So we want our mount to have a strong back. I think by this we mean that we want the horse to support our weight on a back that rises or “bows up,” to push upward against the saddle. The word “bows” I think gives us the key. A bow takes on its shape because of a tight bowstring. In the anatomy of the horse, the “ bowstring” is his abdominal muscles. If you think you can hold a 1000+ pound animal together in “bowed-up” collection with your less than 200 pound frame you might check and see what hallucinogens have been sneaked into your Egg McMuffin.
The horse’s body works in response to his brain, much like ours. We train horses using communion with that brain. The difference between schooling the horse and schooling the human is that school teachers have a shortcut. They can talk to their students. For instance a gym teacher can explain sit-ups and the kids can at least try to do them. Teaching your horse to use his abdominal muscles is more complicated because we have to devise a language of pressure, or touch, and release.Then we have to find a way to form an association between the signal and the behaviour. In addition, if the horse experiences discomfort, he has no desire to “be tough“ and “push through the burn!”.
Development of this signal and response pattern begins as early as our first contact with the horse at liberty in the small arena (or round pen). Horses very widely in their response to humans, but mostly they avoid us at first. What we do is move toward them (pressure) and when they move forward in avoidance, we back away or turn away (release.) After many repetitions, they figure out that we mean for them to move forward. As we move toward them we “click” our tongue or “smooch”. After a lot of repetitions they will move forward in response to the click or smooch even though we aren’t actually moving toward them. That is the result of associating a physical pressure (moving toward them) with a sound(click). The reward is when you turn away, releasing the pressure. You haven’t even touched your horse yet, but you already have a language starting to develop. When that begins to happen, you give the big reward: you quit and turn him out. Preferably all you have to do is open the gate, so there’s no need for a halter. You just quit.
The equivalent of the human sit-up comes when you step forward, causing the horse to stop and turn around to reverse direction. He has to rock back on his haunches and “bunch up” to reverse. Only a few “turn arounds” need be done at first. When he does a couple smoothly, you quit. Turn him out. He has now been given a beginning pattern for using abdominal muscles to raise his back. The journey has begun.