The Horse’s Back

The Horse’s Back – The Most Important Structure…

By Alissa Mayer – February 02, 2016


The most important structure in the horse’s body, one that we must study to understand and always consider carefully in training is the BACK!

The two long (or broad) muscles that run along a horse’s back on either side of the spine are called the longissimus dorsi muscles. These are the most powerful locomotor muscles in the horse’s body (aka muscles of movement), but they can only function when they are free to alternately contract and fully relax.


In his book Tug of War, Classical Versus “Modern” Dressage, German rider and equine veterinarian Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, describes the “Upper Contraction System” and the function of the back in these four points:

• When the horse’s head and neck are forward and downward, as in grazing, the relationship between the nuchal ligament and the supraspinous ligament serves to raise the back, releasing the longissimus muscle and allowing it to “swing.”

• When the horse’s head and neck are positioned too high, it tries to support the rider by tensing its longissimus muscle, resulting in a “hollow” back, resistance, poor gaits, and lameness.

• If the rider places the horse in an extremely deep and round position (“hyperflexion” or Rollkur), enormous tension is placed on the upper neck muscles and ligament system, and the back. While the horse’s back does “rise,” it is overstretched and tense, which restricts the hind limbs’ ability to step under the trunk. The result is an uncomfortable, unhappy horse that is on the forehand with trailing hind legs, and unable to truly collect.

• Due to the complex interconnections between the skeletal, muscular, and ligament systems of the horse’s neck and back, tension in one end of the spinal column spreads all the way to the other end. Therefore, the way the horse carries it’s tail vertebrae (which serves as a balancing rod) indicates the state – whether relaxed or tense – of the horse’s back, which is in turn directly impacted by the horse’s head-set and neck position. (Heuschmann 52)

Thanks to the work of Dr. Thomas Hanna and Eleanor Criswell Hanna Ed.D of the Novato Institute for Somatic Research and Training, we also know that a horse who is maintaining a habitual posture influenced by the Green Light reflex is experiencing chronic tension in the longissimus dorsi and other muscles, which has some of the same effects on the functional anatomy of the horse’s back as described above by Dr. Heuschmann.

Stay tuned to learn more about the Green Light Reflex, and how to address this pattern in your posture, and that of your horse!


Alissa Unleashing the potential of horses and humans to become happy, athletic, connected and free in their bodies, minds, and spirits.
Certified Equine Hanna Somatics® Educator
Creator of A Somatic Approach to Horsemanship™
Founding Member of the Association for Equine Hanna Somatics Educators

“The most effective time I have spent with a horse… “Can not believe the amazing results of Equine Hanna Somatics!!! “The sessions with Alissa were truly amazing!…the horses transformed. “…Dramatic results!” – Client Testimonials

One thought on “The Horse’s Back

  1. I found the insight about a clamped tail meaning a tense back interesting. My 17 year old Arab-QH bay gelding usually clamps his tail, and stands with front and hind legs “under” him. He’s been grazing a lot more in Texas as there’s grass all over the place (none with any nutrients to speak of) so I’m hoping that will help him release his tight back, along with the EHS work.

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