Is your horse unsteady in your hands - resisting contact?
When young or green horses have issues with contact, (ie coming above or resisting the hand) many riders tend to automatically or unconsciously fix the hands low or in one position in an attempt to prevent the horse's head from moving. To be fair, many riders genuinely think this is helpful. They may be trying to keep still for the horse, not to interfere with the erratic head movement, or trying to stop the head from moving. Or they may be trying to keep or hold the horse in a ‘round’ frame.
There are several problems with these approaches, and hopefully I can shed some light here, and offer you a way forward with these first 10 'habits of the hands' that can make life easier. Be mindful though, that there are many more 'handy' habits to discover.
1. HANDS MOVE WITH THE HORSE ...not against it
If we stiffen any part of our body while everything else, and the horse, is moving… it is bad for both. Blocking the movement in our arms and shoulders, stops the movement flowing freely through the horse’s body, causing the horse to stiffen and slow from their blocked shoulders.
Given this, the horse’s answer is one of confusion and resistance at best, or extreme panic at worst. They may keep fighting against the hand to seek freedom, or suck back and duck under, closing the poll, to find temporary relief in a loopy rein. But then this behind the vertical habit leads to other physical issues, which if practiced, can become difficult to reverse.
By allowing a loopy rein each time the horse ducks under and comes behind the vertical, we are actually rewarding that behaviour, and, therefore training that behaviour - the opposite of what we want.
We want to use our hands to educate the horse: to open the gullet and encourage the horse to go more freely forward stretching into a soft allowing contact. Fixed hands, gadgets, martingales, tie downs or restrictive nosebands will not help us educate the horse to trust the hands.
So what to do with the hands? While steady hands are the end aim - they don’t give the young or green horse confidence to keep a steady head carriage.
In a sense, the hands do need a ‘steady' attitude BUT this steadiness is relative to how they follow the horse’s mouth, NOT relative to the position of our hands to the saddle, the withers, or our own torso. If we are moving on a moving machine - trying to be ‘still' doesn’t make sense.
2. EASE THE PROBLEM FOR THE HORSE
The horse learns to accept the hands when they learn to trust the hands. That is, when it doesn’t hurt. When they are tense with contact, horses naturally try to reposition the bit themselves into the most comfortable part of the mouth. Which is off the tongue and up into the corners of the lips. This is so the action of the bit - in movement - is not knocking on the highly sensitive tongue or boney bars of the lower jaw. Eg. in walk and canter the horse’s natural head nodding means the hands need to feel and follow the head movement so it moves naturally without interference or pain. In trot there is less head movement, but we still follow the changing positions of the neck and head.
3. FOLLOW AND GUIDE THE MOUTH
Young or green horses often have an unsteady head carriage and need help to find balance and confidence under the weight of a rider. We can’t expect to ride a green horse the same way we ride an experienced balanced horse. Green horses, apart from having to deal with someone holding onto their mouth in movement, are having to find a new balance to carry the extra weight of a rider in all gaits. To do this, they need a natural head carriage to balance the load. Our hands must help and guide the horse to find this new balance.
We need a grounded seat with mobile and flexible elbows, hands and fingers, in order to keep following the unsteady head or unbalanced movements with feel and timing - no matter where it goes - up, down, left, right. This way we give the horse the experience that the hands will stay with the mouth in a positive way - they learn to trust soft following hands rather than fight against a rigid fixture.
I can use the analogy of ‘holding hands’ while your’e walking along with your partner - do you know that feeling when you try to swing in sync with each other. If you walk out of sync, or block the arm swing of the other person - it feels wrong for both of you. If we stay still with the hands - thinking and hoping that the horse will submit to this - or try to force a round frame or steady head position, the horse tends to pre-empt and resist the blocking effect of restrictive contact.
4. PRACTICE POSITIVE CONSEQUENCES
Along with an unsteady head carriage, there are other counter productive reactions and negative consequences: the neck contracts and shortens, the back hollows, the strides become shorter, and more uncomfortable, the balance and straightness are lost. The tension created in the jaw travels through the whole body and blocks the movement from flowing through and forward into a good connection. The joints and muscles are no longer working in a relaxed or supple way and physical strain and damage is common.
Health issues aside, this is one of the main reasons horses resist the contact; by either raising, tilting, curling or dropping their head; but, we should understand that, in the horse’s defence, this is for their self preservation in their attempts to reposition the bit up, off the tongue and the bars, up into the corner of their lips, where it is less painful.
5. CREATE A DIALOGUE - FROM THE TONGUE TO THE TAIL
We use an analogy of a house, with a door, a lock, and a key. The house is the horse, the door is the head and the horse's mind, the lock is the mouth and tongue, and the key is a relaxed and mobile jaw. Mobilising the jaw is the way forward to all work of quality. When the horse softly tastes the bit and plays in a gentle way with the contact (not grinding in tension) this gives us access to the horse's mind and body. A mobile jaw then creates relaxation throughout the whole horse - from the tongue to the tail.
Mobilising the jaw can be taught first in halt and in-hand. But the horse first needs to be standing in a good balance, with a straight neck, and with a poll high position. The bit is then gently lifted up into the corner of the lips in the direction of the withers, a few repeated lifting actions to lighten and keep the balance can be all it takes, but inevitable if the horse has previous fear or poor habits of leaning it can be more difficult at first, and it is best to seek help from a teacher trained in Ecole de Legerete.
6. USE YOUR HANDS TO TEACH A LANGUAGE
Lightness is not about keeping loose loopy reins to let the horse do what it wants with us. It's about creating a trustworthy constant connection that serves to relax, guide and control the horse’s posture, balance, and straightness. We teach a language of rein aids that do in fact "aid" and educate the horse. Despite what some people think - the horse is never being difficult on purpose or naughty - it is simply trying to work out a solution to the problem of discomfort in the mouth, and the monkey on its back trying to control its every move.
So, to make it easier for them - it may be a little harder for us in the short term - but a much more rewarding and useful process of teaching in the long term. Simply, when the head goes up - so do our hands. If we can focus on keeping a hand position just a little above where the mouth is, (going up or down) we can gain the horse’s trust in a following, guiding, contact. Think not about “hands down and still” think more about hands following and guiding with a positive but soft connection in order to help channel the horse between two balanced reins. Use the hands to teach the language of aids, and a mutual dialogue of understanding - not to fix and force the horse into submission.
7. KNOW WHEN TO OPEN THE GULLET
However, if the horse is closing the gullet, curling under, too deep and over bent behind the vertical; the hands don’t follow it under, but should act in a corrective way that help to lift and open up the angle of the gullet and the poll up to a natural position, until the nose comes up in front of the vertical. It is only in collected work that a horse is asked to work for short periods of time - 10 mins - while keeping ‘collected’ balanced and in-hand. But never behind the vertical - as this would be against the purpose of dressage. Young or green horses are best trained in a natural position of the neck: that is, learning to accept a light connection, through changes of neck position while learning how to balance a rider in all gaits.
8. TAKE ...ONLY TO ...GIVE
What goes up, must come down. When a horse raises the mouth higher than the hands, the hands need to go higher than mouth. This teaches the horse that going up doesn’t get rid of the hands, but going down gives a reward and a softer feel. We call this 'Action-reaction'. Also - in that moment - as the horse is raising its head it is trying to reposition the bit of the sensitive tongue and move it up into the corner of its lips, but it discovers, that we got there first, by our upward action of the reins - the bit stays off the tongue.
So the horse learns there is nothing to be gained by the going higher! The answer is to go down - into a following kind hand. The positive reinforcement - of our allowing rein - is on the way down. A critical spectator may think this is ‘holding the head up’ but the reality is totally the opposite, and its effectiveness is outstanding. In time the upward hand actions become less and less and the horse learns to trust and seek the hand, stretching forward out and down.
9. ENCOURAGE NECK EXTENSION
When learning Action-reaction it helps to think about Newton's law of motion - and physical fact : that "For every action there is a reaction”. For example for every change of the horse’s head position we need to react with a change in our hand position. Only this way the hands stay steady relative to the mouth, and then for the horse, the contact is steady, because they are constantly connected with the same soft but positive tension.
'Action-Reaction' is wonderful training tool. It means - an upward action of the hands, bring the bit up into the corner of the lips, to gently provoke a downward reaction from the horse. Quite likely there will be a phase where you feel a bit like a yo-yo going up to go down and back up and so on, and for many circles or laps, but with good timing it changes, and becomes an aid in itself, albeit more refined, later whenever you need it.
10. TEACH THE HORSE TO SEEK THE HANDS
Gradually, as the horse gains trust in the contact - the extreme head movements lessen, the horse realises its not necessary, and what comes next is what you both wanted all along; the horse starts to stretch forward to the hands and seek the contact with confidence - and voila, we have neck extension.
So, the first thing we want to teach the horse - to extend and stretch the neck forward out and down - is now willingly offered. The hands say 'thank you' by moving towards the mouth, allowing the stretch, and create a boundary of how far out and down the horse can stretch, with what flexion, and for how long. But, here the rider needs to be careful not to abandon the connection. Keep the contact - but allow the stretch, ie don’t give out what the horse doesn’t take. But be ready to give at any time they offer what you want.
While I may have repeated myself here, its part of teaching - to say things in different ways, in the hope that something strikes a chord.
BONUS TIP: For a horse that leans on the hands: Some horses have the habit to lean heavily on the hands, with a downhill tendency, overloading the forehand. With these horses, a specific rein aid (a Demi arret) is needed to encourage them to lighten the contact and come up off the shoulders. A Demi arret is an upward action again, but for this it must start with an open gullet, and is with quicker, short upward shuddering vibrations of both hands to ask the horse to lighten the contact and come off the hands. The elbows stay bent and the forearms and hands move upwards towards the rider's head. Each demi arret is followed immediately with a 'descent de main' - hands back down, towards the mouth. Teaching the horse that as he lightens, so does the contact. Often these horses can be more settled in the contact, albeit heavy and unbalanced in the hands. This topic would be for another essay. :)