Now, while working with George, I remembered this article I wrote some years ago:
It’s very interesting to realize the nuances in the work while using the same method on different types of horses.
The horse in the previous article had difficulties to relax the topline and would easily become tense in the whole body. As a consequence he would become very short and deep as soon as I would hold the reins taking us into a situation that I’m sure is familiar to many: if i would release the reins to allow him to come out of that bad position he would stretch the neck and just run; if I would hold the reins in an attempt to control the rhythm he would get into a deeper and deeper position.This work on the longe helped him tremendously to understand that it is possible to stretch without running. I believe that problems like these are bigger the less the horses are aware of how to use their own body. This “running” happened due to his inability to adjust his balance to the change of position (the lengthening of the neck caused him to shift even more weight to the forehand thus increasing the movement forward as a way to recover balance) and through this longe work, without my weight or aids to interfere even more with his already poor body control, he got the chance to find out how to gradually increase the profile while simultaneously keeping the centre of gravity more behind. Now, I must say, I think the key word is “gradually”! Only so can the horse understand what is happening and adapt to this new position and balance! In many cases the horse will try to go directly to a low position but I find that highly counter productive. At first it may seem to the rider as if the horse “really understood the lesson” but it’s extremely difficult for a horse to come out from such an uncomfortable position as the one with the short and deep neck directly into a correct long and low position. The stretching of the neck causes a big change in the body’s weight distribution which the horse is not prepared to compensate for. That will make the horse feel uncomfortable in that position, causing him to avoid getting into it. It’s a better solution to initially teach the horse to stretch only forward (while trying to keep the same rhythm), not down, since it will be more natural for the horse to keep a good balance and not to place so much weight on the forehand. That makes it easier for the horse to maintain a constant rhythm, allowing the rider to have a soft contact without the need to use the reins as a break, which, in its turn, gives the horse confidence to continue stretching in a manner he finds comfortable.
George’s case is different: he becomes very long against the hand and, as soon as he has the chance (that doesn’t necessarily mean I release) he will completely stretch the whole neck downwards, leaving him with the nose very close to the ground.
This becomes an issue especially in the canter which becomes extremely downhill.
Needless to say this is a bad stretching… This happens both in longing (with or without side reins) and while ridden (with short or long reins) due to lack of “body awareness” and strength in the back. Obviously working him in a low position to strengthen the back was not an option, so I did the opposite: I worked him in a higher frame that, even if far from the one I strive for, allows him to work, get stronger and gradually more balanced.
Unlike the horse in the article I try to have George gradually rounder instead of long since he is already too stretched by himself thus becoming very strong in the hand.
I use MANY transitions between all gaits to teach him to handle the different levels of energy and movement. The canter (especially the first step) is a particularly good moment to ask him to raise the front by pushing from behind.
In a first stage I want to see him long and being able to maintain both that position and the rhythm;
-second stage is to keep the rhythm while changing position (lowering the front);
-third stage is to keep the position while changing rhythm;
-final stage is to change whatever I want without it becoming a chaos :)
It becomes obvious that, the stronger and more balanced the horse is, the less he will lower the neck in such an extreme way.
To achieve this goal I do a mixture of different types of work , both to make sure it doesn’t become boring and also to avoid overworking the same points in the body. The work in hand is an amazing help in this stage by allowing us to keep a closer contact with the horse and, therefore, activating the hind quarters much more. Here is the key to the stabilization of the front, teaching the horse to transport the energy that comes from the hindquarters through the whole topline, causing him to raise the front instead of “diving” down.
Next topic will be about the work by hand, above you see a short sequence that illustrates what happens in terms of balance while working around the handler.