There has been a very long break in blog writing. I have to apologize to those who have been expecting continuation. I have been busy training horses and people. Within this time there have been plenty of moments, when this subject has crossed my mind. So I think it is also time to voice it out. If you ask me, what would I change in the dressage and riding world in general, if I had only one thing I could change, it would definitely be the way riders see the horse's neck and front and its ridability.
When I was working and doing my practical training at Kyra Kyrklund's in the UK, I learned that the horse's neck is the most important balancing tool a horse has in his body and that the neck always reflects the body. What a rider must do, is to allow the horse to use his neck for balancing himself. Richard White was always telling that even in the most collected frame the horse should have some elasticity for the poll, forwards and backwards (and I might add also up and down). When the horse is able to balance himself in a natural way with his neck, the horse can be responsive, soft and supple to ride. Maybe this is something that all riders somehow accept as a theoretical truth, but in practise we see a lot of approaches which do not look ethical in the light of this knowledge.
So everybody agrees that a horse needs the neck for balancing himself and can be good to ride when he can move the neck. But what happens in the horse's body when the horse is stiff in the neck and front and not soft and responsive to ride?
A horse alone is never stiff in the neck. A horse is always able to scratch his own behind with his teeth. A horse rarely has mobility issues in the neck area (and when he has, those are "man-made"). So why a horse turns out stiff underneath a rider? The cause is always a loss of balance.
When a horse is for instance stiff to bend to the right, what happens in his body is that the center of gravity is on that side of his body, most often too much on his right side front leg and shoulder. To compensate this, he tries to bend his neck to the opposite direction - left. A rider who won't correct this by half-halting and moving the body weight of the horse more to the left will have a difficult time bending the horse to the right, especially if the rider pulls any harder from the right side rein. The more the rider pulls from the right side rein, the more the horse will go out of balance and the automatic balance correction mechanism in the horse's body pushes his shoulders towards that pressure and the head to the opposite side. The horse will feel hard and unelastic in the neck, even tight in the mouth. Somebody might even say that the horse is biting the bit with his teeth. The horse just simply can not relax his muscles in a situation like this, as he would feel very unbalanced and loose the control over his body, if he would. The phenomenon has nothing to do with the horse being stiff in the neck, hard in the mouth (a horse is never unsensitive in the mouth!), disobedient or dominant. The horse is simply not able to react in a different way.
I have Finnhorses for my riding lessons in Germany. I like them, because they are sturdy but not too big so that they can carry almost all sizes of riders. They are steady minded and yet reactive horses. And physically not completely untalented - dressage (and jumping also) can be pretty fun with them. A special thing about this breed is the inherited and genetically coded ability to pull heavy weights, heavier than their size would suggest. A Finnhorse naturally leans on to the front legs and lowers the base of the neck, when they feel a pressure in the front. With this they are able to use the whole of their bodies for pulling the heavy loads in their original use in farm work. Of course in riding it might not come in so handy, because when the rider tries to halt the horse, the horse might all of a sudden go heavy on the contact. Here then the misconception is that the horse is heavy on the hand because of having a hard mouth. A Finnhorse's mouth is as sensitive as anyone else's, he just reacts differently with his body. Therefore it is really important to teach a horse like this to bring the body weight back while halting, to use a light (!) hand, which doesn't disturb the horse's balance too much, and a solid seat to slow the horse down.
A Finnhorse is not the only horse type who has a quality like this. Quite a few horses have a low set neck, also when at first the neck might seem to be higher from its build. And quite a few horses also naturally lower the base of their necks while ridden, instead of lifting and holding it up. Especially when they feel the pressure of the reins. Again the feel to the rein contact is stiff - the lower neck muscles are not soft and supple, doing their job of bringing the shoulders forward, but supporting themselves against the rider's hand. The rider wants to pull the horse "soft" which again leads to more leaning against the hand due to the self-protective-mechanisms of the horse's body, and a pulling contest is ready. Here the answer would be a small or at least quick halt and BIG release - so that the horse needs to neutralize his balance and body position and start to carry himself again without the support of the rider. After some repetitions the rider should feel a lot lighter contact, which then enables a completely different approach in riding.
I could write a book just of this subject - the rider's hand, contact and the mechanisms of the horse's front and body. And it would be a thick one. To gain this knowledge I have, I have also made plenty of mistakes, ridden with a harder hand, heavier contact and used harder bits to gain control. But the more I learn about the horse and riding, the less I want to do in general. The less I need to do. When a horse is heavy to turn, I ride a half-halt and try again. Usually then the turn happens lightly and I don't have to strengthen my contact at all. Less becomes more in more and more situations. Quite often loosing the contact momentarily has a bigger impact than pulling. A horse left alone needs to fix his balance by himself and get more independent, which also means lighter to ride.
So, the next time you face a ridability problem in the front of a horse, ask yourself: "Is the horse's body prepared to do what I am asking?" Fix then the body and allow the neck to sort itself out after the correction. You might feel a difference in the ridability and get to smile and relax more on the horse.
Allow the neck to mirror a balanced and flexibel body of your horse.