Western Dressage Exercise – Softening the Topline

The horse’s ability to change topline postures smoothly and without resistance tests and hones his balance and muscular pliability. With adequate longitudinal balance and loose spinal joints, a horse is able to transition back and forth between a working or collected frame and a longer stretched frame. When asked to do so, a supple horse will look like an accordion as his body posture lengthens and shortens without restriction. Being able to do this is a test of proper muscular development and a balance of strength between the flexion and extension chain of muscles. Balance and harmony between these muscle systems above and below the spine governs the finely controlled, graceful movements we need for dressage.

However, when stiffness exists in the horse’s neck, poll, jaw, or long back muscles he will not be able to execute these postural adjustments without quite a bit of struggle or resistance. This is often due to restriction or dominance in a muscle group as it needs to transition from an actively engaged role to a passively stretched and tensioned role. For instance a too-strong back/topline will sometimes become rigid when a rider asks the horse to transition from a stretched out frame to a more rounded one, where his abdominals and internal psoas muscles need to assume a more active role. This translates to a tight or stiff neck and fidgeting with the contact. This tension in turn causes the fascia to lose pliability, thus adding more resistance to the movement over time.

Diligent practice of adjusting the horse’s posture, especially when combined with the gentle spinal muscular pulsations from walking, is crucial for maintaining looseness throughout the entire body, thereby creating fluidity in the gaits. By alternating the length of muscles while keeping them tensioned, we are able to create better range of motion and both strength and suppleness equally. I frequently practice the following exercise as part of my warm-up or cool down phase. It serves as an effective antidote to the ills of repetitively being in a fixed or working posture.

Softening the Topline – Adjust the Walks

  1. Begin at H in a working or collected walk (depending on your level).
  2. At E, turn onto the short diagonal and ride a lengthened walk, asking for maximum stride length. Allow the horse’s neck to lengthen slightly forward as though he were pushing his forehead through the front of his bridle.
  3. At F, transition back to a working or collected walk by asking the horse to march with shorter steps and to carry his neck in a more rounded position.
  4. At K, cross the diagonal and begin to lengthen your reins, developing a free walk on a long rein. You should have the feeling that the horse chews the reins politely forward through your fingers. His neck should stretch out and down to the end of your reins, as though he were about to sniff something on the ground.

WDAA Western Dressage Exercise


Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou | Copyright © 2013

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