Gain Neck, Bend Control in Dressage

A student of German dressage trainer Conrad Schumacher explains his system for positioning your horse's neck, allowing you to channel his energy for better overall control and bending.
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Neck Control

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"Neck control is horse control" is a common quote from Conrad Schumacher. By neck control, he means the ability to position your horse's neck at any length or height. More importantly, with this capability, you can control your horse's shoulders, which enables you to control and channel the energy created by his hind legs. So as a result of neck control, you can control your horse's hindquarters and his entire body. However, use of the term "neck control" is risky because it can sound like backward riding or riding from front to back. At clinics, I sometimes hear murmuring from spectators who probably misunderstand what Schumacher is teaching, but you'll never see his students fiddling around with the horses' front ends and nothing happening behind.

True neck control isn't possible unless you ride your horse actively forward, and he accepts contact by drawing on the bit. The horse's back is like a bridge that carries him and you, and the neck completes the bridge. All the energy created by going forward from the hindquarters to the bridle makes your horse's back strong and develops those muscles that create the bridge. Without energy through the neck, the bridge is out and you can't do anything. So this energy to the bit is a prerequisite.

There also is a rider prerequisite. You must have a decent-to-good seat so you don't need to balance on your hands. Positioning your horse's neck will enhance the contact with his mouth, so your hands need to be good enough to quietly receive the power from his hind legs. His will allow your horse to draw on the reins, then whatever you do with your hands has a negative effect. After mastering these principals, you can work on bend control, the key to straightness and collection.

If your horse stops going to the bridle, the bridge of muscle from his hindquarters to the bit is out, and your half halt only gives you leverage against the neck, so he raises his neck, drops his shoulders and hollows his back. This gives the feeling of having more horse behind you than in front of you as in the illustration. If this happens, you need to drive your horse to the bridle and lower his neck with correct contact to create the proper bridge.

On the Forehand

In the beginning, developing neck control usually involves lowering your horse's neck. When his head and neck are down, you are in a position to positively influence him because half halts bring his shoulders up and strengthen the bridge. Your horse's shoulders, along with his head and neck, are part of his forehand.

Some people misunderstand the term "on the forehand," which refers to the shoulders being down, regardless of where his head and neck are positioned. Many times when a horse's head and neck are up, his shoulders are down. Even though he appears "up," he is definitely on the forehand, (see illustration). When his shoulders are down, your half halt only raises his head and neck and pushes his shoulders down more -- further breaking the bridge.

To ask your horse to lower his neck, you need to develop two skills: First, jaw flexion and tilting the crest of the neck; second, initiating a stretch to create connection in a lower place.

Exercise 1: Tilting the Crest of the Neck

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  • STEP 1: I began by halting Graf, maintaining contact so he continues to draw on the reins. Only then can my rein motion be supple in the exercise. I bend my right wrist so my knuckles point toward my left hip (inset). I do this with a flexible, gliding motion.
  • STEP 2: After Graf's crest flips to the right, I straighten him and bend my left wrist toward my right hip. The crest will flip left. Remember that the crest of neck tilt supples the jaw. You're not bending the neck.
  • STEP 3: Still at the halt, Graf is correctly reaching for the bridle, drawing on the reins, so I allow him to chew the reins out of my hands, gradually lengthening the reins inch by inch. Graf closes his eyes because this is relaxing for him.Flexing to the inside and tilting the crest gets your horse supple in the jaw -- the first step toward neck control. Until he yields in the jaw, he can't properly bend in the body, so this exercise is important preparation for bending exercises. It also will prepare you for the 20-meter bend needed for Exercise 2: Lowering the Neck.As you work on Exercise 1, remember that it is a quiet exercise. Flexing your horse's jaw very slowly one way and then the other, you should expect your horse's crest to flip -- a quick, involuntary action -- from one side to the other. Typically, the crest wants to be on one side or the other and flips more easily in that direction.

    The feel you give to your horse's mouth throughout this exercise is key. To help with the feel, sometimes I'll ask a student to make the reins long so the horse's mouth isn't disturbed. Standing in front of the horse, I hold the reins near the bit and have the student pretend his hands are the horse's mouth. I bend my wrists and "flex the jaw" to show him the smooth, gliding motion that his horse should feel.

Exercise 2: Initiating a Stretch

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  • STEP 1: To begin to initiate the stretch at the trot, I flex Graf's jaw to the inside, close my legs and drive him to my receiving hands. My driving aids increase the contact without increasing the tempo. I think about channeling Graf to a receiving bit that he seeks.
  • STEP 2: When Graf has increased the contact, I move the bit about an inch lower and more forward. Graf has learned that when he increases the contact, I will be flexible and yielding.
  • STEP 3: I confirm the connection in this lower place with a slight half halt, which tells him to wait a little. It's a natural half halt within my body with just a little resistance. My seat becomes more stil and deep, and I sit taller.The second part of gaining neck control is initiating a stretch to lower the neck. The traditional stretching circle in the competition tests is a major giveaway to whether your horse is honest to the bit. It proves that your horse continually seeks the bit when you push the reins forward. Many people want to improve their stretch circle, but the success of that movement is directly related to the basic work: When your horse is supple in the jaw (from Exercise 1), and you've worked to build the bridge with honest contact in trot, your connection will become solid, and your stretch circle will be great.

Bend Control

Conrad Schumacher says, "The weakest rider is stronger than the strongest horse if the rider is able to bend his horse honestly." By this, he means the horse should be supple enough to bend equally in both directions, change smoothly from left to right or go straight at any time. When you are successful in controlling your horse's bend to this extent, you have a supple horse who is not able to resist, and you are able to make him understand and do what you want. With correct bend, you also are on your way to a higher degree of straightness and collection, which I'll discuss later. Indeed, you'll see that bend is the basis for every movement through Grand Prix.

If you achieved a degree of success with the neck-control exercises, keep working on them and start to incorporate the ideas from this section about bend control. But, because neck control is a prerequisite to bend control, let's review the basics of neck control:

  1. Build a Bridge -- Before you're able to control the position of your horse's neck, he must work from his hind legs, through his back (which includes his neck) and draw equally on both reins. His energy surges from back to front, and it builds a "bridge" of muscles that carries both him and you.

  2. Tilt the Crest of the Neck -- If your horse draws equally on the reins, you can tilt the crest of his neck left or right. This prepares you and your horse by suppling his jaw softly in the direction of travel with a smooth, gliding motion of the inner wrist. Be careful not to overbend your horse at the base of the neck, which is an ever-present challenge because he is naturally more supple there.

  3. Initiate a Stretch -- Finally, you can lower your horse's neck by asking him to initiate a stretch to make the back-to-front bridge of muscles round and strong without losing contact. When your horse is this secure, you easily can move his shoulders in front of his hips to achieve a higher degree of straightness. Then your half halts lift his shoulders, lighten his forehand and transfer weight to his hind legs. This is the principle of leverage and the basis of collection.

Let's begin learning about bend control by talking about straightness in the Training Level horse. Then, after lower-level straightness has been achieved, we'll discuss how to develop correct bend and show how it gives us a higher degree of straightness.

Training Level Straightness

I want to make an important distinction between two different degrees of straightness. Training Level straightness occurs when your horse goes equally to both reins because he is working equally with both hind legs.

At Training Level, we basically are riding straight lines and very large circles. Since your horse's haunches are wider than his shoulders, his haunches actually may travel a bit to the inside when he is going equally to both reins. He is straight within his own body, but he is crooked when compared to the side of the arena.

The second, higher degree of straightness involves being able to put your horse's shoulders in front of his haunches. This requires a horse that is supple. It is also necessary for your horse to be bendable.

Achieving Bend

You've probably noticed that your horse bends easily in certain places, such as at the base of the neck. Bending in other places -- the jaw and the muscles behind the saddle -- is difficult for him. That presents a problem because correct bend is equal bend throughout the body.

In order to achieve the correct bend and a higher degree of straightness, you'll need to control the places in your horse that bend too easily in order to access the places that are stiff. But many people make the mistake of using the inner arm instead of the wrist to get jaw flexion. This will overbend the horse at the base of the neck, put his shoulders too far out and plunge him onto the forehand. If the horse is overbent in the neck with his shoulders falling out, the rider can't achieve equal bend throughout the body. He needs to stabilize the base of the neck before he can access stiffness in the jaw or the rib cage.

When your horse is working equally into both reins, you can supple and position his jaw in the direction of travel by bending your inside wrist so that your knuckles point toward your opposite hip. Using the wrist is softer and more supple than using the arm.

Lateral exercises give you the opportunity to loosen your horse where he is inclined to be stiff. His jaw loosens because of the flexion, and his muscles behind the saddle loosen when his hind legs cross over. Figure-eight patterns also will supple your horse everywhere because he must constantly change the bend and balance from right to left. Correct bending on these circles brings your horse's shoulders in front of his haunches.

The position of the rider determines the position of the horse. Schumacher describes the rider's bending aids as the "twisted seat." Your inner seat and leg are relatively forward, and your outer seat and leg are a bit back. Your hips are parallel to your horse's hips and your shoulders are parallel to his shoulders. The quiet strength of your position controls your horse's bend. Over time, with suppling and bending work, your horse will carry himself with much more stability and confidence.

Conrad Schumacher has been teaching Jennifer Baumert since she was a Young Rider more than 10 years ago. A former Gernam National Dressage Team member, Schumacher has coached European Championship, World Championship and Olympic riders. To date, Schumacher's students have won 37 international medals. He is currently the coach of the British Dressage Team and a USDF Advanced Young Rider clinician.

This article is excerpted from the two Dressage Today articles "Neck Control" (December 2001) and "Bend Control" (January 2002).