Your horse needs their head and neck for balance. Shortening the neck often has detrimental effects to the horse’s wellbeing and confidence. Once a horse can lengthen the top line chain, they can bring the neck up into a collected posture by strengthened top line muscles. This is not done by restricting the head and neck, or by tucking the horses’ chin in.
Take a look at horses necks- no rhomboidius can be developed with a contracted neck. This dip in front of the withers is telling. A horse needs a rhomboidius to lift the shoulders.
The first two pictures of the greys show a top line in healthy stretch. The second two show a behind the vertical posture which causes the base of the neck to jam into the shoulders, forcing the weight onto the forelegs. This prevents shoulder lift. The last two pics show the neck of a horse ridden behind the bridle, lacking rhomboidius development, and another after being ridden in a long, low neck posture for a few months. And finally, a horse in a very collected posture with the length of the neck preserved.
One of the most frequent criticisms I get about my clinics, lessons and training is that it’s too slow, too basic, and maybe a little on the boring side.
The majority of horses I meet are scared, imbalanced, misunderstand the rider or all too aware of the conflicting aids, they are shut down, keyed up, lacking a good foundation, overworked, under worked, tight, confused, and any other number of things.
From an ethical standpoint, it’s my job to help you and your horse where you both are; and to give you both tools to help you find a better base to work from.
I think if my personal horses could talk, they’d say I went too fast, wanted too much too soon, and they were worried or imbalanced. I’m still correcting the mistakes I made out of well meaning but ignorant work.
My motto is “for the horse.” I really believe if it doesn’t benefit the horse, it doesn’t really benefit the human either. A horse fitting any of these descriptions above is going to be distracted or fearful, and will not be safe. Inevitably, something will concern them more than your request.
If you’re for the horse, you’re welcome to join the slow, methodical journey. If it isn’t for you, that’s ok too.
Once you get a taste of how soft, relaxed and happy a horse can be in work without force, you can never go back. There are moments where you may not know what to do, but you know your old ways aren’t it. You may not always be on the money with your timing or aids, but each effort you make to set things up for the horse to think through is like money in a savings account – it draws interest; and when you need it the most, it’s there. The horse may take time to respond, but they know the intent is different, and meaningful.
Keep plugging away. It’s so much harder than what you used to do or what others do, the results are slower, but they last, and they create a solid partnership you can be proud of.
Working with horses who have been taught to fight:
You didn’t start them that way, but here they are. Everything is a fight. If you don’t start it, they do. They don’t want to be that way, but it’s what they know. They have been shown the only way to comply is through intimidation and force. Now here you are not using those ways, and you have a strong horse bowling all over you, or trying to get away.
This horse is not happy to do this- this horse is scared, worried, unconfident. They don’t know how to get along with you.
I get horses like these all the time. The temptation to fix the problem with force is there, because it works; and it seems the horse is looking for it. But in the long run, it will never create softness, confidence or partnership.
With these horses, the art of being neutral is essential. I teach them that there is no fight. You can’t show them softness by speaking the language they came speaking – I change the game entirely. I am neutral – I can’t be pushed or pulled, but that fight will dissipate when the horse realizes I’m not involved in it. When they are ready, we can have a whole new type of conversation.
I guarantee this horse, once they realize they don’t have to fight with you to protect themselves, and they don’t have to be bullied into doing what you ask, will be much happier, more willing, and interested in being around you.
A horse can lick and chew because they are comfortable, feeling good and calm. A horse can also lick and chew after extreme stress because it has ended, not because they are more calm from the work.
A horse can rhythmically swing their lifted tail when their back is relaxed and mind is calm. They can also swish and wring their tail when their back is tight and mind is agitated or worried.
A horse can lower their neck and head because they are relaxed and content. They can also lower their head when they are about to buck, or have submitted to aggressive training.
How can you tell the difference? Learning to read the whole picture is essential. Reading expression, hearing the sound of the footfalls (heavy or soft), listening to the breathing, feeling the quality of movement through the back, watching the series of facial expressions that lead to release. Without an understanding of these, it’s hard to know if your horse is benefitting from your work, or submitting.
To clarify – a horse benefits from work when they become more relaxed, confident, and balanced.
Often when a horse is heavy on the forehand, they lack impulsion and are unable to go forward. A rider can easily feel like they have to make this horse forward, and can get trapped in the habit of nagging the horse to go forward. Many trainers even convince the horse and rider the horse must go forward! More leg! Go forward!!
The problem with a front end heavy horse is they make tense, choppy steps. Forcing this horse to go forward makes the horse create more tense steps, faster. These horses are liable to trip, resist, need to be made to go forward constantly or they “shut off,” like an engine that stalled out. They’re prone to suddenly stopping or not being able to slow down once asked.
The problem is like a wheelbarrow that’s tipped over. All the weight is in the front of the wheelbarrow, and it has made it pretty hard to push. You can push that wheelbarrow faster, but it’s going to take some Herculean effort, and all you’re doing is scraping the front of the wheelbarrow on the ground. To push the wheelbarrow with ease, you need to redistribute the weight evenly so you can lift up the front of the wheelbarrow- now you can push it from behind.
Before I start asking my horses to go forward, especially those very tense or front end heavy ones, I teach them to move their front end with lightness and control. This is all done very slowly. I teach them how to move with relaxation in their neck and back. I teach them how to find their hind legs. Once they have their balance, then impulsion is a breeze. They are eager to go forward, because it makes them feel good to do it, and it’s easy to do.
A horse’s brain is about a third the weight and size of ours. They aren’t stupid, just highly specialized for movement. Our priorities are not their priorities. They can’t see things from our point of view, and can never think like we do. It’s up to us to provide what they need and speak their language. They don’t care about our goals or the discipline we ride. They care about their balance, and their sense of security. If you can’t provide those things, our goals to them are meaningless, and something they will actively resist to take care of themselves.
To understand this, a basic understanding of equine anatomy is essential.
In a correctly bending horse, the inside hind leg comes under the body directly behind the inside front. This facilitates the lift of the torso – the longissimus dorsi under your saddle allow this lift, and the rib cage moves slightly away from your inside leg, expanding the outside of your horse. The under neck of your horse relaxes, and the top of their neck helps lift their shoulders. This allows your horse’s poll joint and TMJ to stay nice and loose, allowing the skull to slightly rotate with the bend of the spine in the direction of your turn. This bend is less than many are expecting when it we think of bend – your horse’s head will still be in the middle of his chest. But this full body bend will create a nice, loose but still connected feeling in your inside rein.
What is happening when your inside rein is tight, or you feel you need to use it to create bend?
Let’s start from the hind leg- the inside hind is either to the inside of the track, with the horse’s hip tipped in, or their inside hind is traveling laterally under the body toward the outside of the track. Either way, it is not under the body supporting the trunk, and cannot lift. This means the joints of the hip, stifle, hock and pastern are not flexed equally, and creates a higher hip on one side. This unevenness travels through the body, forcing the horse to compensate by supporting themselves with a shoulder and under neck. If they are falling to the inside with their shoulder, their head and neck have to counter balance, so they will look to the outside. When you pick up your inside rein to turn or create bend at this point, you only succeed at dragging the horses jaw toward the turn, but you’ve likely further locked up the poll and TMJ as the horse is out of balance. This is why the second you let go of the inside rein, the horse falls apart again.
This is the essence of back to front riding. Why isn’t my horse bending? The answer is in the work of the hind leg.
“ A Zen student complained to his teacher that focusing on the breath during meditation was boring. The teacher submerged the student’s head under water until the student kicked and struggled to come up for air, at which point the master released his grip, looked the student in the eye, and asked, “Do you still think the breath is boring?” “
In lessons, we’ll focus on minute details. We’ll go slowly at first to make sure your basics are in order: the horse is relaxed, breathing, moving through the back; the rider knows what they’re looking for, how to breathe themselves, and how to direct. It may be slow at first, but without the basics, you have nothing.
The advanced movements are all easier than solid basics. Solid basics for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. When in doubt, solid basics. Those who want to get along with their horses learn to love the tiny details, because that is where the real work lies.
If you turned your herd of horses out into the woods, more than likely they would adapt pretty quickly to their environment and would be investigating with curiosity. If they were startled or frightened, they might run a bit, then go back to eating.
One of the biggest complaints I get from people about their horse is how nervous they are and how they don’t relax. This is not a horse’s natural state – humans bring and cause fear that lasts. Horses; though they have a strong sense of self preservation, are inquisitive and curious by nature.
The thing that never ceases to amaze me is how little many trail horses have little education, and how many trail riders have little education on how to ride without fear in all three gaits. It’s like learning to fly a jet plane without instruction on a plane that hasnt been checked for safety. Sounds crazy, and yet trail riders who don’t know how to ride on horses who don’t know how to be ridden is quite common. It doesn’t take long for a naturally inquisitive horse to become fearful with a worried and restraining rider, and this can damage a horses confidence long term. A trail horse needs to have the confidence to leave the herd or to ride with strange horses, to take in the changing scenery, the balance to carry a person up and down different terrain, to interpret and respond to the needs of an ever changing and unpredictable reality. A trail rider needs the balance to ride the off movement here and there without requiring the reins for balance. They need the feel and timing to guide their horse so their horse doesn’t have to resort to following the herd for support or direction. They need independent hands and an understanding of equipment and saddle fitting so as to not cause pain to their trusty friend.
Trail riding might be simple but it is not easy – why wouldn’t you want as much preparation as possible before putting your life in the hands of a 1200 lb flight animal while you’re out of Cel range?