Thursday, January 28, 2016

Lesson Recap: Unlocking the Neck

The indoor arena at the farm where Eventing Trainer is based out of was one of several in the area that collapsed last winter. They began construction of a new one over the summer and it was finally open for business the last week of December! The mild and warm winter that we were so far having had been fortuitous because we could keep riding the outdoor (so long as it was daytime) well into December, therefore I didn’t miss any lessons due to a lack of indoor! We had sort of a slush storm followed by single digit temps easier in the week though, so the outdoor is now officially a no-go and we had our fist lesson in the farm’s new indoor. 

(Not the beautiful new indoor - just the tiny normal one)

It had significantly warmed up by Saturday, however, so there was snow and ice sliding off the indoor roof during our lesson and it was spooking Maggie a bit. As I was taking off her cooler and setting it on an unused standard in the corner, a giant slab of ice slid off making quite the racket. Maggie startled at it and jumped just enough to step on my foot. I think it was the horse equivalent of a scared kid running over and jumping on their parent for comfort during  thunderstorm. So that gives you a little bit of an idea about Maggie’s mindset - she was a little on edge.

I warmed up by myself while Trainer watched and she noticed that Maggie was a lot more awake and more forward than she had ever seen her before. She also said that I was keeping a much better rein length and better contact than I had been during warmups for previous lessons - so that was good. Since Maggie was so forward right off the bat, we could spend the lesson working on channeling the forwardness instead of creating it for once!

The next step, now that we have forwardness and pushing from behind, is to channel that energy over her back and into the contact, closing the circle of energy and finally creating the true contact that we’ve been lacking. Aside from the lack of forwardness in previous lessons, the other thing that has been inhibiting us from closing the circle of energy has been a lack of suppleness in Maggie’s neck, so that’s the main thing we worked on during this lesson. 

I'd say this is a pretty typical 'frame' for Maggie - though she very much bobbles from over and under the bit.

Now, a very important disclaimer: The only reason we could fuss with Maggie’s neck was because she was already forward and we didn't have to work on that. Forward is always the first step. If we focused on her neck when she wasn't forward then we would be riding backwards,and we all know that’s not good. As long as Maggie stays forward we can work on her front end without riding backwards, but the second that she loses forwardness then it has to be regained before going back to working on the front end. 

To supple Maggie's neck my trainer first worked the bit in her mouth by holding my reins and walking with me. I had to use my leg to keep her forward. The idea was to move the bit around in her mouth enough to get her to drop at the poll and stay forward so she would lengthen and unlock her neck. I was leery about this at first because it was a whole lot more rein action than I'm used to using. Definitely not ‘quiet hands’. 

Maggie hasn't really been told yet where she needs to position her head and I need to help her figure that out. What I'm doing at this point is saying "Hey - not ok to brace yourself - give me my reins back and hold yourself up”. The action is to move my elbows ever so slightly behind my hip instead of moving just my hands.

At first I said it felt odd to me because I wasn't giving Maggie any release. Trainer said that's because she hadn't earned it yet. It took a while for Maggie to figure out what I was asking, and for her to relax and give with her neck, but eventually she did. When she did I had nice constant contact in both reins, the feeling of nice a workmanlike trot that was pushing forwards instead of up and down, and the feeling that I actually had control of her outside shoulder.

When we got that connection I could also ask her for some real bend on the circle just by flexing my inside hand and keeping my outside rein steady and outside leg behind the girth. Like with jumping, I can't throw away my reins. More so, I can't let Maggie snatch away the reins. Also, when I feel Maggie picking up more contact I can't let the reins slip. I need to teach her that I determine the rein length, not her, and she needs to maintain contact. What I can do, is be more flexible in my elbows and move my whole elbow forward and in front of my hips to allow Maggie to go more forward but remain at the same level of contact. 

This lesson opened up a whole new step in our training, now that we finally have the ability to get past simply needing to be forward. I’m excited to be at that next step of asking for more from Maggie, but I have to admit that the amount of rein I was using at times made me a little uncomfortable. I really trust this trainer however, and she assured me that she wouldn't be telling me to use that much rein if she thought I was going to over do it. I think she’s got me pegged as a contemplative rider, which I certainly try to be.

I feel like perhaps some people (just people in general, not thinking of anyone in particular) might raise an eyebrow at using so much rein. I sure did. It just doesn't seem very 'dressage'. Sometimes I forget though, that with a green horse you might have to “shout” your aids before you can “whisper” them. I look forward to the stage where I can have that nice soft connection with Maggie - I just have to learn how to get it and help her build the strength to keep it.

Has anyone else had to get past a hurdle with a green horse where you’ve needed to teach them to accept contact and soften their neck? How did you achieve it?

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  1. Don't be like me, it took 6 years of fighting to get Tristan to relax his jaw and neck consistently. Sigh. Eventually, what unlocked it was control of the shoulders, which he then could not use to fling me around and not let me have access to his neck.

    1. What kind of exercises have you found worked for you to be able to control the shoulders?

  2. At this point in Moe's life, I can't call him "green" (lolz), but we have been working in a similar way for the last few months! I went to a dressage clinic on him last fall where the clinician had me doing exactly what your trainer is doing, and I had some serious mental side-eye about wiggling the reins so much. It's definitely helped, though- Moe is more willing to accept the contact and ends up being much steadier when you give him a gentle reminder with the reins every few strides.

    1. Ha! Mental side-eye is the perfect description!

      That's really comforting to know that someone else has gotten recommended this same method and used it with success!

  3. honestly, my biggest struggle in starting dressage was learning that what i imagined the quiet soft rein connection would be was totally wrong - it's a lot more contact than i thought. maybe it's bc i'm not very educated or refined as a rider yet - but multiple trainers have had me use WAY more hand than i would have thought to use on my own. and actually it's also why my solo schooling rides often don't get the same results, bc i want to be 'softer' or 'quieter' with my hands. one trainer was very clear tho: don't confuse softness for effectiveness. it's a tricky balance, i guess!

    anyway, aside from that small novel, exciting to hear that Maggie is doing so well - and even more exciting that's she's discovering her forward engine!!!! :D

  4. I have tried the more hand and ended up with a movement of the tension from the neck back to the wither. I think some horse shapes find this harder than others.

  5. Useful tips to follow for the horse riding. Thank you for the sharing.

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