The strong back drill is simple but extremely important for you and your horse to master. A horse with a strong top line who knows how to carry himself collected will stay sounder longer and be better able to perform. In contrast, a horse with a weak back who travels with his back hollowed out will likely have soundness issues and could, worst case scenario, wind up with kissing spines.
If you want a strong horse that will not only perform great but will maintain that greatness for years to come, then you need to implement the strong back drill into your program.
What is the Strong Back Drill Good For?
There are certain positions that make a horse more athletic and better able to move. A horse that is strung out with its back hollow is not in the best position for turning a barrel quickly. In contrast, a horse that has his back lifted as he comes into the barrel will rate with that back rounded, pulling his hind end up underneath of himself. This will not only make the turn more balanced and smooth but it will also allow the horse to leave the barrel very powerfully, ready to accelerate.
The strong back drill will teach your horse to round his back. In the beginning you will likely need to ask your horse quite a bit to keep his back rounded. However, as he gets stronger and it becomes more of a habit, he will learn to do it without being asked.
Does Your Horse Need the Strong Back Drill?
As a general rule, I think that every horse needs to regularly do the strong back drill to ensure they are moving and carrying themselves correctly. Even for a horse that tends to carry themselves correctly, it never hurts to push the buttons, so to speak, to keep them sharp.
If you are unsure if your horse has a weak back, there are several things that you can look for. Visually, your horse may have any of the following:
vertebrae that protrude from the rest of the back
a concave neck that is often carried high
a swayback look
A horse may also not track up the way he should. When a horse tracks up his hind feet will step into the spot where his front feet were. A horse with a weak back will not reach as far forward, resulting in hind feet that fall behind the hoof print of the front feet.
If your horse demonstrates any of these signs of weakness, the strong back drill may definitely help.
Assuming that your horse’s back is weak from simply not travelling correctly, then the strong back drill is for you. If your horse has a weak back from something else, such as poor saddle fit, nutritional deficiencies, gastric ulcers, or anything else, that will need to be addressed first.
The Strong Back Drill
Start by trotting in a large balanced circle. We want to first focus on getting some good forward motion. If we do not have that, then it will be next to impossible to achieve the roundness that we want. Do not move onto the next part until you have fluid forward motion.
Once you have forward motion, apply some leg (not spur) pressure to your horse’s sides. At the same time make contact on his mouth by picking up on your reins. If your horse is like mine, he may want to shut down on you when you touch his mouth. If this is the case, apply a bit more leg. The idea here is to drive him up into your hands with your legs.
You want to maintain this until you feel the horse round his back, keep his stride nice and long and soften his chin. This may take quite a few strides to achieve this. That is okay. Whatever you do, do not release your hands and legs until you feel those changes in your horse. If you do release before he has it correct, you will be rewarding him for doing the wrong thing. We do not want to do that. Once you feel the horse try, release your hands while keeping your legs on him.
Your horse may only maintain the roundness for a stride or two in the beginning. If that’s the case, pick him up again with your hands and drive him up into your hands again. Gradually you will get more and more strides out of him. Remember, if a horse has been allowed to travel strung out for a long time, this is going to be really hard work for the horse. You will need to build up his strength.
Q: What kind of bit should I be riding my horse in while doing the strong back drill?
A: Best case scenario, I would like to see this drill done in some sort of snaffle bit in conjunction with split reins. I feel that this gives the rider the best feel when doing this drill. That being said, I understand that not every horse can be rode in a snaffle. If you can’t ride in a snaffle, play with it a little bit to find what works for you.
If you are riding a young horse, this drill should be done in a snaffle.
Q: My horse isn’t softening and rounding his back. What should I do?
A: Like I said above, a horse who has been allowed to travel strung out for a very long time will resist rounding his back at first. It’s hard work. As such, he will likely resist you in any number of ways. He might speed up when you apply your leg. Conversely, he might slow down when you touch his mouth. He might cruise along at the same speed, maybe tossing his head a bit. Every horse is different.
Whatever he does, stay with him. Every horse will eventually concede to your request. You need to be very aware of what your horse is doing. As soon as he rounds his back and softens that chin, relax your hands. He needs to make the association that when he does those two things, he will get a small reward or you releasing his mouth.
Q: How long should I do the strong back drill? How often?
A: You can do this drill every time that you ride, if you want. In fact, in the beginning, when you are first teaching your horse this, I encourage you to do this every time you throw a leg over. You need to continually build on the previous day’s success.
How long you work on this drill during any particular ride will depend on your horse. In the beginning, your horse may be resistant to the drill and, when he does round, he will only hold it for a few strides. In this case, you will want to quit the drill on some sort of good note. You want to quit at a point where your horse is not frustrated but has rounded a couple of times, at least. It’s a bit of a fine line that you will need to play with depending on your horse.
Q: Can I also do this drill at the lope?
A: In the beginning, stick to the slower gaits. Adding speed will add resistance. Work at the trot – or even the walk. Once you have that nailed, then you can move onto the lope. However, regardless of how well you are doing at the trot, expect some issues when you move to the lope. It will be like teaching a new skill. Again, always reward the slightest success of your horse.
Finish Line Thoughts
A horse that has a weak top line and does not carry itself properly is at a huge disadvantage. It is your responsibility as the rider to teach the horse how to more correctly carry itself. Once you do, it’s magic! A horse that drives its hindquarters underneath with a strong back will be able to clock way faster and move more athletically. Work on this drill everyday. It’s simple but extremely effective.
And remember, it’s always a #gooddaytoride.
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