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Exercises for achieving Self-Carriage

From the Ground

Throughout history, in literature and art, the beauty of the horse in self-carriage has been glorified. In paintings and in statues, in drawings and in text, we have seen them, poised for eternity, in a elegant levade, floating above the ground in an effortless, proud trot, balanced with muscles bunched as they turn an errant cow.  

The balance, harmony, and majestic aura around the schooled partnership between horse and rider captivates and inspires the artist in us all. But how do we get there with our own horses? What are the physical requirements and the basic building blocks that enable us to achieve this self-carriage?

I have discussed, in earlier lessons, the importance of a round back and its relationship to self-carriage.  In this article I will present some of the exercises I use in my training program; exercises that will build and supple the back muscles and give them the strength needed to achieve self-carriage.

Horses are not all the same.  Some have back conformation that will round easily and some will only round with great difficulty.  When you round the back of the horse, he is able to bring his hind legs further underneath his body.  The muscle power from the hindquarters is thus engaged allowing for more momentum in forward movement while removing excess weight over the horse’s front legs. It also reduces the effects of concussion on the front legs of the horse.  Horses that cannot round their back or have not been schooled and conditioned to round their backs are much more prone to ailments in the joints of the hind legs and the forelegs.  Painful concussion and joint disease can be minimized and avoided through suppleness, strength and flexibility in the horse’s back.

Horses are grazers by nature.  In a natural state they may graze up to 15 hours a day. Consequently, a horse naturally spends much of its time with the bulk of its body weight centered over the forehand. In flight, the situation changes and the horse has the ability to transfer his body weight to his hindquarters, thereby protecting the forelimbs from overloading.  Horses in a natural environment move with the qualities developed by evolution.

Once a rider is mounted on the horse’s back, this whole natural state of affairs is altered.

To illustrate: If a horse is fed from a manger that is placed above his head, he will learn to stand with a “hollow back.”  Since he may spend up to 4 hours a day at that manger it is easy to see how this can create a life long habit. It is best to allow them to eat at a lower level as nature intended.

Veterinarians spend considerable time investigating lameness in the forelimbs of the horse. Splints, tendon and suspensory strain, navicular, sore shins, fractures, and sesamoiditis are just a few examples of ailments due to stress or concussion. By adding the weight of a human almost directly above the front legs, it is no wonder that the forelimbs become over stressed…..unless the horse really uses his back. If the rider keeps his horse’s back conditioned and tuned, many of the problems of the front and hind limbs can be overcome and avoided. It can also save the horse a great deal of pain.

It is important to understand that a round back is not only important in correct movement but also very important in the overall health and soundness of your friend and companion.

Self-carriage and a round back are one in the same.  In my past videos and articles I have focused on self-carriage, its importance to the horse’s training and the rudiments of building it. Throughout each article I stressed the rounding of the horse’s back, engagement of the hindquarters and the suppling of the rib cage. Without a strong and well-developed back there is no self-carriage. It is not enough simply to train the horse; he must first be physically and mentally conditioned to perform the work that will be asked of him. Horses that are not properly conditioned are set up to fail at their tasks. Often, they are labeled as problem or difficult horses when in fact they are simply “out of shape” and find their job painful and hard to do well. Time taken to develop overall muscle and back strength results in a much happier and sounder horse.  Horses do not learn if they are sore or in pain, mentally as well as physically.

A “hollow backed” horse is his own worst enemy. A hollow back has the effect of disengaging the hindquarters. The horse’s stride is well behind him, not underneath him carrying his weight as it should be. The horse is out of balance. A horse is an extraordinary example of athletic engineering and balance, a living combination of well-oiled levers and pulleys. Like anything engineered, one component or part either out of place or weakened can bring down the whole structure. 

I think of building a horse like building a bridge.  Like a bridge, if a horse is weak or dropping in the middle, he and the bridge are both in trouble!! You would think twice about crossing a weak bridge; it should be the same for riding a horse… eventually there will be repercussions of a physical nature that could seriously curtail further riding use of the horse.

Join me as I present and explain a number of the back building exercises and techniques that I ask each horse to do. Some are from the ground, and in a following article, from the saddle.  Remember to start any new program in moderation, progressing as your horse’s strength and understanding builds.

Be sure to work the horse in both directions paying special attention to his weak side. Often the rider’s weak side is the horse’s weak side as well. If one first “fixes” the rider, one will often discover that the horse is fixed as well.

From the Ground in the Round Pen or Arena


Lunging is a basic exercise often used to warm a horse up or simply exercise him. Often I see people lunge their horse with “reckless abandon” The horse is out of control and pulling away from his handler or running frantically at the end of a lunge line or inside a round pen. This accomplishes little other than to teach the horse bad behavior.

I do not have a set schedule for lunging. As a rule I let the horse tell me his needs. On a trained horse I can do a lot from the saddle but lunging offers a break in a mature horse’s weekly routine. With a young or green horse I do lunge on regular bases.  It is wise to assess the horse before mounting.  I like to make sure I have his undivided attention and that we are “together” before I swing a leg over his young back.

Lunging begins from the time you go to the stall and halter your horse. From that point on he is “in training.” I use splint boots and if needed and bell boots to protect the horse’s heels and legs. I walk him to the round pen and ask him to walk quietly, both directions of the round pen. Once he is walking quietly I will ask him to move forward at the walk, jog/trot, lope/canter.  I always ask the horse to move forward placing myself near the center of the round pen, standing at an angle just behind the horse and pushing him forward and underneath himself with the lunge whip. It is not enough that the horse simply goes around the trainer in a circle; he must move “forward” with his hind legs engaged and striding well underneath himself.  When lunging in a round pen or out in a large area, I always keep the nose of the horse to the inside of the circle. I do not allow him to carry his head to the outside of the circle.  This is undesirable because when the head is carried to the outside of the circle the inside shoulder will drop causing the horse to fall out of balance.


The “rollback” builds the loin, building and strengthening the horse’s back. Each rollback must begin with forward motion and the horse must exit the rollback with lots of forward motion as well, whether it is trained from the ground or in the saddle. I start teaching the horse to rollback from the ground, although in its elementary form it is not so much the stylized rollback of reining competition as an abrupt change of direction full of impulsion and energy. In a round pen, at a walk, I will begin to ask the horse for a change of direction; turning the horse to the outside or wall of the round pen I ask him to change directions. Turning into the wall sets the horse back on his rear end, engaging his hindquarters and rounding his back; as the horse makes the turn I use the whip to encourage him to move “forward” out of the turn in his new direction.  As he steps forward he should push himself out of the turn from his hindquarters. Once you are turning with desired results at the walk, move to the jog/trot and then to the lope/canter. Eventually, these turns will become “roll- backs”; a change of direction with lots of forward motion and engagement of the hindquarters. The horse should not pull himself out of the rollback… he should push himself out of the rollback with his hind legs, crossing over his inside shoulder with his outside shoulder to make the turn and then moving forward. Do not let him “suck back” (lazy or lack forward motion) or cross over the front shoulders with his outside shoulder crossing behind the inside shoulder as he changes direction for the rollback.  Push him forward to complete the change of direction.  Sometimes the horse will become confused between a requested stop and a roll back. Subtle body position and body movements will make the difference. Be consistent with your cues. Remember horses do not understand “gray” only black and white.  A clear, consistent message is essential when training.

~End ~

Set yourselves up to succeed
In each article I will remind you of the importance of “patience”,  “consistency” and “rewards.” You as a rider must understand the concept of your lesson before you can ask your horse to understand it. Think your exercises through thoroughly. If you are having trouble getting it right, and both you and your horse feel frustration, stop the exercise and move on to something that you can accomplish. You can come back to the harder lesson later. Always set yourself and your horse up to succeed. One of the biggest mistakes I see horse trainers make is that they ask from a horse things he is not prepared to do…. the horse is thus set up to fail and, all too often, is disciplined or drilled in the attempt to get it right. If you and your horse get a given exercise right once or twice, quit right there and reward your horse. Do not drill or over train. Drilling and over training may perfect what you are trying to train but will take the spirit and dampen the work ethic of the horse. An enthusiastic trainer is good, but one who knows when to quit “training” on a horse is wise.

If you make the partnership between you and your horse your priority, the training time you both share will be rewarding and successful.

Some words of wisdom I will share with you…..the best horsemen are not always the most talented but they are always the most patient.

Please understand that these training articles are techniques used by Eitan and Wolf Creek Ranch. If you are unsure of the use of any of these techniques, you should consult your professional horse trainer.  Some students are not yet at a point where they can comfortably or safely use any given technique or aid.  Know your own limits as well as your horse's. By purchasing this article I release Debra & Eitan Beth-Halachmy, Wolf Creek Ranch LLC and Cowboy Dressage from any and all liabilities while using these training techniques. I also understand that working with horses can be dangerous and take full responsibility for my actions.

These articles first appeared in Tidningen Hastfynd, the premier equine publication of Sweden.  Articles are written by Eitan Beth-Halachmy with Jennifer Hoibraten, Norway.  All rights reserved. The articles may not be reprinted nor reproduced for publication in any manner without prior written permission by the author.

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