In this gymnastic exercise, you'll teach your horse to yield to the pressure of your inside rein so he:
- Lowers his poll.
- Softens in the jowl area (the crease where his head joins his neck).
- Relaxes his jaw.
- And stretches forward and down.
The result? He creates a little less bit contact on the inside and a little more on the outside. This means he can't brace against the bit as he can when he's perfectly straight, which makes you less likely to pull. Although I don't often like to say "always" around horses, when you flex your horse to the inside right, he always balances onto his outside left shoulder. When you flex him to the inside left, he always balances onto his outside right shoulder.
And whatever movement, figure, or pattern you do in dressage, the outside shoulder is where his balance needs to be. (Note, however, that I'm talking about softening and flexing his jaw and jowl; I'm NOT talking about bending his neck. When you do that to the right, he's not so much balanced on the left as leaning or bulging, which we don't want.)
When you learn to soften your horse's jaw whatever his sport, and whether he's young, green, or simply "uneducated," everything else you do with him will become easier, more correct, and more productive with this training tool. He'll be even more supple and responsive when he's bending, steering, and turning. And the relaxation over his topline that results will allow and encourage him to step forward from behind with increased energy and reach.
Here's What You'll Do
I'm actually going to start off by telling you what you won't do--which is get on your horse. About the worst place to start teaching him to flex and soften his jaw is from his back. Why? Because you, his rider, tend to complicate and confuse matters with your weight and with distracting attempts to stop, start, turn and steer. That's why you'll do this exercise standing on the ground, in front of him, with your thumbs hooked through the bit rings. Not only is it safe and sane, it gives both of you a chance to isolate and understand this one individual aid under very quiet, controlled circumstances.
How handy, basic, and useful a training tool is this? I teach it to green babies and to strange horses I'm about to ride--no matter what level of "training" I'm told they have. I even use it to run a quick daily check and reminder on my Grand Prix horse, Harmony's Cassiano (this exercise's model).
Soften His Jaw from the Ground
Tack up and get ready to ride. Then back your horse into a corner of his stall, the wash rack, or some other enclosed but familiar place where he can't back up but won't feel trapped. Put the reins over his neck and stand directly in front of him. Assume a balanced, secure, but relaxed position, with your knees a little bent, one foot slightly forward, and one foot slightly back. If he pushes or shoves, this solid stance will be your best defense against getting tossed. Stand quietly for a moment and take a deep breath to center yourself and settle.
1. Standing in front of Cassiano in the wash rack, I hook my thumbs through the bit rings and ask him to soften and flex to the right by ever-so-slightly rotating my left knuckles toward his left shoulder.
2. This is how you want your horse to look: very calm, with his eye soft (Cassiano almost looks half asleep), the under-muscles of his neck relaxed, and a nice "rainbow" of muscles starting to emerge along his topline.
3. Cassiano flexes even more to the right (but no further than the point of his shoulder) and you can see that he's still only flexing in his jowl. His neck is still coming very straight out of his shoulders; his perfectly level ears tell you he's not tilting his head to evade the softening.
4. This is a really goooood stretch. Cassiano's nose doesn't need to touch the ground to tell me he's softly flexed right. He's not tipping his head, his jaw is relaxed, and he's nicely stretched over his topline. At this point, I can soften my contact, allow him to straighten, tell him he's a good boy, then ask him to flex back the other way.
Now that he's got the idea and you've got the feel, you'll try it from his back, first at the halt and later at the walk, trot and canter with the rest of this exercise from my book.
In Build a Better Athlete!, dressage rider/trainer Leslie Webb shares the progressive system she's developed to "gymnasticize" her horses whether they're green youngsters or advanced horses. Her 16 exercises will benefit any horse. To order, visit www.EquineNetworkStore.com.