“On the Bit”—Next Phase


“ON THE BIT”—NEXT PHASE: BALANCING
 POINTS:
·      Balancing
·      Building
·      Rewarding
In the previous stages, you worked on relaxing the frame, primarily by loosening the jaw, poll, and any bracing in the muscles of the neck. You should have found that this transfers its loosening effect all the way along the topline, through the shoulder and down into the hind legs, creating regularity and an easy, swinging in the gaits, as well as an overall lengthening of the horse’s outline.
However, as noted before, using the inside “Direct (Leading) Rein” will have the effect of slightly loading the inside fore. This is not the great sin it is often made out to be, especially when the horse is relaxed (not rushing) and working at a natural pace (not pushed) on straight lines and gentle curves (not tight turns.) However, your goal in this next step is to shift that balance from inside to outside. You will do this by creating a subtle inside lateral flexion throughout your horse’s body from the long low frame.

HOW IS THIS ACCOMPLISHED?
Begin in walk. Once you have your long, soft, relaxed outline established, ease into the “Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither” with the inside rein, coupled with an outside “Direct (Opening) Rein:”
              Gently bring the inside hand toward your navel above and behind the wither (imagine a line from the corner of the horse’s mouth to his opposite hip) always careful never to cross the line of the wither.
              Here the hand offers gentle resistance by closing the fingers slightly, but does not pull.
              And at the same time, open your outside hand away from your horse’s neck, also lifting into the corner of the mouth.
(Remember to keep a supple arm from hand to shoulder, with a straight line from the bit, through the wrist, to the elbow. Unclench your fingers—you should hold the reins as if you have an uncooked egg in each hand.)

These two rein aids used simultaneously allow the horse’s balance to be more or less distributed evenly between outside fore and hind. The frame remains long and relaxed. Most importantly it should be natural. There should be no true collection yet, as there is no real contact in the outside hand; it is just there as a guide. All contact is light, and the inside hand merely suggests a soft bend to the inside, where the rider can just see bridle buckles or the horse’s eye at most. This gentle, subtle lateral bend at the poll is transmitted evenly through the entire body.
The inside leg rests still against the horse at the girth for support, but does nothing; no prodding with every step, no squeezing, no spurring, etc.. The outside leg, slightly behind the girth, is completely passive.

WHAT DOES THIS ACCOMPLISH?
The effect of these two reins on the horse is simple and direct. The inside rein of opposition behind the wither subtly blocks the horse’s impulsion on that side causing the horse to bend evenly throughout his body as it simultaneously redirects the horse’s balance to the outside of the body. In addition, the horse will load both the outside hind and, to a lesser degree, the outside shoulder, and will have a tendency to move forward and out through both.
At the same time, the outside rein “opens the door” to that flow of energy, allowing the horse’s body to round out into the bend, and allowing his balance to shift outward into his shoulder, allowing for a more or less even distribution of his balance over the outside of his body. This is a very strong and confident position for a horse to be in while carrying a rider, particularly in the green and developing stages of his training, and it requires little maintenance from the rider. This is where the horse begins building strength, confidence and trust. Don’t shortchange these first two phases: the loosening and trust-building of phase one, and the foundation-building of phase two.
This new balance and it’s centrifugal force are enough to cause a slight outward drift, but with the addition of supporting inside leg, he is even able to leg-yield or spiral out into the bend while that “door” remains open. This will help keep you on the rail or out on the circle, where in the previous exercise you may have felt you were always falling in on your turns and circles because of the “Direct (Leading) Rein” and its inward gravitational pull.

IN PRACTICE:
Curved figures:
Begin in corners, on large circles and on wide, curved lines, figure-eights, serpentines, etc., incorporating changes of direction through a few strides of loose, straight long and low if necessary in the beginning to make your transitions as stress-free as possible.
Spiral out and leg-yield:
Don’t be afraid of the outward drift that tends to occur here: embrace it. Ever wondered what the aids were for spiral out and leg-yielding? You’ve just learned and practiced them. Just add inside leg and increase your outside “Direct (Opening) Rein” as needed. Keep your eyes up, use your feel, and adapt accordingly.
Note: Just be careful not to overdo it here. These are tools, not tricks, and their value is limited. They can become bad habits leading to aimless drifting, and learning to move outwards from the leg is not the goal of this phase, so remain focused. Everything in moderation. (Also, remain in forward motion: these aids will work for turn on the haunches, but that requires more precision and would be somewhat counterproductive at this loosening, balancing stage—add it later.)
Calm, forward and straight:
Yes, this works even when riding straight lines, preferably along the long sides of the arena where you have the support of the rail. It should be easier now to keep to the track than in the loosening first phase where steering and balance were less a priority. And though you are not working on collection yet, if well tolerated by the horse, maintaining that slight, gentle inside flexion described above, even on straight lines, will serve you well here and into the next phase. Just remember that the outline here remains long and loose, even with the slight overall lateral flexion.

REMEDIES AND REWARDS:
Horses do not have to be trained to understand the “Indirect Rein of Opposition Behind the Wither” aid; it affects their innate sense of balance and biomechanics. If done correctly (and hopefully humanely) it will simply work. Practice it with patience and discretion. Introduce it slowly, reward generously, and keep your sessions short, alternating between the balanced, gentle head-to-tail flexion of this phase and the long, loose frame of phase one. You’ll see a remarkable transformation in your horse; don’t be greedy.
If you or your horse become confused, frustrated or you run into a setback, don’t panic. This is horsemanship. It will take time and practice and you will have to go back and forth between these first two phases continually before moving on to the next phase. And, the long and loose phase will forever be your “reset button” and your reward, so if things get tense or your horse becomes tired or resistant—or you simply want to take a break or give a reward—downshift to the loosening posture you’ve already established. This is your new home base.
Also be advised, this is not the time to worry about precise steering, imperfections, or making it pretty. If people are watching, they may not understand what is happening or what you are trying to accomplish. You may look like a complete beginner who can’t steer. Your horse may look like he’s “misbehaving.” Don’t let it throw you or frustrate your efforts. An audience is too often the enemy of good riding. Ignore them. Be patient and be persistent. Your solidly built result down the road will speak for itself, even if it doesn’t have a perfect gloss on it today. The only one you have to explain yourself to is your horse.

I hope this installment has been helpful. It has been a long time since I posted anything. Feel free to write with any questions or comments. I am pretty busy these days, but I will do my best to get back to you about any training questions you may have. Good luck!

Stupid Study

"Huh?"
I came across an article about a stupid study, and i just had to comment.  I couldn’t find the original study, so I wasn’t able to verify any of what’s written in this article.  But from what I can tell, it seems like a pretty crap study.  It sounds a lot like they set out with a conclusion in mind, designed a study that would prove it, and then congratulated themselves on being right all along.

The theory was that nervous people make horses calmer.  Take a minute to let that soak in.

Here’s the link.

Now, I can understand a schoolmaster—or even an unbroken horse—feeling less threatened by someone green and vulnerable placed at the center of a situation like this versus, say, a more confident handler venturing in there with the intention of “being the alpha,” who is naturally going to provoke a more wary, nervous response in the horse.  If the study was just making the distinction between horses' responses to people who seem to know what they are doing and those who don't, maybe I could get behind it...  Horses probably do just dismiss people who they know are scared of them.  It makes perfect sense.

Of course the horses don’t perceive a threat from the inexperienced and nervous novices, blindfolded or not.  And horses that have had good handling throughout their lives can be very tolerant, particularly of inexperienced and nervous beginners who pose them no threat and mean them no obvious harm.  But to draw from that the broader conclusion that all horses are automatically calmed by all nervous people—and worse, made nervous by calm people!—flies in the face of every good horseman’s common sense and experience.

And to extend that out to generalized herd behavior, again, defies observation.  Horses grazing at pasture may relax while they post vigilant sentries to keep an eye out for danger, but one very nervous horse on high alert will definitely set all of them on high alert.  Anyone who’s been around horses for any period of time knows this.  And anyone with a close horse-human relationship knows that a nervous/tense handler or rider has the same effect on a horse as that fellow herd member on high alert does. 

I know, for example, when I'm riding a horse that is about to blow, I can usually avert a major crisis by taking a deep breath, relaxing my body, softening my feel on the reins, petting them, and making a conscious effort to remain calm, even though the instinct is to grab a handful of reins, clamp on for dear life and prepare for the coming explosion.  By relaxing, I can feel the horse relax with me, and I can usually prevent or lessen what would otherwise be a major spook or other problem.  But the opposite is also true; if I tense up in an already stressful situation, I know my horse is going feel it and feed into it, and it is only going to exacerbate the problem.  Horse and human emotions can become a vicious circle, with nervousness, fear, frustration or anger feeding into one another.  Which is why calmness and patience play such an important part in the discipline of good horsemanship.  Horsemanship is a form of meditation as much as a sport.

When horses trust us, they look to us for cues on how to behave and, if we are nervous or tense, they will pick up on it and mirror it, even if they don’t know why.  Often, if our horses are nervous and tense, it will make us nervous and tense as well.  We do affect one another closely, and it is not always clear whose emotional state initiates.  But I fail to see how our being nervous will calm a horse or vice versa.  Rather, if we can discipline ourselves to relax, they will often trust us and relax as well, even if they don’t know why.  That’s part of the magic of the horse-human bond.  And it’s part of why I don’t buy this study.  Experience just doesn’t bear it out.  At least not my experience…

What's your experience been?


"Jaw Flexions"


I recently posted about getting a horse started “on the bit,” but I probably should have started here, with the somewhat obscure concept of “jaw flexions.”  I first got thinking about this after a great conversation started by smazourek over at Quarters For Me, and there's a great post on the subject that you should check out as well:  Cession de machoire 

First off, let me start by saying that I dislike the term “jaw flexion,” as I think it’s something of a misnomer; I prefer the term “jaw releases” (and even that’s imperfect) if we have to refer to this process at all.

So, what are the mysterious jaw flexions or releases?  It is a concept and practice developed by Baucher in his Second Manner and over the years has been misunderstood and mangled by successive trainers and amateurs to the point of being nearly incomprehensible.  For all I know, I may be about to add myself to that list, but here is my somewhat unorthodox take on this semi-arcane practice, which I hope you’ll find demystifies rather than exacerbates the problem of understanding them—or at least makes them a little more accessible for the average rider. 

So many of the manuals and explanations of trainers make them out to be more complicated than they are.  Some, like a handful of natural horsemanship gurus I won’t name, exaggerate the method beyond all recognition with the hopes of impressing people by touching a rein and having horses mechanically swing their heads left and right, touching their shoulders or whatever, supposedly in a gesture of submission, softness, yielding of the jaw, or whatever term is hip for the moment.  Yes, horses can be taught to do this, just as a rat can be taught to push a lever at the end of a maze to get a piece of cheese, but what it has to do with the stated aim of the exercise I still don’t know.... Others seem intent on keeping this kind of information from the reach of we mere mortals and like to deliberately mystify dressage in particular, treating training like some giant insider trade secret, probably so that their clients keep paying them the big bucks to do it for them.  So when it comes to something as obscure as jaw flexions, it’s no wonder that many people are discouraged from even attempting it for themselves, and those who do often attempt a twisted version of it that I think is totally missing the point.

In my humble opinion, jaw flexions/releases are, at their core, a very simple, practical and attainable exercise that can be used by any thoughtful horseman to the benefit of any bitted horse.  They can be practiced from the ground or mounted, with a green or a trained horse at any level provided they are done—like any good training—with patience and sensitivity.

Of course, I’ve come across illustrations in books that are frightening and frankly irresponsible; the horses look as if their freaking heads are on backwards and anyone who doesn’t know what they are doing and tries to emulate this is going to hurt their horse or themselves in the process.  It kind of makes you wonder if the people writing the book know what they were taking about in the first place or if they were just parroting some crap they didn’t understand very well before they decided to go off and spout it to the masses.  But this is what happens in the horse world; anyone can be an authority.  I urge caution, even here; if anything I say doesn’t pass the logic test, call me out or ignore me, but don’t inflict it on your horse, please!

Jaw flexions/releases have less to do with the jaw specifically than they do with the tongue.  Baucher recognized that his horses were more flexible through their poll, easier to bend and collect, and in general better and more relaxed to work with when they were playing with their bits.  He eventually deduced that there was a direct relationship between the two, and discovered that tension in the jaw could be released by a lifting and releasing action of the tongue, and this wave of relaxation would cascade down the other joints of the poll as well.  This action could be created by gentle pressure and release (a kind of massage) of the bit against the tongue and bars.  So, though this chewing response is often a product of relaxation, if it can be manually encouraged, it can also be used to create relaxation as well.

Horses, like people, can carry their tension (what we often call resistance) in their jaw or temporomandibular joint (TMJ), and understandably so when you strap some leather around their heads and shove a hunk of metal in their mouths.  And this tension tends to translate all the way down the rest of the neck and topline.  They clench, they grind, they get heavy in the hand or they just plain don’t cooperate.  If you know anyone who grits their teeth when they are angry or nervous, or wears a night guard, etc.—or maybe you do some of this stuff yourself—then you know what I mean.  But try this now:  clench your jaw tightly; now, with your molars locked tight, try to swallow.  The minute your tongue lifts to the roof of your mouth and releases, your jaw unlocks and relaxes.  Swallowing in general tends to relax the muscles.  This is the same principle behind the jaw releases for horses:  get the tongue moving, the jaw will unclench, and the poll and topline will begin to follow.  Sounds simple enough, right?

That’s it.  Simple mechanics.  Nothing mystical about it.  But oddly this is where the dressage masters get wildly over-complicated and convoluted, to the point where you'd think you need an advanced degree in astrophysics to even attempt this.  Or they just fail to mention it to the rest of us, as if we’re not worthy, or we’re incapable of understanding such arcane wisdom.  But it’s really not that hard.

So, how is it done?   When we’re riding we can’t exactly hand the horse a sugar cube every time we need something, so how can we get the tongue moving?  According to Baucher, the bit was the natural tool for the job.  Used properly, the bit should gently massage the tongue until it engages and, more importantly, relaxes again, and with it the jaw.  Once all of that begins to move, the poll becomes mobile and pliable as well, and you have a relaxed, supple horse you can now begin to make suggestions to. 

This, incidentally, is also the logic behind the judicial use of the curb in enlightened horsemanship; it is designed to be used periodically to gently squeeze and release the tongue between the bit and curb chain under the lower jaw by action of the lever arms of the curb, causing the tongue to lift against the pressure—then the rider releases the rein!—and the tongue and jaw releases, thereby relaxing the poll and topline, allowing the rider to increase collection.  Though the curb was originally invented for extreme leverage and control in the days of mounted warfare, its use has been refined over the years, but you’d hardly know it by the way you see it being used to fix head positions and force collection in the dressage arena :-\

The theory is, once the TMJ is freed, it sets off a kind of chain reaction:  the poll and successive joints of the neck are freed to move.  If the TMJ remains tensed and locked, the poll must be flexed forcibly with the hand, and the result is tension, overbending, false frames and hollow toplines, to name just a few side effects seen in the dressage arena.  This is also the locked effect produced by rollkur.

The need for this freedom and play of the tongue and jaws is also reason why tight nosebands, cranks, flash attachments, etc. (though a figure-eight is slightly more forgiving if you really feel the need to strap your horse’s face shut, but this shouldn't be necessary in the arena) have little place in training and certainly no place in dressage, again, imo.  Otherwise, how can we expect a horse to maintain a soft, mobile jaw, an active tongue and a relaxed poll, when he can’t open his mouth even a little to play with his bit comfortably?

Once the horse begins to accept this play of the bit and relax his jaw, tiny, gradual lateral flexions are introduced with the rein.  For these, I simply follow the same Five Rein Aids outlined here, beginning with the most basic—and, imo, most important at this stage—Direct or Opening Rein.  When the horse yields to the rein, you yield the rein and reward.  Then ask for a little more, slowly building over time.  All the while, the horse is monitored for signs of tension, resistance or locking of the jaw.  Any sign of discomfort, tension, etc., and you just go back to softly playing with the bit until he relaxes again, then continue….  And again, the idea is to play gently and very briefly, let go and relax, not saw back and forth constantly and irritate the crap out of your horse until he gives up (as I had one trainer tell me to do: "just keep working the bit back and forth until his head comes down."  Uh... no. 

Some hardcore (or misguided?) Baucher followers go way further with flexions and try to twist their horses into pretzels.  I don’t know if this was part of the original program or not—Baucher certainly wasn’t perfect and had his share of extreme ideas too—but I personally don’t see the need and don’t know enough about the benefits or the dangers to comment on it.  I like to stick with what’s directly applicable to my riding and my horses’ natural range of motion, so I avoid anything that resembles extreme horsey yoga, especially if I have a rein in my hand and my horse’s head is at the other end :-\  I worry things like this could happen:


One of the masters, in writing on jaw flexions (though I can’t remember who!) wrote that the horse should “savor” his bit.  I love that image, and try to keep that kind of positive relationship between the horse’s mouth, the bit and the hand in the back of my mind.  That’s the real aim of this exercise:  to build a relationship to the bit and the hand that will encourage good communication, relaxation, good posture and movement, and a positive attitude toward work.  It’s about a foundation in essentials; the rest will hopefully come later. 

This is a better example of what the results should look like, in this case with subtle results after four patient weeks:


As you can hopefully see, the success of Baucher’s method lay in its ability to transform the bit into an instrument of two-way communication with the horse, rather than a blunt instrument of punishment or directional force.  What was revolutionary about it is that, perhaps for the first time, classical horsemanship came to view the bit and the hand as aids rather than weapons—tools with which the rider might consciously solicit the horse as a partner rather than an adversary to be conquered and dominated.  Combined with his “hand without leg—leg without hand” formula, many obvious causes for resistance were eliminated from riding in one fell swoop. 

Of course, this was nothing new to the many truly skilled horsemen throughout history whose methods and natural abilities had already made them partners with their horses, but on the whole there was a lot of brutality and a lot of shortcuts to horsemanship over the millennia, and the highly mannered world of classical dressage up to this point was no exception.  So this was something new.  I’m not sure even Baucher realized just how much potential was there, or that his intent was to be humane; maybe he was just being practical.  Whatever his intent, it’s hard to deny the results when you take the time to do it properly.

ps - i can't get the stupid insert video feature to work right now - sorry! :-\

Homework Assignment Gone Wrong

I saw this in an e-mail going around work and for some reason just had to share.  I had to read it twice:  once with my regular brain and again with my "shut up and act like a normal person" moderator in place.  After you get past the initial shock and stop laughing, it's actually very sweet, and it's something I might have written at a young age, though I seriously hope my parents would have checked it before I handed it in!!!  But I do have to appreciate any young person so enthusiastic about (hopefully) horses.

But I couldn't help getting a good chuckle out of it after a very long week, so hopefully you'll see the humor in it too and not be too offended.  And if you are, too bad!  Hahahahah ;-)



It came from this list:  http://www.happyplace.com/3907/unintentionally-inappropriate-test-responses-from-children/page/1  so If you don't mind rude humor, there's more of the same.

But it's not for the faint of heart.  Don't say I didn't warn you!

Holiday Ponies


I know I’ve been pretty lax in my posting lately.  I have plenty of excuses, but none of them are especially convincing, so I won’t insult anyone by listing them here.  The truth is I’ve probably just had too many other things on my mind to put much thought into posts anyone might remotely want to read.  I’ve got limited time and space in my brain these days, which is a really bad combination.

I’ve also been feeling a little grinchy in general.  I got my Christmas shopping out of the way pretty early (for me) and did a minimum of decorating.  I didn’t even bother with a tree this year.  Instead I got a dumpster and decided to tear apart my house, garage, barn, loft, feed shed and equipment shed and finally get organized—kind my gift to myself this year—so it seemed counterproductive to drag a tree and decorations out into the middle of the chaos.

I wouldn’t call myself a hoarder or anything, but I have a definite knack for hanging onto semi-useful stuff that’s past its prime with the well-intentioned rationalization that:  I’ll find a use for it in the barn somewhere!  And I seldom do.  So ripping through closets, tack trunks and every other nook-and-cranny for unused junk and tossing it has been kind of liberating.  On the flip-side, it’s also been great rediscovering stuff I’d put away and sort of forgotten about a long time ago, like the awesome blanket with the horse head on it my grandma knitted for me when I was about seven; that deserves a special place somewhere.

But aside from a few fond memories, I found I was able to be pretty ruthless about ditching stuff to get rid of the clutter.  Which is why one incident from this last dumpster day kind of surprised me.  Up in the loft I had our little blanket room piled with bags full of old linens and things.  While sorting through them I came across one of those plastic zipper storage bags full of little stuffed ponies and other critters from who-knows-when.  Now, I’m a long way off from being a kid, and I’m not the kind of adult who still plays with stuffed animals.  So I thought, “what on earth am I doing with these things?”  I thought for a minute my little nieces might want them, but they have tons of their own stuffed toys, so I decided to toss them.  Into the back of the pickup they went, I drove over to the dumpster and I started chucking stuff in.

But when I was done throwing everything into the dumpster, I looked over and something about those little stuffed ponies sitting on top of the trash heap just looked so wrong to me.  I couldn’t stand it.  Sure, I had no real use for them.  But I couldn’t throw them in the dumpster, either.  So, I admit it:  I went dumpster-diving after them.  I fished them out and put them on the seat next to me in the pickup.  And I sat there and just looked at them, the big goofy chestnut horse looking up at me, reminding me half of Nate and half of one of my favorite Christmas-time characters, the Skin Horse in The Velveteen Rabbit.  I can never remember what the entire story is about with all the scarlet fever and the fires and woodland bunnies and nursery magic; I mainly just remember this quote:

"It doesn't happen all at once, said the Skin Horse.  "You become.  It takes a long time.  That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in your joints and very shabby.  But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand."
-The Velveteen Rabbit

For me, in an odd way, they're words to live by.  And, as I look around my stable, it’s largely a herd made up of other people’s throwaways—by “people who don’t understand.”  Horses others had given up on.  Horses they told themselves they’d “outgrown.”  Horses they believed had no purpose or reason to exist.  I struggle every day to make sure each of those horses knows how much they are loved and wanted, and I can’t imagine not loving each of them enough to keep and care for them no matter what. 

So, yes, I’m a sap, but I’m keeping my ponies.  All of them.  

I’m sorry I don’t get to visit and chat with all of you more often, but it makes me happy to know there are so many Real people out there!  Happy holidays to all of you and your critters! 

© J.M. Elliott and Glenshee Equestrian Centre, 2008-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Quotations and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to J.M. Elliott and Glenshee Equestrian Centre with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.