Why ask the horse to lower his head?
Can't he strengthen his back and haunches without assuming this position?
Riders learn the correct seat position over gymnastic grids. Horses learn to use their body correctly and to 'bascule' over the fence.
If your horse carries you along with his head high in the air and his back dropped down he will likely show some signs of discomfort such as tail swishing, pinning his ears, bucking or a reluctance to move forward.
Much of this comes from pressure on the kidneys. If you hollow out your lower back while sitting or standing you will feel the same pressure in your lower back on your kidneys that the horse feels. Even when you return to a normal position you will likely feel a lingering pain.
Now image you have a heavy backpack on your back. Your natural inclination would be to carry the load farther up on your shoulders and round you back. This allows you to carry the pack without injuring the rest of your body. It is the same for horses. We have to teach our equines to carry their riders effectively so that we don't injure them.
It is important to build your horse's back and loin muscles so that he can support the weight of the rider.
Image credits: sustainabledressage.net
The horse pictured above is having a hard time stretching. He is not SEEKING the contact as you can see from the reins hanging. His nose is slightly behind the vertical. He is not stepping enough underneath his body with his hind legs. The rider needs to push him forward with her legs to get the trot more active. Then she can take up a steady rein contact. She must continue to push the horse forward into the contact so that he will take the bit and extend his nose forward and down.
The correct forward seat is taught before we ever begin to ride over fences. It is important that the rider is able to transition from the dressage seat, to the light seat to the forward seat effortlessly so that he can stay with the horse in all phases of the jump and correctly balance the horse on his way to the fence.
Gymnastics rows or Jumping grids are a useful tool for both beginning jumpers and experienced horses. Older horses benefit from jumping grids to solve certain problems, like rushing the fence, bad take off points, poor leg position over the fence, arcing incorrectly over the fence, drifting, confidence issues, rhythm and many other issues. Riders learning to jump are able to better to feel the rhythm of the horse, get in the correct position over the fence, build confidence and much more!
<-- To the left you can see a rider performing a 'bad stretch'. The horse's nose is pulled behind the vertical and his pelvis is tipped up, causing the hind legs to drift out behind the horse instead of underneath him. This causes more weight to be pushed onto the horse's shoulders and does nothing to improve his balance or musculature. Pulling the horse's head back forces the withers and shoulders down and causes the horse to put more weight on the front legs. This is called 'riding the horse into the ground'. It is important to have a qualified instructor watch while you stretch your horse and tell you if the stretch is being performed correctly and to the horse's benefit.
Have you ever walked your horse up a hill? Have you watched to see how he moves his body? The picture on the left shows a horse walking up a hill. The horse tightens his abdominal muscles, engages his haunches and lower back and brings his hind legs farther underneath his body. His pelvis tips underneath him and he lowers his head. You do the same thing when you walk up a steep hill. You may hunch over slightly, tighten your abs and use your butt and legs to carry you up the hill. When you get to the top you think "Boy! That was a good workout!".
In the Natural Training Method we build horse and rider's confidence and skill over fences with jumping grids.
When we "stretch" the horse or ride him long and low, we seek to engage these same muscles. We can't spend all our time riding our horses up hills. We have to recreate the hill work in our daily routine and teach the horse to carry himself with the strongest parts of his body - the core and butt muscles. We ask the horse to assume the position of walking up the hill to activate the correct muscles.
Once he learns to carry himself well and has build these muscles, then we can ask him to do harder things, like raise his head while still keeping the core and haunches engaged, or change his balance, change direction, move sideways, etc., while still keeping the correct muscles engaged. The lowering of the head is a natural response to engaging the core at first. It is only with time that the horse can become strong enough to lift the head and still keep the core engaged.
The horse lowers his head slightly before take off so that he can coil back on his loins and use the power in his haunches to spring off the ground energetically.
Every training session starts with stretching the horse. Just as you warm up your muscles before you exercise, your horse must do the same. The first 10 minutes (either lunging or riding) are spent at the walk on a long rein if possible. The horse should be asked to stride forward actively, overreaching by at least one hoof print.
After 10 to 15 minutes you can begin stretching the horse at the trot. The horse should be trotted forward energetically with an even contact on the reins and asked to stretch FORWARD and down. The nose must be at or in front of the vertical. The horse should step well underneath his body with the hind legs and lift the back. He should be in an active relaxation and SEEKING the bit.
Once the horse is warmed up at the trot in the stretch, you can move on to cantering. Most horses prefer the rider to be in a 'light' seat so that the horse can fully round his back under the rider. The horse should also be asked to stretch at the canter and asked for transitions forward and back within the gait.
Jumping is also a great way to engage the loin muscles.
Once you're able to get your horse stretching in all 3 gaits you're ready to move on to riding the horse in a working frame.
Active relaxation and the ability of the horse to carry his own body correctly are required for anything you want to do with him. Gradually, we ask the horse to work in a higher frame. It requires more muscular effort for the horse to keep his back lifted and carry his head in a higher position. It demands that the horse take more weight on his hindquarters to balance the lifting of the head and neck.
You must give your horse a break and allow him to stretch forward again every 2 to 5 minutes. You'll be surprised how motivated your horse will be to work for you when he knows that he will get a chance to relax after intense concentration. When you can help the horse with his balance you will be able to influence him to do whatever you want.
Good stretching vs Bad Stretching
The horse on the <-- left is in a 'bad stretch'. The horse on the right --> is in a good stretch. Some people mistakenly think that riding the horse "deep and round" will lift the horse's back. Riding the horse with his neck pulled to his chest and his head behind the vertical causes the spine to fold up on itself and forces the horse onto the forehand. Photo credits: SustainableDressage.net
Stretching over trot poles is particularly helpful for a horse with a weak back. It helps to build the back muscles faster by engaging the hind end more. It also schools the horse's balance and coordination.
Training Show Jumpers
What if my horse doesn't stretch?
If your horse isn't used to stretching under the rider then you must first teach him to stretch and lift his back on the lunge. For this you will need a 'Chambon'. The chambon allows full freedom of the head and neck down, forward and sideways. If the horse lifts his head too high he feels the chambon push the corners of his mouth and will be inclined to lower his head. The lowering of the head allows the spinal vertebrae to open and for the spine to be more mobile. It helps the horse to 'lift' his back and support the rider. It also straightens out the neck vertebrae and lifts the withers, allowing the front legs more freedom to swing. When the horse lifts his back, he engages his abdominal muscles which in turn tilts his pelvis under, allowing the hind legs to step farther underneath his body and eventually accept more weight onto the hindquarters.
Why do I need to 'stretch' my horse?
To the right --> you can see a horse before he was ridden and lunged in the stretch and just one year after. The musculature in his top line was weak. He did not have the right 'carrying' muscles to support the rider. His haunches were not round and muscular. His abdomen was sagging and the base of his neck was under developed. The after picture shows the same horse who was only ridden and lunged in the stretch. He was not asked to do high level collection. Just the stretching exercises at an active pace allowed the horse to put on the correct muscles. As a result, he will stay sound for longer and be able to do his job as a riding horse better.
Even when you're asking the horse to work in a higher frame you must still keep the quarters and loins engaged, the horse stepping under himself and the back lifted. This horse pictured is working in Piaffe, a very high level of collection. The photo on the <-- left shows the back dropped down, the pelvis tilted out, the hind legs moving up and down, but not under the horse. You can see the strain on the horses left front leg as it supports all the weight of the horse and rider. His loins are not engaged.
The horse to the right --> is tucking his pelvis under. You can see the back rounded, supporting the weight of the rider. The withers and base of the neck are pulled up, He is stepping well underneath his body, transferring his weight to the haunches. The left front leg is not under strain because the hinterhand is lowered and supporting the weight.
Keep the Back Lifted
$35.- One Lesson on your horse
Lessons are either a 30 minute private, a 45 minute semi-private or a one hour group session.
If you need a horse to ride during your lesson you can use a lesson horse for a $30 fee per session.
Lessons are available weekday afternoons and on weekends.
Private one hour sessions cost $75
We have lights in the arena for sunset rides!
Please arrive at the arena with your horse 15 minutes prior to the lesson start time.
Walking your horse for at least 10 minutes before you start trotting is required to warm up his muscles, tendons and ligaments. It is also important for your horse's mental well being. Additionally, it allows you to assess your horse's state of mind and determine if he needs to be lunged for you to have your best ride.