Relaxed readiness is how I like to describe a horse and rider’s state of body and mind that is best suited to learning. Not every one, however, is able to achieve such state in the warm up part of their training session and that can lead to arguments between the rider and the horse.
Even if you are not a skilled, professional rider with a seat that can change the horse’s back, you still have a very good tool you can use in order to warm your horse up towards relaxed readiness and that’s in-hand /groundwork exercises.
You should find groundwork of great benefit if your horse:
– is easily distracted, spooky and unfocused
– is crooked
– has a naturally high and tense neck carriage
– tends to warm up and/or jump with hollow, tense back
It seems that nowadays, groundwork is considered to be suitable for those who are “scared” to ride a fresh horse or simply “the worriers” or “the anxious” or otherwise an opportunity to tire an exuberant horse. Then there is the lunging “in shape” with pessoa and the likes.
I would really encourage you to look at groundwork afresh 🙂 Forget “doing Parelli”, “doing Monty Roberts/natural Horsemanship”, “doing [enter another brand here]; forget what others think if you walk with your horse for 10 minutes before you get on him or that you don’t put equipment on to “get him to work from behind”. I would also like to challenge you to really look those phrases in the eye and question their true substance and meaning…have a think back to times and circumstances of Nelson Pessoa producing his gadget…think what marketing ideas would sell such products and to whom he was selling… Just question this and that, you know.
Try to look at groundwork or in-hand work as an integral part of your training that develops communication and trust between you and your horse…
In this post, I will describe 2 very simple yet potentially powerful exercises you can do with your horse regardless of your ridden skill level.
Exercise 1: Walk your horse in relaxed posture (loose, relaxed neck and purposefully moving body)
This might seem simple but the key to this exercise is the quality of the walk. You might need a long schooling whip and your horse can be fully tacked up in his usual tack ready to be ridden after the groundwork session. Make sure your noseband is loose enough for the horse to be able to chew easily and move his tongue without restriction (see here for reasoning behind that).
Start by walking purposefully alongside your arena fence or on a chosen line. Observe if your horse keeps up with you or whether you need to energise him forwards or calm him down to slow down and act accordingly. You want your horse to walk besides you in a good medium walk.
Leave the reins on the neck of the horse and encourage him to lower his neck by applying small amount of on/off pressure on inside rein (you should see that this action puts pressure on the poll and does not cause any backward pulling on the horse’s mouth. You can equally do it on a headcollar or in a bitless bridle). The pressure should be slight and lasting just about the same time as it takes the horse to move his foreleg forward and put it on the ground. Most horses react by dropping the head in response to an equivalent of the weight of the hand on the rein.
Avoid tugging on the rein and forcefully lowering the horse’s neck. You should feel like the action of the rein is suggesting rather than telling…
Ideally you would want a few minutes of walk with your horse consistently moving at given rhythm with his neck level with his withers. If you have never tried this, please do and you might be amazed what effect it has on horse’s relaxation. The lowered neck position is generally already a mental relaxant for the horse and as a result, it helps him focus on you instead of on the world around him.
Exercise 2: Lateral poll flexion in – hand
Remember the old instruction : “when turning, make sure you just about see the corner of your horse’s inside eye “? That’s what lateral poll flexion is – not a neck bend and not too much flexion so we can see entire nose from up the saddle. Many tense, hollow moving horses are also laterally tense at the poll. This could be an effect of crookedness where the horse compensates for lack of correct alignment of the spine in relation to the shape the rider is trying to ride by tilting his head or carrying it outwards which in time causes strain, muscular tension and joint pain. The poll being a joint needs the same level of suppleness as any other joint in the horse’s body in order to function without problems.
If you look closely at any grassroots event whether it’s dressage, jumping or eventing you will notice a large amount of horses with some degree of tension at the poll. Ideally, we want the right flexion at the poll when going right and left when going left. All you need to teach the horse to do for it to happen smoothly is to make sure he/she is not tense in the neck when being asked for flexion. A healthy, sound horse should have no issue with turning his head slightly to the left or right.
Flexion at the poll is hugely helpful when riding circles, serpentines and turns – it helps the rider maintain better balance in the horse (inside flexion limits ‘falling in’ onto the inside shoulder/foot) because is helps control the amount of weight the horse is transferring onto each shoulder (inside flexion “lightens” the inside shoulder).
When asked for from the saddle, it can cause confusion to the tense horse who might offer immediate turn in response to the movement of inside rein. Flexing the horse’s head (poll) from the ground allows the rider to observe what is happening step by step.
When your horse stands with his neck relaxed and lowered slightly (top of the neck about level with his withers):
Stand by your horse’s side like you would when preparing to put a bridle on. Place your inside hand (decide which way you will flex first and that will be your inside hand) on the horse’s nose and outside hand on his neck just behind the atlas bone. You will be gently stabilising the horse’s neck with this hand to make sure he is not bringing it to the inside but that it stays straight.
Now with your inside hand move the horse’s nose towards you until you see the muscles in front of your outside hand becoming concave (the other side of the top of the neck will become convex)
Don’t pull hard if you feel resistance from the horse. Try to move his nose slowly as if you wanted to do so by millimetres. Then release the nose to straight position and repeat until the movement feels soft and easy (might take many days of patient repetition with very stiff horses).
You will very likely notice that one side is much easier for your horse to flex to than the other…
Some trainers call the change from convex to concave arrangement of the neck muscles a nuchal ligament flip, some question this. Whatever the anatomical correctness – when changing from left to right flexion it does indeed look like the top line of the neck “flips” from left to right.
The lower the horse’s neck, the easier it is to achieve soft, pliable flexion and that’s because in the upright and tense neck posture with head held high, the bones which constitute the poll (atlas and axis) are in a “locked” position. The lower the neck and more relaxed the surrounding muscles, the more open the joint is.
Poll flexions, when done from the ground slowly without rushing or force, and then applied from the saddle, can revolutionise the way the horse moves on circles and in turns.
Done consequently for a few weeks, these 2 exercises coupled with their incorporation into ridden work can help break the cycle of hollowness and stiffness in the horse in the warm up phase and allow the rider to develop further training exercises that are based on relaxation rather than tension.
If you try or have already tried these or similar exercises with good results please share your experiences in the comments 🙂 Until next time!
Part 1 of this little series can be found here: The All-Rounder Training Series: Relax, Supple Up, Collect. Part 1 – The forgotten “light seat” ?