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How to Stop Your Horse Coming Behind the Vertical

behind the vertical dressage

A fault commonly observed during dressage tests at all levels is the tendency for a horse to come behind the rider’s contact.

If this is the case, comments you may find on your score sheets could include “overbent,” “behind the contact,” and “behind the vertical,” which is commonly abbreviated to BTV. 

So, in this article, we will cover what behind the vertical is, reasons why your horse is behind the vertical, how to correct this, and more. 

Reminder: What is a correct contact?

Let’s begin by first reminding ourselves what a correct contact is.  

A correct contact is not created by taking a tight hold of your horse’s mouth, creating backward pressure on the bit, or fiddling with the reins. 

Instead, a correct contact is created by your horse moving forwards into the contact. As a result, your horse connects to the bit and your hands, not your hands forcing a contact on your horse.

Importantly, your reins do not hold your horse’s head in position. Instead, the transmission of energy over your horse’s back creates the contact and gives your horse’s head and neck the correct position. 

Related Read: The Scales of Training: Scale 3 – Contact

What is “the vertical”? 

The vertical describes a perpendicular line to the ground. 

  • ON the vertical means that your horse’s nose is on the vertical line when viewed from the side. 
  • IN FRONT of the vertical means that your horse’s nose is in front of the vertical line when viewed from the side. 
  • BEHIND the vertical means that your horse’s nose is behind the vertical line when viewed from the side.

Where should your horse’s nose be?

You should aim for your horse to carry his nose slightly in front of the vertical and only come onto the vertical in high degrees of collection. 

This is because, during high degrees of collection, your horse must take more weight on his hind legs and have a rounder back supported by stronger abdominal muscles, creating a more raised and arched neck positioning, bringing his nose onto the vertical.

For movements that do not require a high degree of collection, and if you have a novice or young horse at the beginning of their training, then the nose should always be carried slightly in front of the vertical. This is because your horse will be working in a less compressed frame, although still working over his back and stretching into the contact, and young and novice horses will have less strength compared to a more advanced horse. 

Having your horse work behind the vertical is not desirable, and we discuss why later in this article. 

But in all instances, whether on the vertical or slightly in front of it, your horse’s throat latch area should remain open, and your horse should never look as though his cheeks are being squashed backward into his neck and throat. 

Why does it matter where your horse’s head is? 

The position of your horse’s head and neck gives a clue as to the correctness of your training; it reflects what is happening with the rest of your horse’s body. 

A continuously incorrect position indicates an underlying fault in your horse’s overall way of going and training. 

Importantly, you cannot fix the fault by focusing only on your horse’s head; it’s merely a symptom. 

Why do you not want your horse behind the vertical?

If your horse works behind the vertical, it can lead to the following seven negatives. 

Negative 1 – Causes your horse pain and discomfort 

Behind the vertical is not a biomechanically-friendly position for your horse to continuously work in. 

Within this position, he cannot carry out his work efficiently, and it can cause pain and discomfort in your horse’s neck, his poll, and his back.

Negative 2 – Your horse will be on the forehand 

A horse that works behind the vertical is, more than likely, working with most of the weight on his shoulders and forehand. Bearing in mind that most equine lameness occurs in the horse’s forelimbs, habitually working on the forehand makes your horse more prone to injury and, potentially, a shorter working life. 

Also, if your horse works in this downhill manner with his head curled in, he is more likely to trip over his front feet – a clear giveaway that your horse is on the forehand. 

Negative 3 – Your horse may not be able to see where he is going 

If your horse is very far behind the vertical, he will only be able to see a few footsteps in front of himself. 

This is especially dangerous if you are jumping your horse, as he won’t be able to see the fence at the last minute.   

Negative 4 – Encourages your horse to duck behind the contact

Your horse may come behind the vertical to escape pressure, leaving you with no contact at all. 

This will give you limited ability to bend your horse correctly, making it challenging to teach your horse higher-level movements, such as lateral exercises.

Related Read: How to Stop Your Horse From Dropping Behind the Contact

Negative 5 – Drag you forward out of the saddle 

Some horses go behind the vertical and lean into the contact, dragging you out of the saddle. 

This can lead to you pulling on the reins even more and a vicious cycle commencing, resulting in stronger bits and force.  

Negative 6 – Hollow back and disengaged hind legs

Often, behind the vertical is also accompanied by a hollow back and disengaged hind legs. 

While your horse remains behind the contact, you cannot create engagement, forward power, thrust, and self-carriage. Therefore, you will not be able to develop your horse’s paces. 

Negative 7 – Lack of suppleness and throughness

If your horse is overbent, he will be unable to demonstrate full body suppleness and looseness, preventing him from swinging through his back and working through to the contact. 

Your horse may also display a high level of tension, again preventing suppleness. 

Why does your horse come behind the vertical?

It’s important to note that not all horses who come behind the vertical have been purposely forced to work in that position. Some horses will drop behind the vertical incredibly easily with just the slightest bit of rein pressure. 

Here are eight reasons why your horse may be coming behind the vertical. 

Reason 1 – Pain and discomfort

If your horse is experiencing pain or discomfort in any part of his body (not just in his mouth), this can prevent him from working correctly forward to seek an elastic contact. 

Sources of pain that could cause your horse to work behind the vertical include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • Incorrectly fitted saddle and tack
  • Back soreness
  • Unsteady hands
  • Dental problems
  • Incorrectly fitted bit
  • Musculoskeletal issues

Reason 2 – Incorrectly established contact

As discussed above, a correct contact is not created by the hand; it is received by the hand. 

If you have tried to establish a contact by using only the reins, then this can cause your horse to come behind the vertical as he yields to the pressure being placed on his mouth. 

Reason 3 – Too strong of a contact/bit(s)

Similar to reason 2, your horse will be reluctant to stretch into the contact and take it forward if the pressure caused by the contact and/or bit(s) causes discomfort. 

Also, if the bit you are using applies added poll pressure, then this will cause your horse to drop his head and come behind the vertical when you take up a contact to relieve the pressure on his head. 

Reason 4 – Loss of balance 

A brief loss of balance can cause your horse to lose the connection and come off your aids, causing his head to go too high or too low. 

With intelligent and sympathetic riding, this is ok; you simply need to rebalance your horse and reconnect him. 

Reason 5 – Lack of physical strength 

If you have a young or novice horse, he may not have the relative engagement and physical strength to stay connected to the bridle and maintain his poll as the highest point for long periods.

For this reason, it’s essential that you allow your horse frequent stretching breaks and you don’t work him for too long. 

Reason 6 – An inexperienced/uneducated rider

More often than not, horses that come easily behind the contact are quite light in the mouth, and some riders mistake this for a correct contact. 

Other times, riders have witnessed incorrect training or a horse being worked behind the vertical and tried to replicate it with their own horse, believing that it is correct because horses look much prettier with their “heads tucked in.” 

Another reason for behind-the-vertical-riding is the misinterpretation of terminology, particularly the word “round.” Riders try to make their horses “round in the neck” instead of what it actually means, which is “round over the back.” 

Sometimes, newbie riders can make these mistakes and ask their horses to purposely work behind the vertical because they do not know what they do not know. 

Reason 7 – Use of gadgets, e.g., draw reins

There are numerous gadgets on the market that you can use to persuade (or force) your horse to drop his head into an “outline.” Unfortunately, these devices are generally used as shortcuts that often do more harm than good.

They work by applying pressure to your horse’s poll, nose, mouth, and/or jaw. To escape the uncomfortable pressure, your horse will curl up behind the vertical. 

Reason 8 – Habit 

If your horse has been worked behind the vertical regularly over a lengthy period of time due to one or more of the above reasons, this will become a learned behavior. 

By staying behind the contact, your horse can make the bit lighter in his mouth and keep his hindquarters disengaged, thereby not over-tracking or working from behind into the bridle.

This problem becomes difficult to resolve if a young horse has learned to ‘sit’ behind the contact from early on in their career. This will quickly develop into the horse staying behind the aids and, as a result, the horse can learn to resist, sometimes severely.

How to know if your horse is behind the vertical

When you are riding, especially if you are on your own without the helpful eye of a trainer or the use of arena mirrors, it can be difficult to tell if your horse is working behind the vertical. 

Ideally, you want to be able to feel through your seat and body when your horse is working correctly and connecting to the contact. But until you develop this high degree of feel, here are some visual from-the-saddle clues to help you. 

Clues to help you identify if your horse has dropped behind the vertical

  • Your horse’s ears are lower than his neck. 
  • Your horse’s poll is not the highest point. 
  • When you look through your horse’s ears, you see the ground a few steps in front (rather than the end of the arena). 
  • Your horse’s neck is bulging at the top. 

Unless you are working your horse in a long and low frame, allowing him to stretch over his topline, your horse’s poll should be the highest point, and his ears should be higher than his neck. If they are not, then your horse is probably working behind the vertical.

When looking at your horse’s neck from the saddle, it should appear wider at the base. If your horse’s neck bulges at the top, this usually indicates that your horse is working with a short, tight neck and a closed throat latch area. 

How to stop your horse from coming behind the contact

Assuming that your horse is physically well and that all his tack fits him correctly, here are four steps that you can follow to help stop him from working behind the vertical. 

Step 1 – Ignore the position of your horse’s head

Although that sounds contradictory because this whole article is focused on your horse’s head position, initially, it’s best to forget about it because focusing too much on your horse’s head can lead to overuse of the reins. 

Remember that your horse coming behind the vertical is a symptom of a bigger training issue relating to your horse’s overall way of going. Once that issue is corrected, your horse’s head will sort itself out. 

In the meantime, do not ride with strong rein aids or fiddle with the bit. Instead, maintain a light, soft and steady hold of the reins while keeping your seat supple and your body relaxed. 

If your horse sticks his head and neck out, that’s fine.

Step 2 – Get your horse to respond promptly to your “go” aids

Your next goal is to create prompt forward responses from your leg and seat aids. 

The best way to do this is through the use of transitions such as walk-trot-walk, trot-canter-trot, and working trot-medium trot-working trot. 

During the upward transitions, you want your horse to respond instantly and positively to your leg aids and step actively forward into the new pace. 

For the downward transitions, avoid pulling back on the reins, as that could cause your horse to drop behind the vertical. Instead, where possible, ride your downward transitions from your seat and light half-halts. 

Again, don’t worry about your horse’s head through these transitions; focus on your horse’s responses and ride forward in a swinging, fluent pace. 

Step 3 – Allow your horse to connect to the end of the reins himself

As your horse builds confidence, he will start to seek your contact and connect to the end of the reins himself. 

At this point, your horse should no longer be behind the vertical. Instead, he should have a slight arch to his neck, and his nose should be carried slightly in front of the vertical with an open throat-latch area.

From here, you will be better positioned to ride your horse forward into the bridle and use your half-halts to improve your horse’s balance and self-carriage. 

If, at any point, your horse drops behind the contact again, then simply allow with the reins, put your leg on, and ride your forwards again, encouraging him to stretch out to the contact. 

Forget “ON the bit” and think “OUT to the bit.” 

Slowly, over time the correctness and quality of the frame will improve and become more reliable and consistent. 

Step 4 – Reward and stretch

Finally, after asking your horse to work in a more correct posture, remember to reward him for his efforts with frequent stretching breaks. 

If this is the first time you have asked your horse to engage his abdominal muscles and work over his back, these muscles will likely tire quickly, so a stretching break will be well received.

In the beginning, keep your training sessions short and positive. Overdoing it will only make it difficult for your horse to keep working through to contact correctly and could therefore cause him to drop behind the vertical as his muscles fatigue.  

How to test if the contact you have is correct

As you follow the steps above as your horse begins to connect to the bit, you can test if the contact is correct by riding one (or both) of the following exercises. 

Test 1 – Give and retake 

If the contact has been established correctly, you should be able to yield your hand(s) forward for a few strides without any change in your horse’s outline, balance, speed, and direction.

Related Read: How (And Why) To Ride a Give and Retake of the Reins

Test 2 – Allow your horse to stretch

If your horse is indeed stretching into the contact, then if you allow your reins to slip through your finger gradually, your horse should follow the contact and take it forward and down. 

Related Read: How to Encourage Your Horse to Stretch on a Long Rein

Exercises to help stop your horse from coming behind the vertical

Ultimately, the only way to stop your horse from coming behind the contact is to work your horse correctly from back to front, allowing energy to flow from your horse’s hind legs, over a swinging back, and receiving that energy in an elastic contact. 

That being said, here are a few additional exercises that can help you on your way. 

Exercises 1 – Pole work 

As your horse looks down at the poles to gauge his footing, this encourages him to lift and raise his back and helps to lengthen your horse’s neck, urging him to take the contact forward. 

Exercises 2 – Hill work

Riding uphill is an excellent exercise for strengthening the muscles of your horse’s back and hindquarters.

As you ride uphill, maintain a soft contact on a longish rein to allow your horse to stretch forward and use his body fully as he pushes himself uphill. 

Related Read: How to Use Hills in Dressage Training

Exercises 3 – Lunging 

You can work your horse forward on the lunge, encouraging him to lift and round his back and stretch his head and neck forward and down. 

You can do this using a simple lunging cavesson or a bridle and correctly fitted side reins. 

Additional note if using side reins

The side reins are not there to pin your horse’s head in, as that will just make your horse want to duck behind the vertical even more.

Instead, you should fit them at a length that does not interfere with your horse unless he stretches into the contact and connects with the reins.

When you first attach the side reins, your horse probably won’t connect to them and will just trot around with loose side reins. This is ok and to be expected in the beginning. But as you work your horse more forwards and encourage him to engage his hind legs on the circle, he should start to stretch towards the contact and fill the reins.

The side reins provide your horse with a steady and consistent contact to stretch into.

The idea is to encourage your horse to work forward and reach for the bit, teaching him that seeking the contact is comfortable after all.

In conclusion

Behind the vertical is a common training issue regularly seen in the dressage arena. 

It’s important to remember that not all horses who display this head carriage have been asked to work in that position. There are many reasons why a horse may briefly drop behind the vertical, including a simple loss of balance. 

To correct this fault, it’s best to ignore the position of your horse’s head and concentrate on riding him forward, developing prompt responses to your leg and seat aids. He will eventually seek your contact and connect to the end of the reins. 

With systematic and patient training, your horse’s head carriage will gradually improve and become more consistent.

As with all new exercises, introduce the work methodically and slowly until your horse becomes strong enough to carry himself correctly for the duration of a whole dressage test.

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