Art2Ride’s philosophy in a nutshell is training the horse’s topline muscles optimally and in such way that he can carry himself and the rider in a proper manner without undue wear and tear to himself. We as Art2Ride trainers want to build a proper foundation of strength in the horse, so that he can eventually perform with ease and grace all the diverse tasks we set him. Whether they be dressage movements, jumping in the arena or cross country, wearing English or Western tack, performing in the show rings, the riding club, trail rides and so on. Whether we want to go to competitions or just ride for our own pleasure in our own back yards. We all who love horses have ultimately their best interest in mind and we want them to have long and happy lives. Horses become our companions and family members and therefore we want to make sure that we give them the best possible chances in leading a happy and pain free life with the best type of training, making sure that we follow their pace and build up their topline as thoroughly and efficiently as possible.
Topline muscles and the basic idea of the training method
The topline muscles that we are interested in strengthening are: the upper neck, back, abdominals and the group of muscles called sling muscles that are found around the chest and withers. The sling muscles are the ones holding and supporting the chest of the horse, as the horse does not have collarbones. Abdominal and sling muscles are referred to here as the core muscles. Long, low, and forward position of the head and neck provides the most optimal set-up for activation and strengthening of the topline. The horse should reach down and forward with his head, stretching his neck all the way from the withers to his poll. This enables the topline muscles to start to work in relaxation.
To gain the optimal long and low position you have to ask the horse to go actively forward, and with forward we mean to step better under himself with his hind legs. Thus the movement starts from the hind legs and goes over the back and the rest of the topline muscles all the way to the head of the horse. The better the horse steps under, the more he facilitates the activation of the back and core muscles and the easier it gets for the horse to stretch forward and down with his neck further enabling the activation of the topline muscles. And thus a positive circle is formed once the horse has enough activity, is forward, and in consequence stretches down and out. It is in this outline he builds and forms the carrying topline muscles optimally. Without enough activity and forwardness from behind, the stretch down and out has no meaning and the topline muscles will not strengthen. In fact, the horse may become too slow and start dragging his hooves and stumble if there is no engagement of the core together with the stretch. Thus, activity, forwardness and the stretch down and out are all crucial components in the topline muscle building.
The aim is not to stay in the long and low position forever; it is there to firstly build the carrying musculature and secondly give a break to the horse’s muscles in between more strenuous exercises in working or collected frame. In most cases (but certainly not all), in the beginning of this training process the horse needs to get all the way to the ground level with his nose to enable his topline muscles to start working properly and be activated to the full. After the horse has been stretching actively and visibly building the topline muscles, you would gradually start to ask for a higher head carriage alongside with the increase of muscle mass and strength.
The amount of time it takes for the horse to build enough topline muscling to be able to lift his head without loosing the work through his topline and hollowing is highly individual. It not only depends on where the horse started from (are there any physiological or mental issues), but it also depends on the horse’s conformation (what is the size of his head compared to his body or the broadness of the chest etc.). It is logical that, if there are tightness or pain related issues in the back or elsewhere in his body, he would then need a lot longer to first overcome these issues before he can take advantage of the full stretch down and out and start working with his topline muscles. Mental issues could also pose a delay in the process but once the horse finds the comfort in the routine of this training work and you ask only what the horse is capable of doing both physically and mentally at a given time, these usually are alleviated. Bigger head and broader chest are undoubtedly heavier for the horse to lift than a small head and slim chest, thus f.ex. a draft horse would in general need perhaps longer time in the long and low position than a horse of finer build.
When the horse has strong enough back and core muscles, he can start building his upper neck muscling. When the upper neck from the poll to the front of the withers is strong enough, the head can come up without the horse hollowing his back and loosing the use of his core muscles. The degree of how high the horse can bring his head depends thus on how strong his muscles are; the stronger the topline, the higher he can carry his head without loosing his capacity to carry himself and the rider. The ultimate highest head carriage is also dependent on the conformation of the horse; how the neck attaches to the withers. A high neck set and the horse can have his head higher in collection, a lower neck set and the horse maintains a lower head carriage even in collection.
Because this foundation training process is highly individual, it is impossible to give time frames on how long you are going to be training in the long and low position before you are able to ride your horse in the working frame and ultimately in the collection. But most likely and on average you need to concentrate solely on the long and low training for the whole first year. And then any further time in long and low frame would depend on the starting condition, conformation, how optimal you can make the training and whether there are any set-backs. Of course, if you are lucky enough to start with a horse who has already a good topline muscling, you may find working shorter than a year in long and low only, but this is a rather rare occurrence. Transitions to both working frame and eventually to collection are to be considered only natural consequences of the strengthening topline muscles. Once the horse is ready, these come easily with the weight of rein contact without any harshness or forcing.
It is incredibly important that you as a trainer develop your eye to see when your horse is working as well as he can at a given moment, and that you are not going to cut corners or advance your horse’s training too quickly for him. Observing and analyzing your horse in a continuous manner as you work him is as much a part of the Art2Ride philosophy as is the muscle building process through long and low. You need to be able to detect when your horse starts to use his back muscles, when he is getting tired, what is the optimal head position for him, when does he start to use his abdominals, when he begins to become off his forehand into a balance between the back and front ends, when he is ultimately ready for lifting his head higher, etc.. It is a continuous learning curve and your observational skills are your key to good and optimal training.
Your training skills should also extend to observing how your tack is functioning. Without a good fit of the saddle, bridle and the bit, you will not get optimal work from your horse no matter how capable and good you are as a trainer.
Art2Ride foundation training is thus an all encompassing training system to enhance and optimize the relationship with your horse. Horses are our companions and it is our responsibility as trainers and owners to take their best interests into account in everything. With Art2Ride, we ask and observe what the horse can do at a given moment and only gradually ask for more within the limits of what he can physically and mentally do.
This chapter was also published in the online magazine No Back Pain January 2019 issue.