The phrase that made the title of today’s post is what someone had typed into google a few days ago and came across Aspire’s blog. I watch the “search engine terms” for clues on what to write about to bring helpful content to you dear readers out there. Other terms along the same line in the last week were “hollowing in canter transitions”, “correct upsidedown neck horse bitless”, “pony wont go on the bit”, “in teaching to ride horses how do you teach them to drop the neck”…It seems at least some of you are landing on Aspire blog when searching for answers so I thought I ought to get a post together.
I am quite aware that there are many ways of teaching this and even more ways of training this as far as horse schooling goes so hey, this is just one of many ways which I found agrees with what I love about riding and training as well as how I personally enjoy to teach. I am also more than aware that what I am about to write is not something one can just read and be able to do. You might have to dig for more information, practice, practice, practice and ask more questions. I do hope though that it will be helpful to some of you. I would also love you to leave comments with any questions if anything doesn’t make sense or to share your own methods and ways of training, riding and teaching.
Why we don’t want giraffe expressions
I like to know the “why” before I start on the “how to” so let’s have a quick summary of why do we want the horse to work with “his nose dropped”, and do we?
To put it simply, we want the horse to extend his neck out and forward when ridden in his early education because we want him to use his neck and head as a support for his back muscles when he is doing the carrying job. The head and neck of a riding horse could be imagined as his “balance weight” that helps him deal with rider’s weight from balance point of view as and when we want them to perform for us.
So to sum up, the why is: we want the upper neck to take part in carrying us in a passive way (dropped and hanging with own weight). We acknowledge that our weight is “the other side of the scales” and any issues with our seat will affect the neck carriage. We want the bottom of the neck (muscles responsible for active bringing of the head to the chest) to remain relaxed and passive. In this position the upper neck muscles will build up and strengthen progressively allowing for relaxed back muscles to also progressively strengthen and develop into a strong “bridge” for the rider to sit on.
The exercises shape the horse
Now, the way I see it, it’s the gymnastic exercises that will encourage and maintain the lower, relaxed neck position, not any “setting” of the neck by various gadgets. I am aiming this post towards riders with horses that for whatever reason, be it incorrect previous schooling, previous job, illness, lameness etc, work in inverted (giraffe like) postures. However, as you can see on photos above of the grey horse and his novice rider, I would use the same principles whether working with an unspoilt or a problem horse.
To get the longitudinal flexion (from tail to head i.e. nose down) you need to have a degree of lateral flexion.
In other words, for the horse to be able to work consistently with his neck relaxed and lowered while ridden, he can’t be too crooked. He needs to be able to bend his body to the left and to the right with some ease. The easiest and possibly one of the most efficient ways to work on this with inverted horses is via work in-hand.
You will need:
a) Cavesson – I would suggest getting hold of a sturdy lunging cavesson with a central ring (on top of the nose). This allows for precise placing of the horse’s nose in the middle of his chest without pulling on his mouth.
b) Lunge line
c) Lightweight dressage whip that your horse is not scared of
Draw a 15m or 20m circle on the surface if you tend to lose your geometry 🙂 Walk with your horse so his feet are on the line you have drawn and yours on circle one meter smaller. With one hand hold the lunge line close to the horse’s head and gently move it forwards to encourage the horse to follow it. Hold the whip with the other hand but be watchful not to stress the horse. It’s better that he walks slower than faster to start with.
Aim at horizontal neck position, level with the wither. If the horse continues to walk with a very high head carriage, take him in a very slow walk on a small circle (about 6m diameter) and do 3-4 small circles placing his head and neck on the line of that circle. You might find, that it will be very difficult for your horse going one way, and relatively easy the other. Be patient and only place his head on the line of the circle every second, third stride to start with.
Once he is walking calmly next to you, use your hand with the whip to touch him in the girth area when his inside hind leg is in the air. You can use a word you would normally use when you groom and want your horse to step away. Let’s say, you say “over”. Touch him at the girth, say “over” and aim for his inside hind leg stepping deeper under his belly and slightly across (but not crossing over in front of the outside hind leg). You want him to gently yield away from your touch through his ribcage. Repeat this until you get a good timing and the horse moves his inside hind leg well underneath his barrel. Don’t forget to guide the head and neck around the line of your circle.
If your horse is quiet and accepts the whip well as a schooling tool not a punishment, you can tap him gently on his lower inside hind leg as it is in the air so he bends it more and as he moves away from the tap, he should place that hind leg deeper under his centre of gravity.
If your horse falls in onto you/his inside shoulder, halt and ask him to move away from you as if asking for one, two steps of turn on or about the haunches. Repeat this every single time you feel your horse losing balance and falling in or is barging onto you. Don’t get annoyed. Repeat 100 times if you need to. After some time, just you starting to ask him to off-load the inside shoulder will get him to shift his weight onto his outside hind leg and rebalance his body.
What does this circle walking exercise do?
It effectively bends the horse and teaches him to shift weight in his body achieving better balance…Just letting your horse run around on the lunge is never going to help because he will still remain crooked without your corrections. Gadgets do provide “visual” result to some extent but the draw back is, they can and do create many compensation patterns in the horse’s body. They also provide no education to the rider/handler. In-hand work teaches feel and timing which in turn teaches the rider to balance the horse. Without basic balance and body control there is no relaxed “nose down and forwards”.
As the inside hind leg steps under the body mass, the ribcage swings to the outside. The muscles on the outside stretch. The muscles on the inside contract. If done correctly, this exercise should give you a horse that is happy to lower his neck as lateral bend automatically encourages longitudinal bend…
Repeat this fun & games for 15min 3 x a week every time before you get on (but not day after day – let muscles rest for a day before repeating). You want to get to the point when you are able to walk away from the horse and lunge him while he maintains this healthier posture on your cues. It will take time but don’t give up. Once you can get it off horse, jump on and repeat the same process from the saddle.
In the saddle
Go on your drawn 20m circle. Use opening rein to guide your horse’s head and neck but whatever you do don’t pull down. Be elastic and sympathetic with outside contact as your horse learns. Regulate the size of circle with it but don’t be too rigid or strong or your horse might not be able to relax his neck muscles. With your inside leg, touch your horse in the same way as you did with your hand on the ground and use the same word command you used on the ground. Your aim is to step your horse’s inside hind leg under his belly (under your seat) with each step he takes. Ask with good timing. You will have watched your horse’s steps from the ground so you will have known the frequency of the steps before you do this from the saddle. The key is to aid when the inside hind leg is in the air (you can also feel it under your seat bones if you sit well in neutral pelvis position – your inside seat bone will drop on the side of the leg that is in the air) so the horse is able to place it differently to where he planned to (if you aid when the leg is already planted on the surface you will just waste your time).
Each rein will come with its own set of difficulties. Instead of thinking good rein/bad rein, think what needs doing on each. For example: In one direction he will drift out more, on the other fall in more.
As you circle, think of riding “mini leg yields” but stop before your horse attempts to drift. You only want him to move his inside hind leg under the barrel and as after-effect, bulge his ribcage to the outside, all while you gently guide his nose to the inside. Think about doing it in harmony with his steps and do it slowly. From time to time give an inch of the reins forward and observe if the horse is willing to follow the rein down.
If your horse repeatedly falls in onto his inside shoulder, use indirect rein on the inside which will transfer his weight from that heavy inside shoulder to the outside hind leg (in a similar way he did on the ground). Don’t over do it. Aid once or twice and in harmony with the movement. Never pull back. Direction of pressure is towards your belly button, not down, not back.
Again if done well, it should encourage lateral and longitudinal bending in walk. Make sure you do this exercise on both reins and only for 15-20 min at a time. If your horse is severely under-muscled or weak, keep the sessions very short. 10 minutes is plenty. Muscles doing “new” work tire very easily and if your horse starts feeling discomfort during this work, he will find new ways to resist that discomfort.
Repeat the same work in trot…
Stay on circles guiding your horse’s inside hind leg underneath him and making sure your are placing his shoulders on the line of your circle. You might have to jog alongside your horse (good for fitness!) if he isn’t able to bend at all and falls in. Do the same work as in walk aiming to eventually be able to move away and him staying bent, reacting to your body language when you point towards his hindleg, his girth area or his shoulder.
Change directions often and remember: opening rein, never direct rein on the inside. Never pull down either, it only contracts the lower neck muscles and causes the ugly looking, uncomfortable posture in both you and the horse.
Here’s the interesting bit…Your body language, your timing and your actions are what will explain to your horse what posture you want from him. It’s an education in itself that goes over and beyond any work any gadget can give you or your horse. Your ridden aids will make more sense too.
Take pride in figuring this out and don’t be ashamed to ride “above the bit” as you go through this process. With time and patience, your horse will build correct muscles and be able to maintain “dropped nose” for longer periods of time.
Please note: all above exercises are best tried with a supervision of an experienced instructor first.