Horses in regular work tend to have occasional soreness and muscle tension. In order to prevent these issues from becoming injuries, or creating behavioral problems, we have to help the horse work out the knots and move forward freely and evenly. But sometimes, it's difficult to find the root of the problem, especially since any discomfort can quickly lead to inversion and crookedness and thus a whole list of body parts being used incorrectly. Here are four telltale signs that your horse's lower back is tight, and preventing him from carrying himself (and you) comfortably in good balance.
1) A hollow appearance behind the saddle:
The area of the horse's back directly behind the saddle is called the loin, and it is vulnerable to stress because it is unsupported; it has no ribs underneath it like the middle of the back does. When your horse is being ridden, if he is using his body correctly, the loin should appear full, and be at the same height as the croup. However, if the horse is tight in this area, it will appear low behind the saddle, and will slope upwards towards the croup.
2) He's dragging his nose on the ground while longeing:
When you longe your horse, if he is comfortable and relaxed, he will carry his head such that his eye is no higher than his withers, and no lower than the point of his shoulder. However, if his lower back is tight, he may seek to release it by stretching his neck down so far that his lip is practically dragging in the dirt. At the same time, he'll be taking small strides with his hind feet. If your horse does this frequently, and especially if he gets grumpy at you when you get after him to pick up his head and move forward, it is very likely that his lower back is the culprit.
3) He has a flat neck when asked to stretch out and down:
In an effort to lengthen our horses' toplines, we often do exercises on the ground and under saddle to encourage horses to reach through the neck, telescoping into the contact and lifting the base of the neck in a graceful arch. If, despite correct training techniques, your horse consistently has a flat neck; if his response to you combing the line or lengthening your reins is to extend his forehead away from his body while refusing to lift the base of the neck, his lower back may be too tight to allow him to lift his front end and thus shift his weight back onto his hind end.
4) He is unable to release at the poll:
Many horses benefit from being asked to flex slightly left and right at the poll. When done correctly, without the horse twisting its head sideways, this exercise promotes softness through the whole topline. This is usually where I start when asking horses to begin releasing and rebalancing, and I have discovered that horses who are tight in their lower backs also have a very hard time releasing behind their ears. Frequently, I have to address this lower back tension before horses can respond correctly to the request that they release at the poll.
If your horse has one or more of these symptoms of lower back tension, don't panic! You can help. There are many methods of bodywork which can relieve muscle tension. I recommend Connected Groundwork exercises, especially Pelvic Tilt and Sacral Rock. TTouch can also be very helpful, as can stretching the horse's hind legs. Experiment with different methods to find what works for you and your horse.
In addition to incorporating a little bodywork into your warmup and cool down, take steps to teach your horse to use his lower back correctly. Do groundwork before riding and ask the horse to reach his hind legs underneath him with his belly lifted, instead of with his back down. Then have someone watch you ride, and tell you whether your horse is hollow, or lifted, in the loin. If he's hollow, try releasing tension in your own lower back and hips. Give your leg aids with your joints free and active, instead of bracing or locking. And of course, make sure your saddle fits!
Learning to care for your horse's lower back will help ensure that you and your horse can enjoy healthy, happy riding time for many years to come!