Set in Stone?
Posted by Lorraine on Jan 21, 2012
Does your horse set his neck? If he does it can feel as if you’ll never get him to bend but don’t despair! Before you head out to buy yourself some weights to build up your arm muscles take a look at where the tension is coming from and why.
Your horse could be setting against you for any number of reasons. It can be hard to believe when he appears to be doing his best impression of a rhino but there’s a good chance it comes from your hands.
The source of this tension usually lies in your horse’s lower jaw or at the base of his neck. If your hands are fixed or heavy he’ll set his jaw against them. Try it. Grit your teeth together and smile. Feel how the tension spreads to the front of your neck? If that’s what he’s doing his bottom line will be more developed than his topline.
If your horse started setting his jaw and tightening his bottom line then there’s a good chance you’ve tried to ‘get him off your hand’ by squeezing one rein and then the other. (That’s putting it mildly!) Don’t feel bad – most riders have done it. BUT tighten your jaw again, smile and then move your head from side to side and tilt your chin up. NOW you’ll feel the tension move to the back of your neck and settle at the base. If he’s doing this you’ll see a noticeable dip in front of his withers.
You may well be reading this thinking “But HE started it!” Maybe he did but unfortunately he’s a horse and so you’re the only one who can stop it!
In the case of the tightened jaw you need to look at your balance. When a horse starts to set themselves most riders lean back. There’s a big difference between leaning back and pulling up. Check out this post which shows you how to sit up and stay balanced to help your horse - http://www.schoolyourhorse.com/2011/10/29/pull-up-to-ride-forward/
When you lean back your weight goes to the back of the saddle and often your legs swing forward. This does two things. Firstly it puts direct pressure on one point of your horse’s back –that’s going to make him tighten his back. Secondly it means you’ll lean back against his mouth. Without realising it the one thing you’re doing to try to stop the problem could actually be causing it.
Pulling up through your body puts you in the perfect position for your horse to carry. Imagine if he was to disappear from under you. If you’re balanced then you’d land on your feet and stay upright. Lean back and if he disappeared you’d fall over backwards – which is exactly how you feel to him all the time you’re on his back.
Pulling your horse’s head to one side won’t make him bend. He needs to bend through his body. To bend his body you need to ride him from your legs. The emphasis in these exercises is on your legs not your hands so it’s important you keep them together and still.Remember your horse can only set on something if it’s solid. Hold the rein between your thumb and first finger so they don’t get too long but open and close the other three to keep your contact soft.
Trotting round and round the school either large or on a circle won’t help your cause. Your horse needs to get mobile. To do that you need an exercise that moves him from one rein to the other and allows him time to relax in between. Try this –
In walk or trot go large. Introduce 10m figures of eight at K, H, M and F that consist of two 10m circles joined by one stride on the centre line. These will get your horse moving and bending through his body. It’s vital you don’t pull back on your inside rein. As you approach the marker turn your body onto the curve you want to take and look ahead. Your hands should move round with your body – think of using them as a pointer to tell your horse where you want him to go. As you touch the centreline ride one stride straight and then turn your body the other way taking your hands round with you.
Your hands keep your horse’sshoulders on the right track and used by the girth your legs keep his quarters behind them. (Move a leg back and you’ll be pushing his quarters over and he’ll be crooked) What should change is pressure. Your inside leg should become stronger to push his body out and round. If he starts to step sideways then ‘catch’ him with your outside leg and push him forward.
As you ride straight on the centreline your leg pressure becomes equal. As your body turns to the new circle your new inside leg pushes his barrel out towards your outside leg again. In this way you’re taking what was a rigid barrel and making it pliable by pushing it from one leg to the other.
Put this theory to the test by setting your own jaw again. Now move your own barrel from side to side (you may want to try this behind closed doors!) You’ll find whether the tension is in your jaw or at the back of your neck it starts to disappear.
One figure of eight at a time is enough. As you continue to the next marker make a conscious effort to push both hands an inch further forward. You’ll find as he starts to use his body your horse will start appreciate that extra bit of rein as you straighten up on the long sides and without realising it his neck will soften.
It’s easy to feel frustrated when your horse sets himself against you but you can never win a battle of strength.However – you are more intelligent. Try to remember that the next time you lean back ready to take a pull!
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.