Spinal Functions For Horses


“You don’t always have to be doing something. You can just be, and that’s plenty”
– Alice Walker  

Spinal Functions

All skeletons are divided into two main segments; the axial and the appendicular. The axial skeleton is comprised of the skull, spine and ribcage while the appendicular skeleton refers to the limbs or appendages of the body. For practical purposes, we include the pelvis as part of the axial skeleton for both horse and rider, even though that is technically inaccurate. We include the pelvis because it is an important part of stabilizing movement. 

In order to balance, a body must have both stability and mobility. The design of the body tells us that the axis is the center and the limbs organize around the center. A small change in the central line of the body radiates outward affecting the use of the limbs. When the spine is stable and working within a very limited range of motion, then the limbs gain more mobility. If the spine is unstable or too mobile, then the limbs assume the role of stability by stiffening and reducing the natural range of motion. 

If we want to help our horse develop healthy, beautiful movement, then we have to start by understanding a little bit about the spine and how the functions of the spine affect the balance of the entire body during motion.  

Alignment and Lateral Bending 

Alignment is an appropriate relationship of each vertebrae to the next, generating a straight line of force through the midline, even though the bones of the spine are never perfectly straight. Lateral bending is a sidewards arching of the spine. 

Excessive lateral bending of the spine will compromise an ideal alignment and make the entire spine unstable. Appropriate lateral bending of the spine actually includes maintaining the ideal alignment and isolating the bending portion to a small area near the upper back. Ideal lateral bending of the spine is not something we can see, it is only something we can feel during complex work under saddle. 

While working on Basic Balance, we help our horse reduce all lateral bending of the spine in order to find and strengthen an ideal alignment first. Without a strong, stable alignment of the spine, all lateral bending will work against stability instead of enhancing it. 

Stabilizing the alignment of the spine will cause our horse to look straight, with the head and neck directly centered with the torso. Even during turns and circles, our horse does not need to bend the neck sideways and doing so will cause our horse to lose alignment. 


Rotation is a sideways twisting of the spine. In our horse we see the twisting of the spine as the barrel and pelvis rolling or tilting side to side. 

Rotation can be unstable, with the barrel rolling side to side rapidly, or fixed to one side, with the barrel and pelvis consistently higher on one side than the other. Excessive lateral bending of the spine will always destabilize rotation, causing a twist through the spine that makes the back and pelvis un-level. 

Part of achieving Basic Balance means we help our horse stabilize the rotation function, helping the back and pelvis remain level left to right during motion. Maintaining alignment of the spine helps stabilize rotation. Stable rotation means that our horse can keep the vertebrae upright, with the dorsal spinous processes remaining vertical and stable during motion, especially during turns and circles.  

Longitudinal Flexion and Longitudinal Extension

Longitudinal or spinal flexion means the entire spine is moving upwards. Longitudinal or spinal extension is the opposite direction, where the entire spine is moving downward. 

Flexion is a generic term that just means the bones in a joint are coming closer together. Extension is also a generic term meaning that the bones in a joint are moving farther apart. With the spine of a horse, the point of reference for both spinal flexion and spinal extension is the bottom side of the spine, or the ventral side. The top side of the spine is called the dorsal side. When the ventral side flexes or extends, then the dorsal side does the opposite. 

During spinal flexion, the bottom of the vertebrae are coming closer together while the top of the same vertebrae are moving farther apart. This is what happens when we say a horse is “lifting the back.” During spinal extension, the vertebrae are doing the opposite, with the bottom side of the bones moving farther apart and the top side coming closer together. This is what we call “dropping the back.” 

In order to achieve Basic Balance, we help our horse avoid longitudinal extension at all times and learn to stabilize a minimal degree of longitudinal flexion. Flexing the spine upward has a stabilizing effect on the entire axial skeleton. Extending the spine downward has the opposite, destabilizing effect through the center of our horse’s body. 

(excerpt from the revised version of the Groundwork workbook) 

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