Supple Mouth ~ Supple Mind, by Alison Short

Monday, March 25th, 2013

As a judge first impressions truly count, the first movement and mark of a test can often prove a theme that runs throughout.

As you cast your eye over the next competitor you are always searching for the perfect centre line, straight, fluent, balanced but often all of this is over shadowed by the wriggling nose often the first indication that communication between horse and rider is compromised.

“The smallest of changes make the biggest of differences!”

Understanding the correct acceptance of the contact is key to obtaining submission and flexibility both physically and mentally.

If the horse stiffens against the rein or drops the power from leg to rein there is little if no submission. This first basic need is often overlooked and the feel that the rider must learn to relate to can be numbed by a lack of sensitivity in training.

Having an image you can relate to and a feel to recognise will hugely influence your progress.

“If you’re finding it physically challenging then you are definitely doing it wrong!”

The balance between leg (the power flowing forward) and contact (the ability to hold the rein neither pulling back nor giving away) is an art not a science, it’s about learning to “feel”. understanding this in a context that you can apply to any horse is easier than you think.

Imagine a river the water flowing freely, this is the power from the horse’s hind legs, with no restraint the water is forward thinking, now build a dam and imagine the power of the water starting to funnel its way through the gap as it narrows the waters path, this is the influence of the contact.

If the dam closes the flow of the river completely the water will push against this barrier eventually forcing its way through, but if the dam allows a steady flow of water to smoothly run through the dam, it will maintain the flow without losing the structure. If the contact that is applied to the horse is immediately restrictive then resistance is created, but if you allow a controlled flow then the horse learns to attain a balance between power (water) and contact (the dam) with a submissive and happy mind.

If you have ridden an excitable horse at the top of the downs that can’t wait for a gallop, then you will know that holding it back completely can result in problems, yet allowing some of the power out in a controlled fashion will result in a controlled release of energy, this is the same balance between energy created by the leg and a correct feel in the contact.

The goal is to achieve a balance that the horse becomes submissive and understanding to, leading to a feel in the rein that has a smoothness and acceptance, with the horse moving the tongue on the bit which is now no longer drawn onto the lower pallet by a restrictive contact. (The tongue appearing to the side or bottom of the mouth can often be a result of an incorrect feel by the rider in early training.)

To test this theory there is a simple exercise you can experiment with, the importance of a good balance between horse and rider is always important and whilst this exercise is not going to take you out of walk it also gives you ample opportunity to develop a “conscious competence” and ability to communicate with your horse without disturbing your core stability.

To sit effortlessly in balance the correct position of your pelvis is vital, image when you’re on your horse that your pelvis is a pale of water, now find the neutral position where the water inside your pale sits level, then tip the pale forwards and imagine you are gently pouring the water out of the front.

This angle can be brought back through to neutral and to tipping the pale back in upwards transition’s, you will find this so useful especially on the less forward thinking horse.

Now bring the elbow to the side of the ribcage and gently nudge your elbows to your sides, this will aid your awareness and feel to their correct location. Keep the weight down in the elbow’s, imagine you have weights hanging off of them, leaving the forearm feeling light but located.

The shoulders should remain open and supple, the chin level and your neck in the back of your collar with your eye level up.

Imagine the connection you make to your horse is focused on your seat like sitting on a peg, like a Lego man, trying to keep a relaxed connection with the upper thigh and let the lower leg hang, toes in, heels out and a straight line hip to heel. The foot should sit parallel to the ground without tension through the heel as this will lighten and tighten the connection to the seat.

“Creating a supple circle of contact”

If your aiming at competing at the lower levels then you will need to ride your horse in a snaffle, most of them have at least one joint and a double link creates a more supple feel through the rein. The connection as a rider you make to the rein (as discussed earlier) makes a big impact on what feel you get back. Imagine the connection back from the bit up the rein and through both your arms to your shoulders, (imagine these as another pair of bit rings), then your shoulder blades

being the mouth piece of the snaffle, creating a supple circle of contact.

“A rigid connection through your shoulders to the rein is like putting a straight bar bit in your horses mouth”.

If the shoulders are tight and the forearms rigid then the circle through the horse’s mouth and down the rein and through your shoulder blades has created a fixed feeling, creating a restriction in the contact.

Remember the dam (contact) is only going to allow a steady flow of water (power) through, if your horse is against the rein even at the lightest of contact don’t be tempted to wriggle your hands to get him to drop his head.

Remember the horse coming down the centre line wriggling his nose! Once this method is practiced it’s a hard (but not impossible) habit to undo.

Now you have achieved your rider position and contact lets asses your horse’s reaction to the contact.

“Inside leg to outside rein is often referred to, what type of connection is made to the outside rein is the difference between resistance and submission!”

Keeping both hands symmetrical and wrists about six inches apart try keeping your left rein still and flex your fingers in your right hand, try not to change the flexing reins position in relation to your other hand drastically.

How reactive is your horse to the lightest of aids to gently turn his head to the right?

If he is tight and against the rein use a firmer aid but always with an elastic feel not a snatching hand, repeating this exercise in halt or walk will improve his reactions and equal suppleness can be achieve in both directions.

At this point you can make tiny pulses within the connection to the outside rein if your horse’s reaction to flexing goes beyond the desired point, just so he understands that the outside rein creates a gently boundary, thus aiding balance and a supple connection to the outside rein. This technique will prove invaluable when on the move in walk, trot and later canter, it is a tiny adjustment and will not work against the bend but aid the bends subtlety.

The outside rein aid is thought of as a constant connection and is referred to in many books and hours of training, yet the feel that is achieved through this rein is key.

Too much restriction in the outside rein will lead to stiffness and a restriction of the paces and head tilting can often be created or swinging of the quarters. Equally, too little connection can lead to falling out through the outside shoulder, a loss of engagement and balance. Think about a speed boat with an engine on each side of the rudder, if both engine’s out put is not the same the boat will not remain straight but will veer off in one direction, this is what happens when bend is not subtly supported by the outside rein.

As an example; if you are riding a fifteen meter circle and you start accurately but find that half way round your horses is falling out, as much as you use your outside leg he continues to fall out, this is because your outside shoulder has slipped forward and now the connection to the outside rein has been lost.

This is why it is important to make the link between body positioning above your horse and outside rein contact, if you know that you are prone to twisting to the inside  in one direction try making your circle have at least one straight step every quarter to realigned your outside shoulder, keeping your outside shoulder over your outside hip.

This is where the tiny adjustment by feeling the outside rein will counter act the loss of the outside shoulder, keeping the horse as a whole in the corridor between power coming forward from behind to the contact, the reins subtlety acting to guide the power elastically forward.

“A supple horse is a happy horse and with this theme running through your work resistance will be at a minimum.” 

None of us are faultless but next time you have resistance issues reflect on your fluency between power and contact, a horse restricted in order to be prepared for a movement is held behind the contact and so will become tense and strong, a horse who understands how to stay in front of the leg in the steadiest trot and light in the rein will find each challenge stress free.

Alison Short ~ BD Judge ~ Freelance Dressage Trainer ~

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