Grand Meadows Cares Series: Soundness Training Techniques For Your Horse - Part 1 Conformation

Trainer exercising a horse by walking with him.
Trainer exercising a horse by walking with him. Paul

Newsdate: Tuesday, June 11, 2024 - 11:30 am
Location: ORANGE, California

There are many factors that influence the longevity and soundness of a horse. Aside from the obvious aspects of proper equine nutrition and feed supplement/topical joint and digestion support products, top notch horse care practices and good riding talent, there are many training techniques that can help reduce the risk of any horse becoming unsound.

A Standardbred horse doing dressage.

A Standardbred horse doing dressage.

Conformation and temperament are to some degree governed by breed so when selecting a prospect for a particular discipline you need to understand that certain breeds are bred for a specific task while others are not.
© 2017 by Izzypie

As both a horse breeder of performance horses for decades as well as an international career in advanced level competition, I have learned to look at everything before I take on a new equine training project. And I’ve also learned that just because you start with a sound horse there are a myriad of ways you can mess up and inadvertently contribute to its unsoundness.

 Work With The Individual Horse

A good outcome to the training of a horse to help it reach its potential as a performance horse or backyard riding partner requires a collaborative effort. Each individual horse comes with different physical and mental strengths and weaknesses. How often have you heard treat your horse as an individual? I suspect fairly often. What does this actually mean? Let’s explore –

There are many individual equine factors to consider training wise: breed; temperament; conformation; gender; age. Successful training results by working with the horse’s conformation.

Your horse may exhibit a combination of weaknesses in one or across all areas that mean you need to think and train in an especially smart manner.

Adjusting the training protocols to suit the individual horse does require knowledge of each facet of the regularly accepted training mechanisms. Before you adapt the traditional schooling practices it is wise to fully understand the part they play in the process.

Specific conformational challenges in the horse will require marrying exercises together, introducing certain exercises earlier than the regular program might suggest and working your horse with emphasis on particular exercises in order to optimize and maintain soundness.

Conformation and temperament are to some degree governed by breed. When you are selecting a prospect for a particular discipline you will hopefully try and make the career of your horse as successful and straightforward as possible by understanding that certain breeds are literally bred for a specific task while others are not.

The Horse’s Neck

You can never consider the pros and cons of any one conformational area of a horse without looking at the entire beast. The importance of the neck length and muscling affects how the horse will connect to the bridle and how he will be able to properly utilize his back. Will he have carrying power, sitting power and the ability to develop the correct neck muscles to be truly to the bit and develop balance and suppleness both laterally and longitudinally?

The horse with a long neck will need to work forward and down. Do not confuse this with on the forehand. His neck must be stretched and then brought back up to help the nuchal ligament development and this process must be completed slowly. Gradually increase the forward and down time and use soft half halts to bring the horse up and into self-carriage. The horse must carry itself and must not be allowed to lean on the reins.

Horses with longer necks will attempt this more than horses with shorter necks. As you develop the horse’s neck you want to see more even width from wither to poll when looking from the saddle. From the ground look for muscle on the top of the neck developing from the wither forward not the poll backward. Horses with long necks will have more trouble with correct transitions and using their backs to engage their cores, so frequent kind work is required to develop the neck correctly.

Contact with the bit requires that the horse’s frame becomes shorter and there is an element of elastic tension required. This connection when ridden correctly happens as the horse engages his hindquarters and he is activating all his muscles from his hock to his poll. A horse with a longer neck will therefore find this easier than a horse with a short neck.

The shorter necked horse will tend to lock up. For these horses you need to ride frequent transitions and half halts but you need to work them more in circles and versions thereof such as voltes and figure eights and then on to lateral flexion exercises such as shoulder in/renvers and travers. The reason? It prevents the horse from coming behind the vertical and from locking up in his connection to the bridle.

To stretch the horse and encourage him to use his topline properly, work with poles and cavalletti. The more cadence and self-carriage the horse develops the better the strength and elasticity of his musculature will be to support his frame and hence the less chance of joint damage over time.

Draft influenced breeds tend to shorter necks and often have deep shoulders and their pelvis is often tilted to enable them to push rather than carry. When schooling horses with a shorter neck or heavier shoulder build, I introduce lateral work earlier in their program to encourage correct use of their topline.

There are also types of neck that fall into swan, knife or ewe necks. For those with the knife neck I do not agree with working the horse too low and forward as they will often fake the bit connection and the elements of the training scale of contact and rhythm will be affected. For these horses. I would rather see them elevated in the wither and freeing their shoulders by working them a little bit deeper and rounder than too stretched out and perfectly in front of the vertical faking the correct connection. The work I suggest is to supple the horse by flexing the bow and his nose may be behind the vertical as he gains strength but only to a minimal degree.

For the horse with a swan neck you do not want to encourage a horse to concertina its neck muscles through the upper vertebrae to fake a connection to the bit. So once again you will use the long and low training.

The horse with the ewe neck will have trouble maintaining balance and connection with the rider aboard. It is a very difficult task to modify the neck development to aid in the use of the horse’s back and carrying abilities. For both these issues I would indicate longing the horse in side reins that are adjusted to a length that allow the horse to engage his back and still stretch forward and down. I am not an advocate of draw reins in any scenario but the use of the Vienna rein can also be very beneficial.

Basics of the Back

You might think a horse with a short back will be clever at collecting. Many riders are easily fooled into mistaking rigid, stiff short-coupled backs as being an easy road to trot into the world collection. It is imperative that the back operate actively and that the core of the horse is free of tension and is actively operating at all times as an active back helps to minimize risks for damage and soreness/unsoundness in the horse.

The short-backed horse must always be ridden brightly forward and of course as any horse, must not be rushed off its feet. Working the horse in a free canter and lots and lots of lateral work will be the road forward with this type of horse. Poles are again a useful tool but gradually increase the distance between them so your horse stretches confidently more forward and learns to release the neck.

The opposite type of back, one that is long is going to require keen attention to keep those hind legs centered and forward of the horse’s croup throughout all gaits. The hind legs will inevitably tend to lag behind. Hopefully if you have a horse with a long back he does not also have a flat croup. If the croup does not have enough angle the horse will find it very difficult to step under himself for dressage and will become what is known as a leg mover. This does not mean he cannot be a successful performance horse it just makes his life harder.

For the horse with the long back the rider must execute big soft circles with a lot of leg, especially the inside leg to create energy. The challenge with these horses is their innate ability to swing their hindquarters to the outside so an active outside leg is also much needed. I like to work these horses with outside flexion during their routines to encourage the outside leg (which of course then becomes the inside of the horse) to be active and available and ‘in your pocket’ at all times. It is important to constantly cross check the horse with changes of flexion both on the straight line and on the circle to ensure the horse is active and is engaging both hind legs. This is actually a very good exercise for all horses and especially useful for hot horses but more on that in part two of this series.

To encourage engagement the half halt will frequently be needed on a long-backed horse as a reminder to come forward of the leg. The rider must use approximately double the number of half halts within the gait on a long-backed horse than on one perfectly built to help the horse stay in balance.

These half halts will be more connecting than collecting i.e. they will be held slightly longer to be a connecting half halt. Hold them for three or four seconds instead of the frequent quick one second half halt of advanced collection.

The issues with the horse’s hind end straggling behind will also be apparent with a croup high horse. Extremely high croups will hinder a horse from achieving the top levels of the sport however willing they may be to perform. Height and angle of hock factor in here and the better the conformation below the hip and the hip angle the better shot this horse has of attaining the top reaches of the sport. Remember that horses with sickle hocks will tend to lameness and back soreness. Throughness will be an issue and must be constantly monitored. The best exercises to improve overall throughness are always lateral ones so once again marry lateral work in early to your training regime.

If your horse has a high croup then as he ages he will tend to develop a sway back. These horses will be more leg moving behind than back moving over the topline so to develop their hock strength and maintain soundness work with shoulder in and shoulder fore frequently in all gaits. Horses with high croups will tend to become sore in the stifles and sacroiliac joint.

The shape of the horse’s back is also important and it needs to be supple and strong. Preferably your horse will have some downward curvature from wither to the tail. If your horse has excessive curvature in his back you must guard against him hollowing his back. This means you will consistently need to work him over his back in a bascule to develop the rippling muscle power he needs to concertina himself in collection. Working the horse in counter flexion, over poles and cavalletti and travers/renvers will keep his back elastic and hence mitigate the risk of unsoundness.

My Horse the Basketball Player

Do not succumb to the taller is better ethic. Bigger horses take a lot longer to develop and will find exercises at the basic levels harder because of their coordination issues and their abilities to stay active on the smaller circles and arenas. There is a lot more horse mass to orchestrate and the physical movement in every step is magnified so the rider needs to have a very independent and soft seat to facilitate all this movement being allowed to move from back to front in a giant wave across the horse’s topline.

This horse must be worked on larger and softer curves when training. And because the taller/larger horse has more muscle mass it is imperative that the warmup and cool down phase be extended.

With the larger horse it is also very important that the rider train the horse to work with minimal and quiet aids. This horse will quickly become a physically strong adversary if incorrectly trained and must be trained to go promptly forward off the leg and in self- carriage.

While there are many other factors to consider in conformation for training such as hock angles, femur length, head neck connection and more, these are beyond the scope of this article.

The conformation of your horse will also affect his temperament as it will define how he moves and how easy he finds the tasks you set for him. So when schooling your horse you must also take into consideration not just how he moves but how he mentally handles his body.

No Drilling. No Pounding.

A degree of repetition of training exercises is necessary for the horse to build the correct muscles and be able to understand how to adjust his body for a forthcoming task, but it is important not to drill or pound the horse on one thing over and over again. It is much more beneficial to switch from one task to another as this will increase mental focus as well as encourage suppleness and adaptability in the horse.

Utilize Varietal Terrain and Footing

Balance, hoof and joint/tissue health and mental engagement can all be aided by utilizing a variety of terrains and footing types during training. Don’t get stuck in endless circles either literally or figuratively during training. Go off course, get out in the fields, go trail riding and pick wet and dry footing by venturing out in rain and sun, ride on grass and sand/gravel and over and through water.

Ride out in areas with different light aspects too. Shadows, bright sun, forest and fields. The more interesting and engaging the environment the better it will be for horse and rider long term. The horse will learn to listen to the rider’s aids, to relax in new situations and to trust his rider’s judgement.

Support Your Horse

It is essential to your horse’s soundness that you constantly evaluate his soundness and provide the support he needs to maintain good joint and tissue health. Support your horse throughout the course of his career with attentive care and smart nutritional adjustments, especially as he ages. A high-level performance equine is an athlete, and great training together with great care, team up to make a good outcome.

Coming Soon ..Tune in for Part Two – Temperament

Part Two – learn how to school your hot, lazy, independent, hyperactive, fearless or fearful horse. This feature will also address how gender can affect temperament and training and discuss methods to successfully train stallions, mares and geldings.

 About Grand Meadows: Founded in 1989 by visionary Angela Slater, Grand Meadows is a leading horse health product and equine supplement manufacturer driven by the guiding principle of providing affordable, extremely high-quality science-backed horse products to help ensure horses look and feel their best.

For the past 35 years the company’s mission has been honored and developed further, by President Nick Hartog, who among other accomplishments is one of the founding members and current board member of the National Animal Supplement Council (NASC), an organization that has a profound impact on the safety, transparency, and legitimacy of the animal supplement industry.

Grand Meadow products are widely used and trusted across the entire horse community from Olympic medal winning competitors and successful horse racing trainers to backyard horse owners. Their equine supplements are highly regarded for their excellent quality resourced ingredients and completely accurate labelling and effective formulations. Learn more at

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About the Author

Nikki Alvin-Smith

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As a Brit who has called the America home for the past 34 years, Nikki brings a unique perspective to the equestrian world. Nikki is also an accomplished Grand Prix dressage trainer/competitor, competing at international Grand Prix level to scores over 72% and is a highly sought clinician offering clinics worldwide. She has been a horse breeder/importer of warmblood and Baroque breeds for more than 25 years. Together with her husband Paul who is also a Grand Prix trainer, they run a private dressage breeding operation and training yard in the beautiful Catskill Mountains of New York.