Have you ever noticed how difficult it is to concentrate when you are anxious?
On the other side, have there been days where you are relaxed and focused and have been able to learn and achieve more than usual?
If you do yoga, then this is a great analogy to feel what it is like for a horse that needs to stretch into a physical position in order to develop their strength and flexibility.
Relaxation improves your ability to isolate muscles and stretch. Anxiety, a threat response, shuts down the thinking capacity of the brain to reserve energy and tightens muscles ready for working hard, which makes flexibility difficult. This is why breathing is so important in yoga!
This concept of relaxation is perhaps one of the most underused techniques in horse training! This step is often skipped straight to getting the horse “on the bit”.
My daughter was at a major horse exposition one year having a riding lesson with a very prominent trainer. “Get his head down”, the trainer instructed my 10 year old daughter, as her pony was ridden around on a light contact with his nose unrestricted to poke out.
Looking back on that video of the riding clinic, I thought to myself, is that how the majority of young riders are instructed to get their horse “on the bit”? No wonder there are a great many problems between horses and riders as they dutifully take on board that advice. The same showjumping trainer also introduced the class to a technique to get a flying change in canter by heading on the diagonal towards the corner of the arena and blindly praying that the horse would automatically change the canter lead by default in order to avoid a counter canter as they turned the corner. A method that also now makes me wince.
Another year at the same horse exposition, I was pleased to see another prominent international trainer taking a different approach to the standard teaching method. The clinic was meant to be a jumping demonstration. But there was going to be no jumping until the horses had become more relaxed and the riders were able to lighten their contact. All I can say was that there was very little jumping in the demonstration.
We’ve all seen horses with a bulging partoid gland (near the throat latch), and have perhaps become used to that being the norm. That bulge is an indication of stiffness and tightness in the poll. It is not a good thing. The atlas (the first cervical vertebra) needs to be supple in order to have flexibility and relaxation. Any pain or discomfort in this area is a “lock down” event for your horse. There can be no good progress in their biomechanical development without easing the tightness in the structures around this area.
Sometimes we have to go right back to the basics and start again (or start off this way right from the beginning would be even better!).
Let’s look at the stretch down exercise as way to loosen the all important structures of the atlas and poll. It is absolutely fundamental to training a horse to be relaxed and supple.