Riding in Harmony. Part 1

The “Correct Outline” And How To Achieve It

By Phil Bennett B.H.S.I.I.

Phil Bennett is a classically trained, freelance teacher and trainer based in Ashford, Kent. This series of articles are based on extracts from his book “Riding In Harmony”

riding in harmony apr13 4No doubt you have heard people saying that a particular horse’s outline is too deep, too short, hollow, above the bit, behind the bit, over-bent  and so on. This may leave you confused about exactly what is right. In fact a horse’s working outline is an ever-changing thing. It will vary as training progresses and even from moment to moment depending upon the pace and figures that are being ridden. Outline is not something that should be forced on the horse but is rather a result of the horse’s balance, suppleness, strength and understanding of the rider’s aids. Anyone who rides or trains horses should understand how they move and how they can best carry a rider. Your horses would thank you, if they could, and be so much happier in their work. After all, horses do not ask to be ridden! We owe it to them to help them to carry us in the most comfortable and least damaging way.

Young horse showing pleasing outline and most of the requirements

Young horse showing pleasing outline and most of the requirements

Carrying a rider is not a natural function for a horse. The forelimbs and the hindquarters form two pillars and between them is the relatively weak ‘crossbar’ on which we sit. Our added weight throws the horse out of balance. There may be as much as 60% of our combined weight taken on the front legs. An untrained horse will tend to hollow away from the discomfort on his back. He will tighten his back and upper neck muscles, raise his head, run away or pull himself along on his forehand. These instinctive reactions are typical of the ‘flight reflex’ of a frightened or startled horse.

To break this destructive pattern the horse has to adapt his posture. He needs to stretch the muscles of his top-line, lowering his neck and raising his back which then becomes a bridge between the action of the hind-legs and the support of the forehand. The rounded back, like a hump-backed bridge, is better able to support the weight of the rider. Also the horse’s pelvis has to tilt forward allowing the hind-legs to step better under the body where they can take a greater share of the weight. In order to make these changes of posture the horse has to correctly use a “ring of muscles”. The muscles on his underside contract and the muscles that run along the top-line are stretched.

Close up showing the flexation of the neck muscles

Close up showing the flexation of the neck muscles

As training progresses the outline gradually alters. When the horse is stronger and more supple and takes more weight on the hind legs, the forehand becomes lighter and the carriage or position of the head and neck becomes higher. But it is important to remember that, however advanced the outline and the movements being ridden, correct posture and muscle function must be maintained.

Good training is holistic.  If, for example, the poll is flexed only by applying direct pressure on the jaw, in the case of many bad riders even sawing the bit left and right the horse will certainly flex his poll but it will have nothing to do with the rest of his body! The correct outline is the result of the horse using his whole body not just bits and pieces! We often see horses flexed at the poll but with an incorrect flexion of the neck, a stiff back and disengaged hind legs. Is this Dressage? No!

So what are the signs of correct posture. All of the following features should be evident. Some are more visually obvious than others. Do not assume that every, supposedly trained, horse moves in correct carriage. Try to be discerning when watching other riders work and when honestly assessing your own performance.

Round and supple with very well placed hind legs

Round and supple with very well placed hind legs

  • The horse appears relaxed and confident and blows or snorts softly in rhythm with his movement
  • There is an overall rounded appearance
  • Behind the saddle the back appears raised rather than dropped
  • The pelvis is tilted or tucked under
  • The hind-legs step under the body rather than stepping out behind it.
  • The tail swings loosely to left and right, neither clamped between the hind-legs nor stuck up like a flagpole!
  • A line or shadow is evident half-way down the neck, running parallel with the crest, defining the correctly stretched and flexed upper neck muscles.
  • The underside of the neck is concave and the skin moves easily over the windpipe.
  • A line or shadow can be seen running from the girth area to the stifle, defining the the correct flexion of the abdominal muscles.

Next month I will explain, in more detail the physical changes which have to occur, and how the good rider creates these changes and improves the well-being of his horse.

For lesson enquiries or to purchase signed copies of “Riding In Harmony” for only £12 including p+p (shop price £16.99) email : p.bennett200@ntlworld.com or text 07904 504511

Leave a Reply