How the Horse’s Spine Lifts

The first segment of this entry is repeated from another blog entry but it is worth writing again and then taking the information further. How a horse is supposed to “lift its back” is a topic of great confusion for many riders – at ALL levels of riding.
The information presented is what I learned in lectures given by Gavin Scofield. This is how the information was handed to me, and I pass it on to you – the words helped me develop images in my mind.
Providing real examples of horses working with lifted spines has proven to be challenging even when reviewing high level riders in our industry. Please use your imagination and a good book on horse anatomy to fill in for the lack of graphics. The good news is that horse anatomy IS common to all breeds and ages!

Lifting the Spine
The lifting of the spine combined with an increase of the horse’s weight shifted back onto the hind legs allows the horse’s feet to push against the ground with greater force, which not only provides stability but also increases speed and/or power. This is important for all horses from those that only get ridden on trails to those that are looking to maximize their performance. Using the body correctly is simply the healthiest and most efficient way for a horse to function, no matter the goal.

There are two different ways to describe, “lifting the spine” and this term can be a source of great confusion.

1. A spine can be perceived as “lifted” by rounding the back and extending the spine upwards. This is what happens when a horse lowers its head below the withers. While this provides an excellent stretch for the top line muscles, it also shifts the horse’s body weight primarily onto the front legs. This stretch and extension would be similar to a human bending forward to touch his toes. The back rounds and spine extends outward. The horse’s body weight must go onto the front legs in this type of “lift” through the back. So, although it is a useful posture during the process of training, it is not the end goal. Eventually a habit in this posture will damage a horse if this type of “lift” is sustained long term.

2. A spine is also “lifted” through lengthening, extending or slightly separating the spinal joints causing the whole spine to organize into a neutral alignment. The extended spine, acting as one unit then translates back as the horse increases weight bearing to the hind legs. As weight is shifted back the entire top line will round slightly as a result of the pelvis rotating, hind legs bending and the hindquarters coming closer to the center of the barrel. The overall effect of rounding is similar, but not the same as, what is described in the first example. Most notably, the degree of joint extension differs. This second example of “lift” would be similar to a human stretching his body upwards and then shifting his weight onto his heels. The back does “round” but not as drastically as when weight was shifted forward to touch his toes.

The Spine in Neutral Acts as One Unit
As the spine lengthens or extends, it lifts or suspends and become integrated as a complete unit, which can then act as a lever. Each vertebra in a horse’s long spine moves only a little and each movement is critical. If one joint of the spine is corrupted with too much flexion, too much extension or is out of place laterally, then the entire spine is compromised and its ability to act as one lever becomes impossible. Straightness and suppleness are two very important ingredients for a correct lift of the spine.

When each section of the spine is able to operate freely in a neutral position the joints extend slightly and the entire spine can suspend and move back as one lever. The spine, acting as one unit becomes the lever that stabilizes the back and allows it to act like a bridge and lift the entire forehand. The leveraged bridge allows the legs to reach farther forward as the weight shifts to the hind end of the horse.  This creates an overall impression of roundness in the horse’s posture without exaggerated curves in any one section of the spine.

Because people focus on “rounding” without understanding the full meaning, some sections of the spine, such as the cervical in the neck, are commonly over extended. Other sections such as the thoracic (dorsal) vertebrae in the back will over flex to compensate. This compromises the ability of the spine to function as a whole and inhibits the horse’s ability to shift weight backwards. The spine must be straight and neutral first in order to suspend. The roundness will then happen appropriately as the spine translates backwards with the weight shift to the hind legs.

The suspension of the spine creates more suspension in the horse’s movement and the entire frame will become slightly more compact from nose to tail. This is not a frame or posture that would appear uncomfortable or difficult with obvious areas of extension and flexion. It would appear instead almost a neutral posture with natural and comfortable looking curves from nose to tail.

There are also some key areas along the spine that are important to understand.

The Sacrum and Lumbars
One of the critical sections of the spine is the sacrum. The lengthening of the sacrum is quite a small movement, but once it lengthens and extends, everything changes. The angle of the pelvic bones changes, the lumbar vertebrae can then lengthen and extend downward and the hind legs can come closer to the center of the horse’s body for greater leverage and weight bearing.

Thoracic Vertebrae
Again, this is not very mobile segment of the spine because the vertebrae are attached to the ribcage. Once these vertebrae are able to separate slightly and suspend, the ribs will begin to flare open and the ribcage will expand outward. This movement also eases ventilation as the thorax opens and the sternum elevates.

The Neck
The cervical vertebrae are the most mobile section of the spine. People will focus on bending the neck into a frame in order to get the rest of the spine to lift because that appears to be the easiest solution. The problem with this is that it is very easy to over extend the neck, stressing the range of these vertebrae and compromising the lift of the entire spine. Also because the neck is so flexible there are many positions that may appear correct but they either interrupt the alignment of the spine or are outside of optimum position just slightly. By focusing on the head and neck carriage first to encourage engagement, the odds are grossly in favor of getting it wrong.

While it is important that the long neck come closer to the body, it is also important that the horse’s weight is not drawn down and forward. Since the neck obviously cannot telescope inward, it must flex somewhat as the vertebrae extend and separate. The joint between C6 and C7 at the base of the neck is actually the most critical for the correct position of the neck. If the joint lengthens to extend and then translates up and back, then the base of the neck lifts first, lifting and creating flexion in the rest of the neck appropriately. If this joint flexes downward or over extends upwards unable to translate back, then it brings the weight of the neck down and forward onto the front legs.

The Pole
At the top of the neck is the pole, which is comprised of the Oxiput, C1, C2 and C3. The relationship of the Oxiput to C1 allows forward, backwards, up and down movement of the head and spine. As the joint between the two extends appropriately it puts the pole into alignment with the rest of the spine and empowers the entire spine to lift and suspend.

The spine lifts during engagement of the horse’s hindquarters. But the spine must first be straight in order to lift during engagement. This is why straightness is one of the very primary skills I try to develop in a horse. By understanding exactly how the spine has to organize and align in order to lift, you can begin to see why all those old masters harped on and on about “straightness” as one of the cornerstones of training. To me, straightness = spinal alignment. This is how I determine internal straightness no matter how well or how poorly the horse can maintain an external path of travel.


3 Responses to “How the Horse’s Spine Lifts”
  1. Laurie Higgins says:

    In an otherwise well-written and informative article, it is marred by two typos: The top of the horse’s neck is the “poll”, not the “pole”. And the base of the skull is the “occiput”, not the “oxiput”.

    What fascinates me is that to lift the base of the neck, the pectoral muscles must work with the scalenus muscles to lift the root of the neck but also to pull the front legs down relative to the ribcage, thus allowing the withers to rise.



Check out what others are saying...
  1. […] Much of the theory I practice can be found in the training books: Training for Optimal Balance. I have also attached a link to one of Kirsten’s blogs where she explains how the horses spin lifts as the rest of the horse’s body comes together optimally. […]

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"You cannot train a horse with shouts and expect it to obey a whisper."
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