I'm an adult intermediate rider who recently purchased a well-trained, 6-year-old warmblood mare. I sent her to my trainer for three months so he could help me get to know her. I rode her there, and she was obedient and willing, although I often rode with a German martingale. Now my mare is home. During any request for trot or when I take greater contact with the reins, she rebels and sticks her jaw into my hand and braces against me. I've been told to correct this behavior by asking for more forward motion with my leg while I take the reins. But the mare braces against me until we've gone about halfway around a 20-meter circle. Then she produces a lovely trot in a lovely frame, flexed beautifully over the poll. My trainer insists I fight it out. Is there a gentler method I could use or should I sell her?
It is sometimes said that "you hold what you push and push what you hold," and it is true that you have to be able to "push" through a resistance. It is also axiomatic that what you see and feel happening in front of you reflects what is or is not happening behind you in the "engine room." To this extend, your trainer does have a point, although I do not agree that you have to "fight it out."
Assuming that you have eliminated other potential sources for problems, such as incorrectly adjusted tack or an ill-fitting saddle (often the source of major problems), it seems to me that you have a real trust issue here.
Your horse must have complete trust in your hand, and, of course, your hands must be worthy of that trust. She must not feel that she is restricted by your hand, but must actually learn to follow it. This will enable her to stretch into the reins and look for the bit so that she learns to lengthen her topline, bring her back up and truly engage her hindquarters. This will become the cornerstone of her training and the foundation for collection and more advanced work.
You used an interesting turn of phrase when you wrote, "During my request for trot or when I take a greater contact with the reins. . . ." The first rule of thumb that you need to remember is that the rider keeps the contact--the horse makes it. The amount of contact through the reins may vary considerably, especially between degrees of collection or extension of the gait. A strong contact resulting from resistance usually is due to the horse experiencing some loss of balance or misunderstanding the aids, leading to confusion, which in turn, leads to tension and loss of confidence and trust.
The horse always tells us how much contact she needs at any given moment. What is essential is that we, as riders, recognize when the horse needs our support and not only provide it, but also back it up with enough leg to help her through her problem and keep her going forward until she figures it out and relaxes.
As a result, when you ask your horse to trot, you must not be increasing the contact. If the contact increases, it will be because your mare momentarily needed some support from the rein. In this case, your hands must accept that increase and be ready to reciprocate instantly when she softens again by yielding at the poll and relaxing her jaw. Indeed, your whole training program throughout the levels is going to be based on this principle of correction and reward. Horses generally like to please. If you make your horse comfortable when she is right, she will do her utmost for you. So, yes, there is a gentler way to overcome your difficulties and for you and your mare to enjoy each other.
Here are some guidelines to help you develop a great relationship with your mare. Follow these strategies, and it may not be necessary for you to take the ultimate, irrevocable step of selling her.
At the walk, when you first start out on straight lines, pick up the reins, feel your mare's mouth, but do not pull. Keeping your hands still, urge her forward into the bit. The moment you feel her yield in her jaw, you must give the reins back to her. Remember that the stillness of your hand is relative to her mouth, so your hands must follow just enough to accommodate the movement of her head and neck at the walk. If you have not kept a steady contact with her mouth, you won't feel the moment that she softens. When you do, you must literally push your hands forward toward her mouth from your elbows, so that the reins hang in a loop for a moment.
After a few repetitions of this process at the walk, she will get the idea that if she responds to a light pressure from the reins, she will be rewarded instantly, and you will be ready to do the same thing at a trot, but this time it will be on a circle. Don't worry if you encounter some resistance in the transition (remember not to increase the contact), just go forward to a working trot on about a 15-meter circle and invite your mare to bend laterally. Do this by keeping a light, following contact on the outside rein, inviting the bend with the inside rein. You should not in any way jerk on the inside rein, but you should ask for this flexion in a positive, authoritative way. It may be necessary for you to squeeze the rein as if you were squeezing water from a sponge.
When asking with one rein, the other needs to be kept perfectly still so that it acts in a supporting role. On no account should hits become a seesaw action as this will serve only to shorten your mare's neck--as opposed to showing her how to use it by stretching her topline--setting up further resistance.
The moment you feel a response to the inside rein, you must give it back. Loop it in the same way you did with both reins at the walk. This should be done repetitively so that the horse learns to hold the bend on her own and does not spring back as soon as you offer the inside rein. When you take her off either rein, it should be for just two or three strides at a time. Don't leave her in limbo. Remember, this is just her reward. Her comfort zone must be when she is on the rein, not off it. Do this in both directions, making sure that you have confirmed the horse's response (and yours) before you change the rein, and you will find that she will start to stretch down, follow your hand and look for the bit. You will soon discover that longitudinal suppleness is inextricably linked to lateral flexibility. Try to keep her round as you stretch her down so that she does not simply go on the forehand.
Once your horse remains soft and steady in the bridle on the circle at the trot, you will be ready to do the same thing at canter. However, the circles should e a bit larger at the canter and you should not expect as much lateral bend, especially in the neck. You will discover a definite connection between your ability to take your mare off the inside rein and her ability to relax and stretch her back under the saddle.
Throughout this work, it's important to remember that you must keep the horse going forward, she must say in front of your leg and always work from behind. Monitor her balance constantly so that your efforts to keep her forward do not make her run or otherwise put her on the forehand. Note that if a horse is round enough, she can go with her head quite low and not lose balance. The tempo and rhythm are critical as is the quickness of your response.
Once your mare is comfortable within each gait, you will be able to apply these same principles to the transitions. Not only is the procedure I have described the premise on which your training program is predicated, but it also will be the basis for your daily warm-up. When you get to the point where this is virtually automatic, you will be able to maintain a steady contact once the warm-up has been completed and use further exercises to bring your mare's shoulders up. She will then have complete confidence in your hands and be ready to go to both reins, but it still will be in the fine print of your contact that you will maintain the dialog and continue to reciprocate when she softens to your hand.
Jeremy Beale is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medalist. With his wife, Jan, he teaches FEI level dressage at their Pen-y-Bryn Equestrian Center, in Chester Springs, Pennsylvania. The author of Eventing in Focus, he also designs tack for his company, Laser Equestrian Products.
Reprinted from the January 2001 issue of Dressage Today.