Every nice dressage horse photo ever published shows the horse’s head down with his nose just on or slightly in front of the vertical, so riders logically deduce that this is an important goal in dressage and they set about trying to achieve it. But how is this done? If you consider that the horse’s quite heavy head attaches to his neck and back by way of muscles and ligaments, then training those muscles to keep the horse’s nose perpendicular to the ground sounds like a good plan. Strengthening and stretching the muscles and ligaments that allow the horse to correctly raise or arch his back so that he can support the saddle and rider comfortably, requires well-toned abdominal muscles. When toned tummy muscles contract and shorten, the horse’s back raises, which not only gives the rider a wonderful place to sit but also allows the horse to track up and
bring his hindlegs farther forward underneath his center of gravity, which also greatly improves his balance. Good dressage riders master the skill of lifting the horse’s back with their seat when they ride; in essence, they encourage his tummy muscles to shorten and his back to round because they know that when the horse’s back is up, his neck will stretch forward and arch and his nose will end up just in front of the vertical. The challenge then is to lift the horse’s back by way of his tummy, and that means, our dressage horse’s need to have six-pack abs of steel!
One easy technique to help horses to develop abs of steel can be practiced in the barn before you head out to ride. They are called “tummy ups” or “belly lifts”, and are a means to train your horse to engage his abdominal press muscles. While standing next to your horse’s barrel, place the knuckles of your closed fist on his abdominal midline just behind his girth area. Apply upward pressure to the midline as you stroke backwards and watch to see if your horse responds by raising his topline. Some horses react quicker than others, some need more pressure, others less, so observe carefully as you try this and be alert in case your horse reacts by trying to cow kick. You should gradually increase the amount of time you ask your horse to raise his back and slowly increase the number of repetitions until he can easily raise his topline for 10 seconds. You’ve just added another technique to your dressage riding tool kit and with time, you will notice that your horse’s back muscles will tone and strengthen, making it easier for him to carry you correctly.
So tomorrow when you head out to the barn to ride, practice some tummy ups and focus not on getting your horse’s head down, but instead on riding his back up. Just changing the way you think about your riding, in this case, by emphasizing back up instead of head down, can work wonders.
Susan Moody, IEO president