In search of an open gullet poll flexion

This is not about the gullet in a saddle. I refer to the angle between a horse's under neck and cheek. An area sometimes called the throat latch.

Working a horse with a tightly closed gullet angle or over flexed, involves a rider using rein aids to hold, pull or 'saw' the mouth down to force an arched outline of the horse's neck, with the idea to make a 'round frame'. The result often being a tightly flexed poll and a head profile behind the vertical. The rider in these cases (and I used to be one of them) has the misconception that 'on the bit'' comes from this outline and attempts to achieve collection by force.

In the extreme this could be hyperflexion, rollkur or 'LDR' (low, deep and round) all of which we can easily find an abundance of scientific evidence on their damaging effects. Hyperflexion is bad, we know this: the negative effects clearly outweigh any assumed benefits. There is no good reason to continue with such damaging treatment of horses. This article is not about Hyperflexion it's about the endemic habit of the more subtle but common over flexion.

Sadly, debate and controversy still abound. It keeps me awake at night. My heart breaks for the innocent horses that are forced to endure unnecessary pain and discomfort in the pursuit of dressage. Horses can be too cooperative. It seems the average rider and coach these days has a skewed idea of what vertical is. It can be seen in the hands of all kinds of riders. It may be unknowing riders who are obediently doing what they've been told to do - sometimes despite thinking 'it doesn't feel right'. Or it may be a case of... 'we don't know what we don't know'. But it may also be a situation of 'willing ignorance'. This is when we know something is not really right, but we do it anyway. Often these riders will say that it feels light when the horse flexes the poll, they find it works to get 'the look' the judge or instructor wants and... so they don't need to know another way. Until... things go wrong.

This is my lovely Grace, an ultra sensitive Andalusian cross who came with a strong tendency to over flex the poll to quickly duck behind the vertical as soon as I made contact with the mouth. In a previous life, I imagine she was started in side reins, or tie down gadgets and rewarded for this behaviour by being offered a soft or slack rein each time she tucked her head in and under. 10 years down the track, despite since being taught to accept and seek the contact forward and out with an open gullet and a better posture - the habit was so ingrained that she can still offer this as her first automatic reflex response. She has had many lessons in learning to trust and seek contact with the hands rather than avoid and hide behind them.

I ponder why this persists as a common training practice. I can think of a few basic practical factors.

First, there is a general lack of sampling of correct riding. A picture paints a thousand words and there are simply more images of horses held or pulled behind the vertical than not. Our common ideal is influenced unconsciously by what we see as the norm. Simply by repetition of the average image we see. From horse models in saddlery magazines with the tight nosebands and restrictive gear, horse deals sales magazine both online and in print, to the "official" images presented at the highest level of competition.

Second, officially Accredited coaches in Australia have little to no assessment on equine behaviour, ethology, anatomy or biomechanics of riding, and in the coaching modules are mostly assessed on their skills in coaching 'a lesson topic' to a group of riders. The problem here is that it doesn't take into account that all riders and horses in a group are at different levels, ages and stages of fitness, and as a result, some will be set up to fail with this approach. Mainstream coaches are taught to teach groups in generic exercises and drills, in a "one size fits all" manner. They are not specially taught how to teach to the needs of the individual horse or the rider. This is a systematic issue deep in our equestrian culture that filters down through every level.

Hence, there is still a groundswell from numerous riding clubs, dressage clubs and pony clubs where sound knowledge of progressively strengthening, and conditioning a horse is seriously missing. Students are still being asked to... "get their horses 'round and on the bit" regardless of age, strength or physical conformational issues. Further, instructors rarely have the time or group skills to give the broader gymnastic process of how to do that in a way that respects the nature of the horse. Yet, horse welfare is often promoted as being paramount - while in reality this is a fashion to give only lip service to an ideal that has no legs to make it a reality.

Third, the common 'breaking in" process for starting young horses leaves a huge gap in a horse's basic education, and a rider's expectations of time frames in their rush to 'get in the saddle'. Owners of young horses have the idea that they can send their horse away to a 'breaker' and after 4-6 weeks they will be able to ride a 'made' horse. This not only puts huge pressure on the trainer to perform, but unfair pressure on the horse to submit and desensitise to all manner of obstacles in an unreasonable time frame. In addition an inexperienced novice owner (particularly if they didn't attend most of the training) will put themselves at risk faced with the challenging task of educating a young green horse.

It's my feeling that competitive entertainment events such as "The way of the Horse" do nothing to help the welfare of horses, worse, I think they damage it. Making a competitive race of breaking in a young horse is a regressive step to the whole idea of thoughtful education, and can create safety issues by sending flawed messages to 'would be trainers' about how 'quick & easy' it can be.

Last, there is a mountain of mixed messages and confusing contradictions on 'mouthing' methods. Where can we find a clear, consistent and coordinated education on what to do?. How can I help my horse to accept the bit? You can google it and find a thousand different approaches and advices (from all levels of riders) on how to achieve this. Using side reins, tie downs, drilling circles, sawing the reins, fixing hands into driving legs, pulling, sponging, repeated half halting and so on. Or, you might - if you search with words like respectful, classical, work in-hand - get 20 or so examples on how to do it differently with a more classical and respectful approach with your aids. You might even come across the in-hand flexions and the practice of mobilising the jaw in the School of Lightness - Ecole de Légèreté.

I ask myself why did I spend a few hours writing this article when I could be out riding my own horse? I don't really know. Perhaps because my desire to help all horses is greater than my desire to help myself. Also because I want to save you the time, money and frustration that I spent trying to learn these lessons.

I think its good to ask questions - particularly why and how questions. Listen to your horse. Is there relaxation or tension? Is it light or a wrestle of wills. Does what you're being asked to do make sense to you? Does it seem fair to the horse? Follow your gut feelings. Take a little time to learn about how a horse works and the impact our actions have on their body and biomechanics.

Learn how to apply useful and effective rein aids. In our school, we have different rein aids for different effects: for opening the gullet, for extending the neck, for bending the neck, for straightening the shoulders, for lightening the contact, for seeking the contact, for rounding the poll. There are many nice kind solutions to common problems. There is no need to use force or gadgets. For example, upward rein actions, not backwards. Lifting the reins, not pulling. This is the most logical way to create healthy gymnastic training for the long term healthy balance. Nothing useful comes from training in tension and resistance. Be kind to the horse's sensitive mouth, to save the tongue and the fine bars underneath, and this way we can create a dialogue of communication and understanding.

An over flexed horse will have a tendency to work in poor posture, on the forehand, either leaning on the hand or coming behind the hand. Without the mechanism for natural shoulder movement, the horse's impulsion and rhythm will suffer, and important qualities of balance and straightness (that we need for collection) will be hard to find. And with blocked shoulders, no amount of kicking and pushing will bring the hindquarters underneath. It's a simple thing - open the fingers a little, carry the hands in front, and open the gullet and go forward. It may be just a few inches, but with freer shoulders you will allow the horse to express his best movements and balance. You might just feel something you've never felt before.

The hands help to create relaxation and balance. It's the beginning of the story. Not the end.

It would be nice to hear your thoughts and experiences with this.

Happy Riding.


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