This week I've been focusing on a particular theme when riding. It has been helpful in itself to simplify things down to one key area, which was the relaxation of the horse's jaw. We know that the horses mouth should be relaxed and chomping/salivating, accepting the bit without tension. But when was the last time you really checked how relaxed his jaw and jowl is in response to your rein pressure? When you ask for flexion left or right, how quickly and easily does he react to that pressure down the rein? He should easily turn his head at the poll left or right, but if you have to pull harder to get him to respond, the bit pulls through the mouth too much and the whole neck has to bend just to get some sort of movement, he isn't truly relaxed in his jaw.
I was brought to this seemingly obvious, but difficult, realisation when I took Bertina (6 yrs old by Dancier) for a lesson with Emile (Faurie). She does have a difficult mouth, I never really knew why exactly but I knew she would always lock against me whenever I asked her something. I usually worked through it but without knowing exactly what the problem was. When I started my lesson with Emile, I thought she was nice and round and soft in the neck - a good start. However he immediately told me to halt, and her jaw locked and neck stiffened when I did. He knew it would too.
He explained to me that the softness doesn't come from the neck muscles as such, it starts with the mouth. He showed me that I could make her as deep as I wanted, but she would only come behind my contact (still with a locked jaw) and not be through. The key was to flex slightly in the halt, focusing on how she felt in the mouth, and massage the corners of her mouth (I've heard people say that a thousand times but admittedly only truly understood the meaning of it then!) until she gave and I could walk her forward into that soft, elastic contact that we all so desire.
That is the first step, achieving that contact in halt. The it can be moved on into walk, trot and finally canter. And what happens when the horse relaxes the jaw, is that they stop pulling or resisting the reins and balancing on the hand for support, and start to use their hindquarters to propel themselves forward in their own balance and therefore have self-carriage. It is essential that when the horse does give in the flexion/softening of the mouth, you push the horse forwards to create more energy for a better connection. And then, the elastic yet constant contact is needed for the horse to stay connected to the bridle, allowing the hind legs to push through into that soft mouth you've just created.
I feel like this is like rocket science to explain written down, but honestly it is quite simply all about the connection. The hindquarters are engaged and pushing the horse through over the back and into an elastic connection with the rein, completed with a soft, relaxed jaw that willingly receives positive pressure down the rein. The horse will then salivate and get a foamy mouth, which is either closed or quietly and inoffensively playing with the bit. Basically what happens when this connection isn't created, you will find that when you come with your leg it is received with tension in the mouth and a pulling/resisting horse, often with its mouth open.
Or, on the other side of the scale, when you come with your leg, you receive nothing in the hand and the horse ignores you resulting in what we call "the lazy horse". In my experience of training "lazy horses" and teaching riders who struggle to get their horses to go forward, all that is needed is some connection down the rein so the rider's leg aid can be received and answered. Too often riders throw their reins at their horse and kick, kick, kick, thinking that because they aren't pulling the horse is going to go forward. This is not the solution, and as strange as it feels for the rider to take up the rein and hold a contact on a horse that doesn't go anywhere, as soon as they start to communicate with the mouth and create relaxation, they are amazed at how freely the horse can swing forward without much leg, only by keeping that soft, communicative contact down the rein.
After this lesson with Emile when all of this stuff dawned on me, I applied it to the other horses and in particular Julius, one of the Small Tour horses. Good Lord did it make a difference with him! He has always had the weirdest contact ever, mainly because everything he knows is what I've taught him since I was 15 so theres plenty of wrong lessons he's had to learn. But just by releasing his jaw (trust me, it felt impossible for the first couple of days) he is now consistently starting out his session soft, through, not pulling or resisting, and we are banging out our movements like clockwork. Miracles can happen!
So readers, next time you ride your horse, just take a moment in halt to feel how he is in the mouth and jaw. You may be surprised... I certainly was!