With the more advanced, well-balanced horses, we were asking for a bend in the direction we were traveling, then releasing it and asking for it again. With the greener, weaker horses, we would switch the bend frequently, walking a very shallow 's'. Each horse had a tougher side and an easier side, so every time the rider would switch directions or switch sides, s/he would have to tweak the approach in order to continue achieving softness.
This technique of asking for flexion and a slight bend, then releasing the request and asking either for the same bend again or for the opposite bend, allowed the horses to start learning how to release and re-release over the topline while moving. This allowed them to push from their hind ends and have the energy flow all the way through their bodies without getting stuck.
The need for softness in the neck in order to promote correct forward motion was the most striking with one particular horse. Maxx, a 4 year old (almost five!) gaited gelding, has a tendency to pop his shoulder to the left under saddle. On the ground, this manifests as a tendency to lock his jaw and upper neck to the right, meaning that instead of gently turning his head right and shifting his ribcage left when the handler lightly lifts the right rein, he instead likes to pop his neck right and his shoulder left, overbending at the base of the neck and staying tense behind his ears. This, of course, completely disconnects his hind end, so that at first, whenever we asked him to track right in the warmup, he would take a few steps and then stop. In order to work through this pattern, his rider, Greg, would have to bend him left just before he got stuck, then go right again, over and over, to show him how not to lock on that side. (Oscillation releases tension - I learned this from Peggy Cummings, creator of Connected Riding™ .) We also did some cheek presses (a Connected Groundwork™ technique) to help him release at the poll, and Greg had to be aware of supporting the horse through the left rein while asking him to bend right to prevent him from bowing out through the shoulder. What was so incredible was how quickly Maxx learned. Once Greg was able to identify the balance mistake that Maxx was making, and help him correct it, he was more than happy to keep walking. We didn't have to 'get after him'; we just had to show him how to do what we were asking him to do.
The exciting thing about each and every lesson was the change in the horse's attitude once the rider helped them become softer in the neck and more balanced through the body. Each and every horse dropped their head, breathed deeper, and became less spooky. Furthermore, these changes carried through to the rides. It was a windy day, and though each horse came to the riding area alert and slightly nervous, each horse stayed focused as long as their rider was asking them to release and lengthen into the contact.
Kolbra, a 15 year old Icelandic mare, took to in-hand work very quickly this season, and has learned a lot from it. Her conformation lends itself to being heavy in the sternum and base of the neck, but after only a couple weeks of groundwork (and, truth be told, a winter of bodywork), she was ready to take that lesson directly to riding. Here's a picture of her reaching into the contact under saddle:
This weekend really reinforced for me the importance of three things: consistency, ground training, and prioritizing softness. By working with their horses almost daily, in a few short weeks, Greg and Kara were able to transform the way their horses responded to the aids. By explaining to the horses what they wanted in hand, they were able to easily achieve it under saddle. And by asking them repeatedly to release and re-release their top lines, gently and softly, they were able to get them moving from the hind end, without chasing or intimidating them. It was truly inspiring to see four very different horses agree on one thing; when your rider helps you let go of your tension and find balance, it feels really nice!
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