Hunch Back

From Melynnda Thiessen

Posture… we’ve all been nagged about this!   In the dressage arena, I’d bet none of us have been spared the correction of “shoulder’s back and down”, “don’t lean forward!” and  “look up, look up!”.

Much has been discovered about the rider’s need for a strong core. However this post is to shed light on another important piece of the rider’s stability…the upper back.

I have found two truths about the proper use of the upper back:

  1. It is necessary for stability –i.e. when riding the young horse
  2. It is necessary for connection –i.e. accessing the upper level movements

I have posted a suggested exercise at the end to help riders begin to strengthen their upper backs.

I have a young Andalusian in training. This guy, sweet as he is in temperament, is squirrely to ride! Those of you familiar with the breed can empathize with their loosey goose shoulders and flexible necks that can be a real challenge to keep together in frame.  Green horses come in and out of their frames all the time, but this guy is especially talented at it! I found he was able to challenge my stability through his quick and flexible movements, which if left unchecked gave me a tendency to hunch through the upper back and send my elbows out and thumbs down. This, of course, compromised my stability.

Due to the number of amateur riders I work with, I began pondering this tendency as at least 85% of my riders suffer from hunching their upper backs.

My conclusion was that riders resort to this as a defense mechanism when their balance is challenged.

Unfortunately, this is one of the least effective positions.  It disconnects the rider’s lower back from ever having influence on the horses hind leg thus losing rider orientation, balance and therefore, control of the horse.  And what I have noticed all too often is that once the rider has taken up this position, they very often stay there…a big mistake in a dressage rider.


example of a rider disengaging their upper back when their balance has been challenged.

I very quickly corrected my position and began taking the offensive in the ride through a firm position of my upper back. (A position that holds my shoulders back and down, my core is engaged, my center of gravity is low, my hips are loose and sink down in the saddle with my legs relaxed at his side.)

Westley as a teacher:

But riding the green horse has not been the only event that has led me to weed the error of a disengaged upper back out of my ride.

I always tell my students to observe the world class arena of dressage riders and recall their postures.

Courtney King-Dye showing excellent posture in her upper back.

I then explain to them they don’t sit tall just because it looks good, they have to in order to get the job done.  (First explained to me by my own instructor, then clearly demonstrated to me by my horse, Westley.)

So enters Westley’s passage 🙂

(The new love in my life, Westley – Grand Prix TB/Hanovarian Cross gelding)

I have found that the ability to ‘find’ passage, is the ability to connect in a way that lifts the horse to the movement.  Yes, you need a secure position on a young horse for stability. However, when riding passage, the concept of a connected upper back is brought to a whole new level.  Ahhh, the fantastic joy of the upper levels!

When done correctly a definite connection is felt all the way through the horses back to the riders seat up through their trunk and on up through the upper back.  This is the process that takes place with each and every stride, so it feels like a rhythmic circle of energy that is contained through the rider’s body, back to the horse and so forth.  When you are truly connected, you feel as though your seat acts as a suction cup, bringing the horse right up in the air with you.

What struck me about this connection was my upper back. Sure, its obvious that it takes a strong core. This can be discovered just by observation. But to realize that if you don’t connect your upper back correctly you will never complete the circle of connection from rider to horse.  To understand this, for me anyhow, took experiencing passage.

Moral of the story:

  1. Correct your upper back issues.  Don’t be bashful; we all have had this issue to some extent!  Please see exercise below.
  2. When you have an opportunity to get on a horse that knows the upper levels, take it! …the experience given to you by a well trained horse will pay you back 10 fold!

Suggested Exercise – Chair sit:

I like practicing this exercise just before I get on.  Its great for my upper back because it stretches and strengthens that area and begins warming up my core.  When doing this exercise I focus on keeping my back straight and my shoulders back and down. I initially hold for 30 seconds, extending the duration with each repetition over a series of several days. Please discontinue if any pain or discomfort is experienced.