaining this connection is getting the rider’s core engaged and the rider’s seat controlling the back legs of the horse. That sounds way more complicated than it is, but it might take a little playing with to get it if it’s a totally new thing to you. As a first step, you’ll want to check if you’re really in control of your body and balance. This sounds simplistic, but if you think about what you’re wanting your horse to do (raise his back), it makes sense that he can only do that if you aren’t in his way, otherwise you are giving him a mixed signal – some of your aids are asking him to lift his back while your body bumps about his back making it uncomfortable for him to lift. Fortunately, this is a pretty easy fix once you become aware of it, and usually gives a quick result in improvement in the horse’s way of going.
Assuming you have a horse that is safe to do this on, start by trotting around on a loose rein and posting stand-stand-sit-stand-stand-sit until you find a comfortable balance and rhythm. Then as you go around that way, become aware of how you land in the saddle on the “sit” beat. Try to do it by barely making contact with the saddle at all, like you’re standing with your knees more bent rather than actually sitting your weight into the saddle. For most people, it takes some time to get this posting rhythm down smoothly, and they find it requires them to use much more strength and body control to post than what they normally do, but once they get it, they are holding their bodies in a much more controlled balance rather than letting the horse bounce them around. Just getting that controlled balance allows the rider to free up the horse’s back, and most horses will start to stretch down and get rounder almost immediately!
To take it a step further, once you have that controlled posting down, return to regular posting (stand-sit-stand-sit) maintaining the muscle tone and balance that allows you to stand-stand at any given time. Make sure you are continuing to land very lightly or barely brush the saddle on the sit beat. Double check your balance by doing a stand-stand every time you pass a certain letter or a door way or some other marker that will give you regular tests.
Now, change your post rhythm to increase and decrease your horse’s trot. Depending on the level of training and the natural carriage of your horse, you might get a lengthening and shortening of stride (ideal!) or you might get faster and slower steps (less ideal, but if you and your horse are new to this, it’s not a bad place to start, you are getting a response and your horse is giving you an effort, we can refine that response later!). So as you post bigger, faster, with more swing or energy, your horse should trot bigger/faster. Then you post lower, slower, closer to the saddle with less energy, and your horse should reduce the energy and speed of the trot.
Next, try to post slower, slower, slower, all the way into a walk (if you can do that entirely without the reins, you are awesome!), then following the swing of your horse’s back in the walk with your seat, swing more, bigger, with more energy, and push your horse back into a trot. What you establish here is that your post creates the trot, versus the trot your horse chooses to give you regulating how you post. You are taking over the driver’s seat! Meanwhile, all these transitions are challenging your horse to use himself in an ever-changing balance, which makes it much harder for him to get stuck on the forehand and stay there, even if you do nothing else to help him find a new balance.
Now play with those transitions, hands forward and soft, allowing the horse to stretch (if he wants to), using your light seat and balanced body to keep his back free. More trot, less trot, more trot again. In the transitions, are you still holding your perfect balance? Or are you falling back into the saddle hard or landing on your horse’s neck as he transitions? You might find you need to build strength and improve your balance before you can do these transitions easily, and if so, that’s ok! Keep challenging yourself with these exercises for a few weeks and you should start to see improvement (or for trouble shooting a possible saddle imbalance making this difficult, see The Easiest Way To Test For Saddle Balance).
As the transitions become easy (and it might take a few weeks of practice, be patient with it!), start to make more dramatic transitions more quickly and off lighter aids. For example, work towards being able to do 5 steps of trot followed by 2 steps of walk back to 5 steps of trot then 2 steps of walk. You want to work towards being able to minimize the walk steps. You’ll feel your horse becoming more responsive, you’ll find you have an “almost walk” transition button, where you are trotting along and you think about walking but then right as your horse starts to shift to make the transition, you say to him with your body “changed my mind, actually keep trotting”. And that becomes the way your seat influences the horse’s hind legs!!
Read that part again, it’s really important! That’s how easy it is to gain control of your horse’s back legs (and therefore, his balance) with your seat. Trot, pause the post like you’re going to walk, change your mind and keep trotting. Do it a few times and feel how your horse shifts in preparation for the walk transition. That shift is him re-balancing. Then when he trots again, he is more over his back legs and less on the forehand. A re-balancing half halt, ta-da!
What usually happens is you get a few that are like “yeah, it worked! That was awesome!!” (and hopefully you remembered to “good boy!” your horse when he did it) but then after a few times the response starts to fade… your horse starts realizing that you aren’t actually going to walk, and he hasn’t yet realized that this “almost walk” cue is its own thing, so he starts doubting it when you don’t follow through and actually walk. When you feel that happen (ask for walk and get no response, making it impossible to almost walk and then change your mind and trot again), follow through with the aids to actually walk, and then do a few walk-trot-walk-trot transitions until your horse is responding well again, then throw in another almost-walk transition and if he does it praise him! Repeat until he understands (over weeks, not minutes) that an “almost-walk” is its own thing that needs to be responded to, and anytime he fails to respond you just follow through with a walk transition, walking just a step or two (literally, keep it very short so he doesn’t think he’s taking a break!) before returning to the trot and trying again.
With the almost-walk button installed, you have the button you need to help your horse start to work more off his haunches, and combined with your balanced seat, he should feel freer in his back, lighter on the forehand, and wanting to offer you stretching work in the trot! From all this work, you’re already well on your way to developing that topline and building a solid foundation for your future training.