Dancing with the Sucked Back Horse
- by Dr. Thomas Ritter
©1999 - All Rights Reserved
When you are struggling with a sucked back horse, what you are struggling with is your horse's tuning to your aids. This is a life long process, and not a very easy one at that. It is something that starts on the ground, and never ends, even for a second as long as you are
in your horse's presence.
The very first thing any horse has to learn is to pay attention to the
rider/handler. This is necessary, because without mutual focus and
attentiveness, there can be no communication. Without it, the horse will
very soon do whatever he feels like doing, and that can in turn become
dangerous for the human.
The next step is to apply the aids with precision, so that there is no
contradiction amongst themselves on the one hand, and no contradiction
between the aids and the horse's natural footfall sequence on the other.
Contradictions lead to confusion, and confusion leads either to the horse
tuning the rider out, or becoming angry and rebellious, depending on his
When I give an aid, e.g. with my calf, I expect an instant clear response.
If the horse fails to respond, I follow up immediately with another aid,
which is not necessarily heavier, but maybe given with more attitude,
quicker, briefer (is that a word?), possibly backed up by a light tap from
the whip or the spur. I want to feel the energy rippling through the horse's
body as the hind leg is snatched up at this point. Most of the time, heavy
aids only make the horse duller, whereas precisely timed, brief, light aids
get the horse's attention much better.
This brief description shows the demands that are placed on the rider:
When a rider is experiencing the problems you are describing below, the
underlying causes are usually a combination of the above 5 points. The list
may not be complete, it is only a compilation of the most relevant areas
that came to mind immediately. These are the things that I see in each and
every lesson I teach. Usually it is a combination of the rider leaning
forward a little bit, so that the impulsion is impaired, a leg aid that is
applied at the wrong time and that lasts so long that it is, in fact, a
grip, not a driving aid any more. Gripping drains even more energy. Often
the rider stiffens his hips as well, which prevents the back from moving. In
addition, the reins are usually too short and the hands fail to release when
the leg drives, so that the impulsion is destroyed even further by the
hands. Analyzed this way, actually all of the rider's aids, even the legs,
are diminishing the impulsion, instead of increasing it, in this particular
scenario, which is quite common.
- We have to center our undivided attention on the horse, because if we
don't concentrate, why should the horse?
- Our timing must be flawless. If we apply our aids at the wrong moment in
the footfall sequence, we get something different than we had intended,
sometimes even the opposite, because the aid then does not make sense to the
- The aids have to be coordinated correctly. E.g. when the leg is applied,
the hand has to allow the hind leg to come forward, and the torso must
enable the horse to carry the load more with the hind legs than with the
front legs. Any contradiction only makes the horse tense and confused.
- We have to follow through with whatever it is we are doing, and we must
be lightning quick with our reactions.
- We must be consistent, no matter where we are or what we are doing with
our horse. We cannot, e.g. flop around on our horse on a trailride on Sunday
without having the horse on the aids, and then expect him to do precision
work in the arena on Monday. We have to demand the same focus and precision
on the trail as in the dressage ring or in a jumping parcours.
The rider then usually reacts by intensifying the aids, leaning even more
forward, even pumping with the shoulders in an effort to push the horse
forward with his torso, which only makes things worse. On top of that, the
rider SQUEEEEEZES with his legs until his face turns red - and the horse
still has not moved. It is a downward spiral of escalating aids. Some of the
more phlegmatic horses invite the rider a little bit to go down that road.
The only way out is to sit up, lean back, stretch and relax the legs,
release the reins, and give light, but precise aids. I know it's easier said
than done, but I'm afraid it's the only way. We have to learn to be clear in
our communications and to stay out of the horse's way during the execution.
Another issue that is connected to this is that many riders don't want their
horses to go forward, because they are afraid of the energy, so they
subconsciously kill it right from the start. They don't realize that the
more energy the horse places at the rider's disposal, the safer he is,
because he is not holding anything back. The more the horse sucks back, the
less energy he gives to the rider, the more dangerous he is, because all
this stored up energy will come out sooner or later in the form of
spookiness or bucking, etc., especially if the horse is a warmblood. The
rider has to learn to bring all the horse's energy out and to channel it in
the right direction. This is the reason why the most advanced dressage horse
must be the safest and most reliable horse under any and all circumstances,
because he holds nothing back, he gives all of his strength and energy to