Help Your Horse Round His Back

Author’s note:  for much more detail and illustrations about helping your horse round his back, please read The Secret to Rounding Your Horse’s Back. 

The SENSE Method is now referred to as “Debono Moves.”

Q: “My 16-year-old gelding is starting to develop a swayback. He’s also very stiff when I try to bend him on circles. Many people have told me to raise his back by pressing my fingertips into his midline. Not only won’t he raise his back, he gets annoyed and threatens to kick. He’s usually a sweet horse who has never kicked out before. Someone suggested using more force, including using two hoof picks, but I don’t want to get kicked! Is there another way of preventing a swayback?”

A: There is a much better way! And, for both your safety as well as the well-being of your horse, I suggest that you give this new way a try.

But first, let’s discuss why the forceful way of raising your horse’s back is not a good idea. Very simply speaking, a horse has muscles along his back which are used to extend the back. Abdominal muscles, on the other hand, are used to flex, or round, the back. When a person puts pressure along the midline of a horse’s abdomen, it usually causes the horse to reflexively contract his abdominal muscles. The contraction of these muscles can cause the back to round. While many people do this in an attempt to prevent or correct a swayback, we must look at what this is really teaching the horse. This reflex movement creates a spastic kind of movement which is not controlled. It is merely a reaction to an irritant. This sensation of raising the back, therefore, would be very difficult to transfer for use in activities, such as when you are riding. The horse would not have learned to contact the abdomen to help make it easier for his back to round and his hind legs to engage. In other words, no functional learning has taken place.

It is even worse if, as your gelding is telling you, it is uncomfortable or unfamiliar for him to raise his back by this abdominal pressure. By using force, you can actually be teaching him to be more resistant. There is another option, but before I teach you how to do it, let’s discuss how a swayback can develop.

Many people suffer from back pain due to arching their lower back too much. This is called hyperextending. Many horses do the same thing and it can result in not only a swaybacked appearance, but painful and stiff back muscles. It will be difficult for the horse to round his back, engage his hind end and bend on a circle. To let go of this hyperextension, one must gently teach the horse how to round, or flex, his back. The key word is gently. Trying to force the horse to round the back will not work. In fact, it is usually counterproductive. Here’s why:

First, we must respect the bodily intelligence of the horse. This is the innate wisdom that endeavors to keep creatures safe and healthy. This intelligence is what makes the horse adopt postures or movement patterns to accommodate a weakness or to guard an injured or sore area. Perhaps there once was a poor-fitting saddle, a sore mouth or poor shoeing and your gelding learned how to drop his back to relieve the pain. Your 16-year-old horse may have started this pattern quite a while ago, long before you noticed. Whatever the reason, the hyperextension helped him cope with his predicament and he now has a deep-rooted attachment to the pattern. That is why, until convinced otherwise, his nervous system wants to maintain it.

Therefore, we need to be very careful in how we reintroduce flexion to a hyperextended horse. Too much, too soon, can lead to the horse protecting himself from further movement. Even just the fear that an unfamiliar (in this case, flexion) movement may be painful can cause the horse to contract and stiffen further. Definitely not what we want! In fact, many people who manage to get their swaybacked horse to round her back once, find that the horse resists the movement ever after. Because they did not properly prepare the horse for the movement, it caused discomfort. Once that happens, the horse makes a concerted effort not to allow that movement to happen again. In this scenario, you may be worse off than before you started!

You must first eliminate any reason why the horse would need to protect himself by dropping his back. Have a veterinarian rule out any medical reason. Make sure that your gelding’s teeth are in good shape and have a qualified person check out the fit, comfort and appropriateness of all of his tack. Don’t forget to check his sheet or blanket if he wears one. Have a long talk with your shoer (and feel free to get more than one opinion), to make sure that his feet aren’t causing problems with his back. Since a driving seat can cause a horse to drop his back, have a competent trainer teach you how to have a soft, following seat. Okay, now that we’ve eliminated the most common causes for a dropped back, let’s begin.

You must prepare your horse to accept flexion through his back. A good place to start is with the ribcage. A supple ribcage will allow the back to flex much more easily. Refer to an equine anatomy book to learn the structure of the ribcage and back. Then go and gently feel all along your horse’s spine and ribcage. Don’t forget to feel the sternum. It is usually quite easy to find on most horses. With soft fingertips, gently feel the groove in the front of the chest. You will feel a bone there. This is the sternum. Feel along the sternum, going in the direction of the girth area as far as you can. The muscles are thicker there and the sternum may disappear from your touch. Get familiar with how your horse feels all over his back and ribcage. Do not test to see if your horse is sore anywhere. No poking, please!

While you were gently touching your horse, you were increasing his awareness of those areas. Merely increasing awareness can lead to significant changes in the horse’s organization and movement. It is a basic and essential step in our process.

Stand on the left side of your horse, near his left foreleg. Place your left hand on the front of his chest, in front of his forelegs, and your right hand directly behind his front legs. You will usually be able to feel the sternum quite easily here. With your soft, curved fingertips, gently touch the right side of the sternum. You will probably have to bend your knees so that your back is straight. Your comfort while working with your horse is paramount since the horse will react to your comfort level. Be aware of your safety at all times. Horses can strike both forward and to the side with their front legs. Use horse SENSE Method and when in doubt, don’t do it!

With your fingers curved gently around the sternum gently bring it toward you by moving your pelvis back. Don’t do the work all in your arms. This is a very small, gentle movement. Think it through first. Pay close attention to your horse’s reactions. Many horses love this movement, but each horse will respond individually. We call this movement sternal coaxing. Do not overdo it. By keeping the movements very small and slow, you let the horse experience what he can do, rather than what he can’t. When you keep the movements within his comfort range, the horse will expand the range of movement on his own. If the horse experiences restriction, fear or pain with a movement, he will instead further limit his movement.

Now go to the right side of your horse and reverse the placement of your right and left hands. Is it easier or more difficult to gently coax the sternum to this side? Is it because of your horse’s limitations or yours? Remember to keep the movement slow and small and use soft fingertips. Three times on each side is sufficient to let the horse experience freedom of movement in the sternum.

If your horse appears relaxed as you are moving his sternum side-to-side, you can gently coax his sternum forward. Yes, this will likely make his posture more extended. Whenever we assist or exaggerate an existing pattern of action, we call it Supporting the Pattern. If he habitually hyperextends, then let’s help him do that even more.

Supporting the Pattern is an important SENSE Method concept. It allows the horse to feel safe, since his nervous system isn’t busy trying to defend against well-meaning, but threatening ministrations. The horse can relax. No one is attempting to contradict what he feels comfortable doing.

Also, the muscular effort involved in holding this hyperextended posture gets a much-needed break. Since you are doing the work for him, your horse’s brain gets a message to let those habitually contracted muscles relax. Suddenly he’s not so extended anymore!

There are further benefits to Supporting the Pattern. When you exaggerate a movement pattern, the animal (that includes us humans!) gains an awareness of these unconscious actions. Once you have awareness, the nervous system can reorganize to improve upon this action pattern. It may decide that the pattern no longer fits its current state. But it needs the awareness of it first. You’re giving that to your horse now.

Another benefit: Any return from extension is actually flexion! This is a way to safely (remember, we don’t want to invoke the nervous system’s defensive reactions) “fool” your horse into doing flexion! The introduction of new movement patterns must be done with great tact. This is a clever way to do it.

Once the horse’s nervous system experiences a comfortable flexion movement, it is much more likely to repeat the experience.

Returning to the small side-to-side movements of the sternum, you can subtly add a very slight upward movement as well. This upward movement decreases the downward pull of the horse’s back muscles and relieves pressure in the ribcage. You may notice the withers rise slightly. The horse will usually lower his head and lick and chew when this happens. He is starting to learn how to flex comfortably.

As you can see from anatomical illustrations, most of the ribs connect either directly or indirectly with the sternum. Increasing the available movement of the sternum can improve the suppleness of the entire ribcage. When the ribcage is supple, there is less stress and strain on the horse’s back. In SENSE Method, we pay a great deal of attention to the horse’s thorax, since a supple ribcage is the source of effortless movement.

After experiencing such nonthreatening sternal and spinal movements, many horses start to stretch their backs in new ways. You may find your gelding extending and then rounding his back on his own, in his stall or corral. He will enjoy feeling how much more movement he has, and will likely want to recreate and expand on it. This is likely to carry over into his under saddle work as well, with your horse more capable of rounding his back and engaging his hind end. You may see changes for some time as integration continues.

With the SENSE Method, we’re not imposing change, but rather respecting and working in harmony with the intelligence of the horse’s nervous system. We offer the horse opportunities to increase freedom of movement.

Author’s note:  for much more detail and illustrations about helping your horse round his back, please read The Secret to Rounding Your Horse’s Back. 

The SENSE Method is now referred to as “Debono Moves.”


Mary Debono
Mary Debono, is a Certified Feldenkrais® Practitioner who teaches people how to increase mobility and confidence while minimizing the effects of aging and injury. She is the author of the award-winning, Amazon #1 bestseller, "Grow Young with Your Dog," and the creator of Debono Moves. Mary travels internationally to teach workshops with an equine, canine/feline or human focus. She also offers online consultations. Mary lives in sunny Southern California with her husband, horse, dog and cat. Visit her at www.DebonoMoves.com
Mary Debono
Mary Debono

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