There is an extremely important aspect of horsemanship that is critical for both the mental and physical well-being of the horse – and for real connection when riding – yet which is often misunderstood, if it is even on our radar at all. I’m talking about self-carriage, which I define as a mental and physical unity allowing the horse to use his own body correctly in movement, with little or no human input.
You’ve probably seen horses demonstrating beautiful self-carriage while moving freely out in the pasture or paddock. They almost seem to float, traveling with a power and grace that we would love to duplicate under saddle. Unfortunately, many horses are unable to attain true self-carriage under saddle, most often because their riders don’t really understand what needs to happen to help their horses get there. In fact, what many riders believe they should do to promote self-carriage and collection often inhibits the very changes they are trying to achieve.
Whether the horse is on his own or under saddle, a number of factors have to be in place for self-carriage to be possible. First and foremost, the mind of the horse needs to be both willing and free of anxiety. This is absolutely critical because a horse cannot separate how he feels from how his muscles are responding.
A horse that has any degree of tension or worry in his mind will automatically contract the powerful muscles of the topline, which I call the “self-preserving” muscles, as they come into play whenever the horse feels the need to defend himself. When these muscles fire, the base of the neck pushes downward, the spine drops and the head comes up, putting more weight on the forehand and forcing the hind legs to trail out behind. In that braced position, the hind legs cannot come forward enough to properly support or balance the horse’s centre of mass and the weight of a rider, which can lead to a whole host of problems ranging from resistance to the rider’s aids to lameness. When a horse is holding or is held in such a posture, we call that an “inverted” frame – the exact opposite of what we want when we are aiming for correct self-carriage.
To achieve correct self-carriage, the horse needs to activate the sling and core muscles of the underline. When the underline muscles engage, the base of the neck lifts, the withers come up, the spine rounds, the loins coil and the hind legs reach well forward under the horse, taking more weight and making it much easier for him to balance himself and to carry a rider.
None of these essential pieces can happen without calmness in the horse’s mind, coupled with a solid connection with his rider. This is why I call the muscles of the underline the “relational muscles,” as they can only activate when the horse is mentally at peace – and that can only happen if you have developed trust and earned the position of leadership with your horse. No degree of force can make the back turn off – it has to come from the horse’s mind.
Don’t Focus on Your Horses’s Frame
Once you understand all the elements necessary to create self-carriage, you will also understand why the most common ineffective action people take to try to correct an inverted horse, pulling on the reins to change the position of the horse’s head, simply cannot work. When a horse is inverted, the back muscles are already tight and shortened, pushing the spine downward. If we then pull on the reins, we compound that shortening. In this scenario, the horse’s only possible response is to tuck the chin, producing over-flexion in the neck without releasing the back. It is important to understand that a tucked chin alone does not indicate self-carriage or collection.
Another method of trying to force a horse into self-carriage is pushing or driving with the seat in an attempt to get the horse to “come through from behind.” While some riders may have the timing to eventually teach a horse to lift up and engage behind with a driving seat, it most often has the opposite effect, causing the horse to bow his spine away from the pressure and preventing him from using his hind end optimally. Even when it does work to some degree, it is typically a struggle for both horse and rider, and the horse tends to fall apart without constant input from the rider, which is not actually self-carriage at all.
Poor riding position or imbalance in the rider, however unintentional, can also lead the horse to drop his back, similar to the effect of a driving seat. For example, the very common “chair seat,” in which the rider’s legs are well ahead of the hips, puts extra pressure on the horse’s lower back, making it very difficult for the horse to coil his loins and use his hind end effectively.
You can also have horses that might be loose in the back, but heavy on the forehand due to being asked to carry their head below the withers, which negates their ability to engage the underline and use their hind end well. Alternatively, you may be creating a “false frame” in which the horse is put into a posture that is often mistaken for self-carriage or collection, but which is not correct from a musculoskeletal perspective. An educated eye, however, will look at such horses and see clues that indicate a false frame, which may include:
- hollowness in the loins that prevents the hind legs from reaching forward and under
- a dip in front of the withers indicating that the base of the neck is still pushing down
- a tucked chin due to the excessive vertical flexion of the neck, yet with no real flexion at the poll
- face behind the vertical
- jarring or heaviness in the horse’s gaits
- stiffness or brace anywhere in the horse
- resistance or tension in relation to the rider’s aids.
Whether through poor riding or ineffective techniques, if you do not succeed in turning off the self-preserving muscles and turning on the relational muscles, your horse is very likely to invert to some degree.
The Benefits of Floating Under Saddle
Once you start to notice the differences between a horse in a false frame and a horse in true self-carriage, you begin to understand why all of this matters so much, even if your goal is to enjoy your horse by moseying down the trail. It’s really not about making the horse look pretty – and it is definitely not about submission. Rather, it is about teaching the horse to carry himself in a way that maximizes his athleticism and ability to carry the rider’s weight, which allows him to stay sound for as long as possible. It is about making your horse’s job easy and enjoyable, rather than a constant struggle for both horse and rider.
There is also the very real fact that a horse moving in correct self-carriage is an absolute joy to ride. While riding an inverted horse can feel like falling into a hole filled with live jackhammers, riding a horse in good self-carriage is like floating on the crest of a smooth and powerful wave – a wave that you can shape and direct with little more than your thoughts. There is simply nothing like it, and it truly is the ultimate expression of the equestrian art.
In my next article, I will start talking about the exercises I use to help a horse move toward self-carriage under saddle, but in the meantime, take a look around you and see if you can distinguish horses moving with balance and connection vs horses that are inverted or held in a false frame. Try not to be a critic, but do begin honing your eye. You might also want to ask someone to film you riding your own horse and do some studying there too. Don’t be discouraged if you discover that your horse’s way of going is perhaps not as correct as you thought it was. That just means you now have the understanding to start making positive changes that will put you and your horse on a happier and healthier path!