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! :-\