I had one of those moments recently, in a lesson, when it feels like I’ve been handed a giant sapphire. Jewels! Riches! Treasure! It hit me hard, and made me want to stop everyone I know (okay, and strangers in the grocery store too) to say “Guess what I just learned! Did you know about THIS??”
Consider your shopping cart hijacked. I do remember that you all ride better than I do, honest, so bear with me if you already know this.
The short story:
I learned how to feel when a horse has the correct head and neck carriage for his confirmation and level of ability. And it’s easy! If you want the transcript, read on. If you already know all about this, I bow to your superior knowledge and tip my helmet.
Spoiler: this is also a reinforcement of why riding behind the vertical, or even ON the vertical – on certain horses – is not a good thing.
One of my trainers is a strict classically trained dressage rider, and instructor. She has a very impressive list of accomplishments, but out of respect for her reputation, I won’t say who she is. I certainly never tell anyone I ride with her. I would never embarrass her like that: “JANE?! She rides with YOU??” It would be ungrateful. Trust me, I’m grateful.
One of the horses I ride locks his head and neck into a beautifully classical frame all on his own, so he can back off behind, hoping I won’t notice. He’s smart. If he looks like he’s doing it, maybe he can slide by? He’s definitely on the bit, but he’s not relaxed or properly engaged.
Pretty much he’s a Golden Retriever, the bit is a nice stick, and he’s going to carry it around properly in his mouth for you, no matter WHAT you say, so please do your job and hold onto the reins like I’m showing you, okay?
“Greta” watched us go through the weird not-right but looks-fine position in the walk/trot/canter.
“Stop. Enough.” She holds up her palm, “Come.” I go to the center.
Greta gently hooks her fingers through the snaffle rings, and says “I’m going to lift his head up. Tell me when you feel his back tighten.” She lifts his head in nearly imperceptible increments until I say: “Now!”
She looks up in surprise. This tells me just how bad I am. She didn’t expect me to be able to feel that, because I don’t ride like I can feel it.
“You are absolutely right. His back was just beginning to tighten.” She lowers his head half an inch or so. His back relaxes.
“You feel that?” she says.
“Yes”, I say, “he relaxed.”
“Ja. He relaxed. This is important. You see now how much lower his head is than when you were going around? THIS is correct, what he has now. You will see pictures, and people will tell you his head is not right, but they are wrong. This horse must never carry his head above right here.” She nods toward his poll.
“You must know this point on every horse you ride. It will be different on every horse. And you must not let anyone tell you it’s wrong. He is locked up now, Ja? Someone tried to follow a picture of how he should look instead of feeling how he is built, how he must work. He is suffering and he does not trust he can be comfortable.”
I nod. I try to imprint the position in my body and visualize.
“What would have happened if I kept raising his head, past when his back got tight?”, Greta asks.
“His back would drop, and he wouldn’t be able to use his rear and come through?” I say.
“Ja ja. Good.” She looks even more surprised. (There must be a huge discrepancy between what I know/feel, and what I am actually capable of DOING. She looks surprised a LOT.) “This horse, he likes to throw his head up and freeze when you ask him to use himself, yes?”
“Yes.” I say.
“Your job is to catch him before he can even begin to tighten his back. It is too late once his back has tightened. You don’t want to be fixing problems, you want to prevent them. So what will you do now, when he starts to throw his head up?”
“Um. Give him more room in front, drive him into it, and soften?” I’m guessing.
“Ja! Good. Don’t think ‘Drive’ with this horse.”
I open my mouth.
Greta says, “I know. This horse is lazy, but he is also afraid, so you must think ‘encourage’ instead of ‘drive’. Always getting rid of the fear comes first. If he even thinks about relaxing his neck you praise him.”
She moves a little. “Now feel this”. She does something without changing the height of his poll. “What happens when I do this?” she says.
I can’t see what she’s doing, but I feel it immediately. His back tightens. His shoulders freeze, his anxiety level ratchets up.
“His back tightened again, worse.” I say. “His shoulders tensed up.”
“That’s right, but his head did not go higher than before, yes?” She moves again and his back releases. “So these are the two things. First, I put his head too high, and he cannot use himself anymore. Then, I put his nose behind the vertical, only an inch behind, and he cannot use himself again even though the height is now correct, you understand?”
“Wow.” I say. His back tightened that much with his nose only a little behind the vertical?
“Ja. See, we do not care if this particular horse goes a little in front of the vertical. A little in front of the vertical is the correct position for his confirmation, just like the lower neck position. If you take this away and make him look “right” then he stops being a dressage horse. He is not free. He is locked up. If we can free his movement, the rest, it will fall into place.”
She reiterates, something she rarely does, so I know this is very important:
“Feel always his back, first check that his neck is not too high. If it is okay, then give to the mouth, even if he is not on the vertical, you will know it is right for him when the back and neck can relax. I don’t want you to throw him away, but better this horse has too much room than not enough.”
I’ve tried the lifting exercise on every single horse, to determine where their sweet spot is. And it’s worked every time. Even my roping buddy Hudson is relaxing. Dressage. Who knew you had to FEEL it?