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What is a Hollow Horse?

By Carol Kurtz Darlington, Art2Ride Associate Trainer

“The back is very important, for it is the link between the hind legs and the forelegs.” – Nuno Oliveira

When you ride your horse, do you feel as if you’re sitting on top of a bouncing ball? Or instead does it feel like you’re stuck in a hole on your horse’s back? If your horse’s back is sinking beneath you, his back is hollow.

Here are two pictures of my friend Samantha Rubio and her horse Legacy. Looking at the first picture, let’s measure Legacy’s topline. Let’s also measure the underside of his body. Which line is longer? You can clearly see the topline is much shorter than the underside of Legacy. This means he is hollow or inverted.

In this second picture, let’s measure the same lines. Legacy’s topline measurement is longer, and he is clearly over his back. This means he is now using the correct muscles for movement.

Sam has worked patiently with Legacy through correct lunging, work in hand, and riding to gradually transform him from a highly traumatized, tense upside-down horse to a trusting, relaxed partner. He has now developed a lovely, round frame over the past 18 months of Art2Ride classical foundation training.

When a horse is hollow, the muscles under the neck are flexed and the horse pulls itself along with the shoulders. The front legs often stab at the ground, and the hind legs drag behind as if they are stuck in mud. The horse is uncomfortable and often cannot see where it is going because its head is too high. Jumping a hollow horse in this position—or even trotting over ground poles—has been the cause of many rotational falls.

Another problem with hollow movement is that the horse has no shock absorption in its joints. This is how horses are damaged at an early age. Hollow movement wears a horse out quickly and puts too much weight on the forehand, whereas correct movement will allow the percussion to be absorbed by the soft tissue, protecting the joints. When the horse is round, the back is lifted as the hind legs step under the horse’s body. You feel the wave of energy flow from the hocks over its back to the poll. The muscles under the neck are soft, not “ewe-shaped”, and the nose is never behind the vertical.

When a horse moves correctly over its back, the canter springs instead of rocking back and forth. The trot swings gracefully, as the diagonal pairs sync up in perfect cadence. The walk marches as the back lifts and undulates in a wave of back-to-front energy. Since the horse’s body is more relaxed, he will be much less spooky and nervous.

Lightening the tension in the reins is a first step toward allowing your horse to lift its back. Keep the weight of rein, but allow your horse to lengthen its neck. Never pull back on the reins. With every inch the neck lengthens into this consistent contact, the degree of flexion in the hocks will increase. You will feel the horse’s back come up underneath you. Once a horse is longitudinally supple like this, lateral movement is effortless. But lateral movement is extremely difficult for a hollow, stiff horse.

It will take time for your horse to develop its topline, especially if it has been predominantly upside-down for years, but once your horse learns he can move in this more comfortable way, he will begin to track up and swing actively. You will be safer from injury—whether you’re cantering across a field or trotting in the dressage arena—and you will both be much more comfortable!