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. Here are 10 'habits of the hands' that can make life easier.
1. HANDS MOVE WITH THE HORSE ...not against it
If we stiffen part of our body while everything else, and the horse, is moving… it is worse 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 the rein to be loopy 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 follow the head movement so it moves naturally without interference or pain. In trot there is less head movement, but we still need to follow the changing positions of the neck and head.
3. FOLLOW AND GUIDE THE MOUTH
Young or green horses 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. The hands help and guide the horse to find this new balance.
We may 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 sinc with each other. If you walk out of sinc, 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 preempt and resist the blocking effect of the restrictive contact.
4. PRACTICE POSITIVE CONSEQUENCES
Along with an unsteady head carriage, 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 TRUSTWORTHY CONNECTION
This is not about keeping loose loopy reins to let the horse do what it wants with us. It's about creating a trustworthy connection to the hands that will serve to relax, guide and control the horse’s posture, balance, and straightness. And, despite what some people think - this is also not about the horse being difficult on purpose or naughty - it is simply trying to work out a solution to the problem of the monkey on its back trying to control its every move.
6. USE YOUR HANDS TO TEACH A LANGUAGE
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. So, 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.
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 the 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. Also - in that moment - as the horse is raising its head with the aim to reposition the bit into the corners of its lips, it discovers that we got there first, to already put it there - so there is nothing then to be gained by the horse going higher! The answer is to go down - into a following hand. The positive reinforcement - of our allowing rein - is on the way down. While an unobservant onlooker may think this is ‘holding the head up’ the reality is the opposite, and its effectiveness and outstanding.
9. ENCOURAGE NECK EXTENSION
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 constantly connected with the same soft but positive tension, and trustworthy.
'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: Keep in mind that some horses can lean heavily on the hands, with a downhill tendency, overloading the forehand. With these horses, a different rein aid (a Demi arret) is needed to encourage them to lighten the contact and come up off the shoulders. Often these horses can be more settled in the contact, albeit heavy and unbalanced in the hands. This topic would be for another essay. :)