Strengthening a horse's back reduces stress on his front joints. A strong back helps him get his hind legs underneath him, giving him more power. The horse's back is supported by the abdominal muscles, so exercises that strengthen the abdomen will also help his back. Do exercises both off and on your horse.
If you don’t have training in equine body work and muscle manipulation, don’t take a chance that you’ll stretch him in unnatural positions. Let him do the stretching himself by enticing him with treats. Hold a treat low to his chest, then move slowly downward to his knees and fetlocks. Then work laterally, holding a treat to his side, where you affix his girth. Encourage him to stretch farther back toward his flank or rear. Encourage him to hold position for several seconds. Repeat these exercises on the other side. Do them three to five times per side. These stretches help both the back and abdominal muscles.
Lunge your horse on the ground with a purpose -- to move your horse forward with his hind end underneath him. Don’t just let him run in circles. He should be moving forward, relaxed but briskly, at the walk, trot and canter. Keep his nose slightly turned inside toward you. Change direction frequently, asking your horse to turn to the outside. To do this, he has to set back on his hind end, “engage” his hindquarters, meaning pushing from them, and round his back -- all good strengthening exercises. Prepare your horse for a rider by working on lateral movements, such as shoulders in and out, and turning on the forehand, but applying pressure with your hands to teach him the basics of these movements.
Vary your work in the arena as much as possible to keep your horse from getting bored and fatigued. One good exercise for strengthening the back and abdomen is trotting over ground poles. Start with poles level to the ground and gradually raise them until they're about 12 inches off the ground. Once he is comfortable picking up his feet to this level, add a few small jumps or gymnastics, which are jumps with one to two strides in between. Another good arena exercise is transitioning, or changing gait speeds. For back-strengthening, transition from the walk to a trot and then back to the walk; then canter, then walk, and then ask again for the canter. Intersperse your arena work with some lateral movements, such as shoulder in and out, and turning on the forehand.
Trails and Fields
Getting your horse out of the arena and onto trails or in a field is good for him both physically and mentally. Trail riding may seem leisurely, but it’s actually very good exercise for your horse. Keep him on a long rein at a brisk walk, encouraging him to stretch and lengthen his neck. By keeping his neck relaxed and shoulders moving freely, it allows him to sway his hind end back and forth, which helps his back. Find some small hills to traverse up and down, which does wonders for his back and hind end. Ask him to walk up the hill, and then trot back down. Be sure to stay light in the saddle, slightly off his back, as he travels down the hills so he can round his back and stay balanced.
- Laura Whitfield, Owner and Trainer, Poseidon Sport Horses, Leander, Texas
- Reinhold’s Horse Wellness: How to Exercise Your Horse for Strength and Flexibility
- Cowboy Dressage: The Importance of the Horse’s Back
- EquiMed: Dynamic Mobilization Exercises for Horses
Based in Central Texas, Karen S. Johnson is a marketing professional with more than 30 years' experience and specializes in business and equestrian topics. Her articles have appeared in several trade and business publications such as the Houston Chronicle. Johnson also co-authored a series of communications publications for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She holds a Bachelor of Science in speech from UT-Austin.