The Correct Outline
by Emma Green, Veterinary Physiotherapist
The terms ‘long and low’ or ‘working your horse in the correct outline’ are terms very frequently used in the equine industry. However there is much confusion as to what the ‘correct’ out line is and how it is achieved.
There is often a misconception that the ‘correct outline’ is to make the horse look professional and pretty when ridden, giving the impression the horse has a specific job and is trained to move in a certain way for this job. However the main focus of working the horse in the correct outline and indeed gaining it in the correct manner, is in fact to protect the horses’ musculoskeletal frame.
The ‘correct outline’ is very difficult to train and can take long periods of time, but can be achieved by any horse and rider combination if they understand what they are trying to achieve and how to achieve it.
The Horse’s Frame
The horse’s back is a very important structure, made up of various different vertebrae, large supportive ligaments, muscles and soft tissue.
Interestingly the horses’ body is not naturally designed to carry a saddle and rider, therefore it must be a priority to work them in the correct way to prevent pain, injury or illness.
To understand the horse’s body we must look at its makeup and how it has evolved. Naturally the horse has two major responses known as ‘fight or flight’. The interesting response on this occasion is the flight response of the horse. In the flight response it is visibly obvious to see the horse raise its head, and tail, hollow its back and run. In turn these reactions mean that the horse’s spine alters and the spinous process of the vertebrae move closer together.
The shape of the back in this response in relation to a hollow back and high head carriage, plus a saddle and a rider will bring the spinous processes closer with the extra weight. In some cases the spinous processes may get so close they touch causing the horse large amounts of pain, this is known as Kissing Spines.
Another common skeletal condition seen in many horses now is a condition around vertebrae C2 and C3 joint in the neck or ‘broken neck syndrome’ as it is sometimes known. This occurs when a horse is forced to brace his neck, arching in the cervical 2 and cervical 3 junction, dropping the head at the poll and clenching the jaw. This not only puts huge amounts of pressure on the vertebral structures, strains the surrounding muscles, overdevelopes specific muscles and in some cases causes tension or strain through the nuchal ligament.
This obviously impacts the rest of the body structures, causing weakness through the rest of the back and muscles, compromising the horse’s balance and coordination.
Many horses not only show an unnatural head/poll position, but often have a curve or lump on the top of the neck, as well as holding tension through the surrounding muscles often causing swelling through the jaw line.
What we look for
What is the correct outline or position of the horses back and how does ‘long and low’ work make a difference? In order to look after the horse’s musculoskeletal structures in the best way we must train them to not only use their back correctly, but also use other parts of their body to support the mechanics of their back plus carry the saddle and rider successfully.
The main focus is to make the horse’s back round, ideally with the head and neck low, the middle part of the back lifted, with the whole back working in engagement. To support the spinal structures we encourage the horse to lift through its abdominals, power through the hind quarters, with the rear part of the body almost carrying the front limbs, neck and shoulders.
By working with all of these structures supporting each other, we are not only allowing the whole body to carry the weight of the rider instead of just the back but ensuring that the spaces between the vertebral spinous processes stay open.
By engaging all of the body structures we are now able to ask the horse to work ‘long and low’. The correct meaning of long and low is to have the horse engaged from the hind quarters, with the horse supporting its whole frame and then working to reach forwards and down to stretch through the back.
By training a horse in this way whether they be used for dressage, showjumping, eventing or hacking we are able to prevent injury to the large but very fragile body structures of the horse.
When riders get it wrong
Confusion occurs when owners have little knowledge of schooling a horse or when they see horses working at high level competitions with a higher frame and believe that this is the correct way of working a horse.
The higher frame takes a huge amount of self-carriage from the horse and is achieved with the power of the hind quarters and abdominals lifting the body and providing cadence and elevation. This is something that takes years of training, but does all begin with the supportive training of ’long and low’ work.
Once the long and low frame is trained and gained correctly, riders are then able to train the horse to lengthen and shorten its frame and stride in order to convert the power into elevation, lifting the horse into the frame we often see at top level disciplines. This power and elevation production is what allows dressage horses to produce the complex high level movements or jumpers to push up and over high fences.
Achieving ‘long and low’
A few considerations and simple techniques to help you look after your horse’s body.
This is very important when training any horse. Ensuring you are balanced in your seat and transferring weight equally through your stirrups is essential. The correct length of rein and ensuring you are soft through your hands, elbows and wrists will enable you to move your arms with the horses head movements, encouraging reach and stretch from the horse without the rider blocking the movements or becoming unseated.
So many riders struggle with the difference between speed and impulsion. Impulsion is a rhythmical beat of the horse’s gait which enables the horse to keeps its balance and for the rider to ask for bend and movements when required.
By asking for your horse to bend around a circle, around your inside leg or slightly off the track will help to encourage your horse to work through his back and stretch the head and neck long and low. Bend is again something that has to be correct, because when a horse bends correctly it bends through the whole back, not just through the neck. Simply pulling on one rein and your horse turning its head is not achieving true bend.
Using spiral exercises will help to encourage stretch and bend when schooling the horse. By starting on a twenty metre circle, opening the inside hand and rein away from the horse and pushing with your inside leg will ask the horse to bend around your leg. Use the outside leg to push the horse in and spiral into a fifteen metre circle, keeping the outside leg in place so the horse does not fall out through the shoulder. Spiral out once more and you will find the horse asking to stretch its neck forwards and down.
As the horse lowers its head and tries to stretch down and forwards, try not to block this, praise this behaviour as this is after all what you have asked for.
With practise and most importantly time, the horse will learn what you require and this will become a natural outline whenever the horse works.
Another fantastic way to encourage the horse to activate the hind limbs more and lengthen through the back and neck, taking the frame longer and lower is pole work. Using various pole formations can make it varied and fun for horse and rider to achieve the desired frame.
Common mistakes made by riders when trying to achieve a frame which is perceived to be correct include;
Over use of the bit
Heavy, strong hands moving side to side will only encourage the horse to bend through the vertebrae at the cervical 2/ cervical 3 junction. This will not encourage correct engagement through the horses back and hind quarters and only puts strain on the neck and weakens the back of the horse.
Warming up and Cooling down
Training correctly and encouraging the horse to work in the correct manor in order to protect their body is so important. The warm up enables the muscles to stretch and prepare for what is going to be asked of them next. The cool down then relaxs the muscles and helps decrease lactic acid build up which will make them feel stiff and sore after a period of rest.
Teaching your horse to work in ‘the correct outline’ can take time but it will keep the horse more active and supple for many more years.
Another very important part of producing the correct outline and maintaining muscular health in your horse’s body is regular visits from a qualified physiotherapist. With each visit they will be able to release any muscle tension/ soreness that may have built up, discuss any concerns with the owner about the horse’s body and advice on home exercises that may help achieve the end goal.
You can find a fully qualified physiotherapist in your area by visiting the Register of Musculoskeletal Practitioners (RAMP) at www.rampregister.org. or if you are in the Yorkshire area visit egreenanimalphysio.co.uk to arrange a physiotherapy treatment.