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Training Basics: Tips to Self Carriage

18 August 2011 No Comment

Training Basics: Tips to Self Carriage
by Lynn McEnespy

Dear Lynn:
I have a problem with getting my horse to lower his head, arch his neck and raise his back, thereby being able to carry my weight and his own in the most efficient way. I ride him in a very mild snaffle bit and Australian saddle. He is 17 years old and I am wondering if it is practical to try and change his way of going at this time in his horsey career. Can you please advise me on what can be done.
Thanks, Charles

Hello Charles:
You are wise to question if you should attempt to change your horse’s way of going at 17 years of age. Most people are well intentioned in their training techniques, however in many instances, the horse’s natural ability to comply with our requests is not considered. For example, someone interested in long distance trail riding may very well have an excellent conditioning program and be a very dedicated, conscientious rider, but the 2,000 pound Shire simply would not be able to do what is being required.
That said, I would recommend you evaluate your horse’s attitude to see if he is working in a comfortable and happy state – regardless of his head position. Two things that should be ruled out are saddle fit and any teeth problems. Both can cause serious discomfort and cause the high head position. If you are unclear on how to do this, you should contact your veterinarian who should be able to check both saddle fit, test for back soreness, and examine your horse’s teeth and bit fit.

You indicate you use a mild snaffle bit, however you should check to see if there are any signs of wear in any of the joints that may cause pinching, or if the bit is too wide or too narrow. Usually, there are other signs of resistance, “attitude”, etc. accompanying either or both of these situations. Conformation will also dictate how your horse naturally travels and where he carries his head.
If you think your horse will benefit and you want to try change how he carries himself, there are many ways to get a horse to lower his head and hopefully, as a result, raise his back. I should point out that methods that involve the use of some type of draw rein almost always fail as the end result is a horse that is over bent at the poll with the face behind the vertical, on the forehand, and hollow backed.

In dressage, horses are taught to stretch down and reach for the bit into a steady, elastic contact when they are first started. This is done on a longe line and under saddle. I have found longing over ground poles at the walk and trot quite beneficial in getting a horse to “round” his back. The key is to keep a quiet, steady tempo and not let him run or loose balance. They will almost always lower their head and neck and raise the back in this situation. If your horse insists on rushing around, you might be better off trying to accomplish the task mounted.

Since your horse has probably been going with his head up for some time, you will have to be patient while he re-models his muscles and develops the response to the bit you desire – meaning lower his head. Each horse is different, however to start out try the following work program:

Place 4 or more poles on the ground at a comfortable walking stride apart for your horse. Walk over the poles with the reins stretched in a light contact following the horse’s head motion. Lighten your seat in the saddle and hold him with the calf of your legs to encourage him to round his back. Observe the first couple of times if he is inclined to lower his head. If so – great! If not, persist. Try flexing his neck to one side as you cross the poles and offer to let him stretch. Generally, this will be more successful on one side than the other. Eventually, he will get the message.

The next step is to get him to keep the stretch after the poles. Lightening your seat, stretching the reins with low steady hands, and holding your calves on his girth are the aid you develop with the help of the poles. To keep the stretch, maintain your position after the poles just as if there were more to step over and see if you can prolong his response. You can experiment with how much hand and/or leg is required to be effective.

If you can achieve this at the walk, you can also try the same exercise in trot. Again, your horse must not rush across the poles but stay in balance with a steady tempo. I must admit, this can be frustrating with a hot horse that wants to stick his nose in the air and just leap the whole thing, but perseverance will prevail.

You may also be able to create this same affect by working him on a large (20 meter) circle in walk or trot and asking him to flex his neck inward for a few strides then offering to let him stretch down in the same manner as across poles. This can also be successful with outward flexion for some horses. The key is to allow the stretch down at the very slightest indication and then build on it. Most dressage instructors will use this technique.

Hopefully, your horse will respond to your work and find this new position more comfortable. If you have instilled the correct response to your aid, you will be able to effectively change his position.
You can also effectively raise your horses back by scratching his tummy. If you take your fingers and scratch behind where the girth is, he will pick up his back. This will take a little experimenting but they all do it. My horses love being scratched with one of the plastic pitch forks and it is amazing how hard I have to scratch. This ground work can help develop this response and also stretch his back prior to work.

This basic work takes time and repetition but the results are very beneficial. The horses that are the most difficult are usually the ones that need it the most. Good luck with your horse and hopefully this program will help you and him.

Click here to find out more about Lynn McEnespy.

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