Thursday, March 22, 2012

Cession de machoire

As it comes out I was operating on a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of what a jaw flexion is in dressage terms. You see, I was told at one point in time that a jaw flexion was a slight rotation of the head to the left or right. In classical dressage, it appears, "jaw flexion" is just another way of saying "mouthing the bit."

Huh.

My last post on jaw flexions brought up Philippe Karl, a person I decided I needed to do some research on. So I went to the library and got a copy of "Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage." WOW, what an interesting book. According to French classical dressage, horses that brace their necks (like Coriander) and have a hard time taking up contact (like Coriander) are often clamping their mouth shut. If you can get them to relax their jaws (by mouthing the bit), the poll, neck, shoulders, and back will follow in due course.


"Since the horse's mouth receives the action of the hand, it is the mouth that the rider must persuade and have yield from the outset. The horse displays its agreement to talk with the hand by softly mobilizing its tongue and lower jaw. When the horse "tastes" its bit in this way, this allows the rider to ask for variations in attitudes in the following order: lateral neck flexions, extension of the neck and poll flexion."

-Philippe Karl, "Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage"

Interested, I decided to dig a bit deeper and went to the source: Francois Baucher's "New Method of Horsemanship" (free for Kindle).

"The head and neck of the horse are at once the rudder and compass of the rider. By them he directs the animal; by them, also, he can judge the regularity and precision of his movements. The equilibrium of the whole body is perfect, its lightness complete, when the head and neck remain of themselves easy, pliable and graceful. On the contrary, there can be no elegance, no ease of the whole, when these two parts are stiff. Preceding the body of the horse in all its impulsions, they ought to give warning, and show  by their attitude the positions to be taken, and the movements to be executed. The rider has no power so long as they remain contracted and rebellious; he disposes of the animal at will, when once they are flexible and easily handled. If the head and neck do not first commence the changes of direction, if in circular movements they are not inclined in a curved line, in backing they do not bend back upon themselves, and if their lightness is not always in harmony with the different paces at which we wish to go, the horse will be free to execute these movements or not, since he will remain master of the employment of his own forces.


From the time I first noticed the powerful influence that the stiffness of the neck exercises on the whole mechanism of the horse, I attentively sought the means to remedy it. The resistances to the hand are always either sideways, upward or downward. I at first considered the neck alone as the source of these resistances, and exercised myself in suppling the animal by flexions, repeated in every direction. The result was immense; but, although the supplings of the neck rendered me perfectly master of the forces of the fore-parts of the horse, I still felt a slight resistance which I could not at first account for. At last I discovered that it proceeded from the jaw. The flexibility I had communicated to the neck even aided this stiffness of the muscles of the lower jaw, by permitting the horse in certain cases to escape the action of the bit. I then bethought me of the means of combating these resistances in this, their last stronghold; and, from that time, it is there I always commence my work of suppling.


The importance of these flexions of the jaw is easily understood. The result of them is to prepare the horse to yield instantly to the lightest pressure of the bit, and to supple directly the muscles that join the head to the neck. As the head ought to precede and determine the different attitudes of the neck, it is indispensable that the latter part is always in subjection to the other... That would be only partially the case with the flexibility of the neck alone, which would then make the head obey it, by drawing it along in its movements. You see, then, why at first I experienced resistances, in spite of the pliability of the neck, of which I could not imagine the cause. The followers of my method to whom I have not yet had an opportunity of making known the new means just explained, will learn with pleasure that this process not only brings the flexibility of the neck to a greater degree of perfection, but saves much time in finishing the suppling. The exercise of the jaw, while fashioning the mouth and head, brings along with it the flexion of the neck, and accelerates getting the horse in hand."

-Francois Baucher, "New Method of Horsemanship"

Huh.

It appears that I've stumbled into the major discrepancy between classical dressage and modern, competition dressage. I imagine modern dressage looks at this method and exclaims, "They are riding the horse from front to back, heresy!"

But is it? Is it really? When modern dressage relies on contraptions like the crank noseband to keep the horse's mouth shut- by people who claim to ride "from back to front."


When horses are literally coating their chests in foam because their parotid glands are being squeezed empty from the hyperflexion of the neck- by people who claim to ride "from back to front."


Which method do you think the horse would choose?

Glenshee Equestrian Center has a post on jaw flexions too. Check it out.

30 comments:

  1. I hate that picture - poor horse. I readily admit that this level of detail you have noted is a bit over my head, but I would think that having the horse ride front to back is the way to go, no? In my mind, if you relax the head, neck, shoulders everything starts to fall into place. Even with humans, you start at the head, shoulders, etc. when you are having a massage or chiropractic adjustment.

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    1. See that's the thing, it's actually a pretty simple concept- it's the syntax that makes it seem difficult. That and the fact that some people call it "Baucher's tricks."

      Good point about starting massages, etc. at the head and neck.

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  2. I'm sure the horse would choose to not have his neck cranked to his chest so he can't breath. I love Phillipe Karl and his methods. I have the book and all his videos are excellent too. I've read Baucher too. It boggles my mind that there are so many excellent books on humane training methods and yet we see the riders of today absolutely torturing their horses. Why bother to even ride if you feel you have to treat your horses so inhumanely?

    Great explanation of flexions. It seems such a simple thing and yet there are very few trainers/riders that do it correctly. Glenshee put up her thoughts on this today too. Great minds think alike I guess.

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    1. Thanks for telling me- I just added a link to her post.

      I don't know why people don't use more humane methods. Oh wait- maybe I do. Shortcuts get the job done faster. Incorrectly, but faster.

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  3. I wish there was a like button for this post! I'm glad you put up the definition, I tend to do jaw flexions how I was taught, but then I don't really think of exactly *why* I am doing it or what the goal of them is. If you ever get the chance to ride with Clay Wright, you should do it. I know he travels a fair bit, though he's located in Utah. He is my favorite dressage trainer ever, he uses french classical techniques but he rides western :) I think I really need to hurry up and get more of Karl's books and maybe Baucher's too.

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    1. I linked to the free version of Baucher's book on Amazon- you don't need a Kindle to read it, Amazon has a cloud reader that you can use.

      I'll look up Clay Wright, thanks!

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  4. I am a runner. If your jaw is tense your whole body is tense and the running is hard!!! Thats why you see runners who are in a rythym with bobbing lower lips...they are relaxed...same with horses as far as I'm concerned.
    I had to search long and hard to find a dressage bridle with a plain padded noseband for a snaffle bit. Everything has a flash or a crank. I like my horse...so I don't strap his mouth shut.

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    1. I was actually thinking about that this morning, when I ran in track meets did I have my jaw clenched? I don't think it was, I'm pretty sure it was hanging open ;)

      And I agree, why is it so darned hard to find a dressage bridle without a flash or a crank? The friesian I ride has both on his bridle- I just buckle them really, really loose.

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  5. This is a weird comment (I apologize in advance) but I remember an article on Lamaze I read before I had my first kid. The article advised the birthing partner to remind the laboring woman to relax her mouth and jaw because there is an "unconscious relationship" to that part of the body and...well, you know where.

    When you think about it, horses do an awful lot of communicating with their mouths...we can tell when a horse has "processed" something sometimes (licking and chewing) and they do a lot of interesting things with their mouths depending on the mood they're in and what they're up to (fleering, yawning, lip drooping, etc). It just makes sense to me that the more we lock the mouth/jaw down that the more communication we'd lose with the horse in the process. Great post--you always find such interesting things to share!

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  6. Great post! I actually don't think you really ride a horse "back to front", it's just confusing language. Of course, you want a horse to bring the hind-quarters under and elevate the forehand, but you start training with rhythm and relaxation - by encouraging the horse to lower it's head and stretch over their topline and then you can use exercises like shoulder in to encourage the hind leg to step under properly and engage the hindquarters etc, so that kinda seems like riding front to back too, I think.

    Nosebands were invented for horses that hunted. If in a fall a horse would open it's mouth it would break it's jaw. Nosebands were meant to prevent that from happening. Horses are hardly likely to break their jaw in dressage, although on second thoughts, when you see some riders work their horses, like the picture above, it makes you wonder...

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    1. I'd heard that about cavessons too. I really wish they'd let you compete in dressage without a noseband, sadly the rules require one.

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  7. great post. this fills in so many holes in what i was trying unsuccessfully to say in mine :-)

    i especially like the point about front to back or back to front. what does that really mean? the back to front thing always sounded so mechanical to me, like putting a car in 4WD or something. what would be so bad about riding the horse as a whole? or maybe, instead of worrying about back or front, horses are meant to be ridden more from the inside out, beginning with their state of mind, their level of relaxation, their attitude toward their work, etc. that would be a novel concept in dressage ;-)

    and like others here have said, it's almost impossible to find dressage bridles without crank nosebands on them, and when i've asked for them, i've actually been sort of rudely put in my place by whoever is selling them and informed that 'well, all the top riders use them!' like i'm doing something weird to my horse by NOT using one.... at home i don't even use nosebands on half of my bridles, or on my hunt bridles they are very wide and i fit them very loosely for that very reason. but so many people just assume that they are necessary because 'top people' all use them, so i must need one too! it's crazy :-\

    thanks for the link, and thanks for the link to baucher's book on kindle! just went and got that :-)

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    1. You're welcome, enjoy it :)

      I like the idea of riding your horse from the inside out, focusing on their internal state of mind. Of course you can't do that if the only thing you can see are ribbons and prize money :(

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  8. My mom and I have always been drawn to the French training method, and our horses are much happier for it. One of our horses was given to us after showing 2nd and training 3rd. We were stunned when we received his bridle and the noseband and flash were STRETCHED they had it on so tight. To this day he will open his mouth while riding, but I refuse to clamp it shut. He is much softer and will manipulate the bit.
    I have always been taught to ride "back to front." To me that is moving energy from the hind end through the body and to the neck and head then back to the rider to start the cycle again. But as a rider I have to be aware of any blockages along the way. Tension in the back,neck or jaw will prevent a working connection and correcting them does not mean you change the flow of energy. As with anything with horses it is about balance and awareness.
    I guess I buy the cheap bridles, because all my nosebands are normal. The noseband and flash, if used, are kept loose since we feed sugar while we ride.
    Really good post. I am glad to see more people interested in these training methods.

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    1. Geez Louise- did they dent his face up too?

      I think you hit the nail on the head with "blockages," of course you want the power coming from the hind end but it's only going to go through if it doesn't hit a roadblock in the front.

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    2. Nothing lasting, at least not physically. We had to give him time off to "lose" the bad neck muscling he developed and then work on building good back and neck muscles. Plus we put him in a thinner bit, since he has a very low palette. Much happier pony now.

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  9. Fantastic post! Thanks so much for the Kindle link. I admit that I'm very confused by the whole thing still but totally fascinated.

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    1. You're welcome, I'm digging the free Kindle classics.

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  10. Wow! Great post! Thanks for the excerpt.

    I think that some of the "back to front" philosophy can become running your horse into the bridle, which cannot possibly be the intent of the phrase. If there are blockages (tense muscles, stiff muscles, mental resistance) in the neck, jaw, or poll, then the horse's back and hindend cannot work properly and the energy being driven from "back to front" can become fodder for more resistance (or an explosion). I do not understand how some horses seem to be able to continue with their training with their jaw clamped shut. Perhaps the really opinionated ones are labeled and rejected. I have found that it is much easier to ride when the resistances in the front of the horse are addressed as equally as those in middle and back of the horse. I have to guess that my horse feels the same way. :)

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    1. Exactly- back to front just becomes using leg, leg, and more leg (and then whip and spur).

      I have a feeling that there are many rejects floating around Europe who just couldn't hack that style of riding.

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    2. I know this is an old post now, but my sister sent me a video of a horse blowing up at the Olympics today and it totally made me think of this! I mean, I don't really know the why of this horse's meltdown, but still I commented to Husband that these blowups seem surprisingly common in dressage...drive drive drive with too much hold hold hold.

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    3. Do you have a link? I'd like to see it. I'm inclined to agree with your assessment- that too much emphasis has been put on how the horse looks instead of how the horse feels. Being in a constant state of stress and tension will cause a horse to be spooky.

      I did also wonder if the horse might have Lyme's disease. It just randomly popped in my head when I read about it.

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  11. Oh and I forgot to add, that my teacher will remind her riders to keep their own jaws mobile and relaxed while they ride. The horse usually does the same.

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  12. Fascinating!

    Barrel horses aren't much different than dressage horses.

    You know, last year I ran into a real problem with some of my horses because I was working too much on the 'back to front'. That resulted in over-built loin muscles and sore backs. I had gotten too wrapped up in driving my horses forward from the hindquarter and wasn't doing anything to get them to lift in the shoulders or relax in the neck and 'face'. Instead of cranking too much on their heads, I wasn't doing anything with them at all. It took my farrier (also a reining horse trainer) mentioning it to me and giving me a few tips to make me remember that I need to actively work on the front-end as well.

    No pressure on the face doesn't always translate into a horse that will relax the jaw, stretch through the neck and lift those shoulders. I had to actively work on getting my horses to do that, but when I did, things started improving.

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    1. You'll find this interesting- in his book, Karl says that many western trainers are actually more true to the teaching of La Gueriniere than a lot of the top European dressage trainers!

      And I hear your point about no pressure on the face loud and clear. I didn't ride my gelding with any sustained contact for the first 2 years and he braces like a 2x4. That's a big reason why I'm learning about this now, I have to actively work on getting him to loosen up.

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  13. Great post, Shannon. I still believe that flexions should come with "warning labels," and require a great deal of tact on the part of the handler/rider. It's a language all its own and easily garbled and misunderstood. In the wrong hands, horses can learn to back off contact completely and go behind the bit, which can be difficult to correct without the skill and tact that was missing in the first place.

    You mention that you were told at one point that a flexion is a "slight rotation of the head to the left or right." It's interesting that you should mention that, because with some horses, that simple action -- a very subtle asking with the hand for "give" is all it takes to mobilize the jaw. For some horses this works even if they've never been introduced to standing flexions, and works better than standing flexions would.

    It's also the key for some riders, who then realize how a very subtle action of the hand can have a profound influence on the way their horses go. This is in stark contrast to the idea of developing contact by trying to feel a certain number of "pounds" in the hand, which is such a popular modern concept.

    As a historical note, Baucher's flexions were all standing flexions (which he presented in his "Methods" as if he invented them and there was no precedent for them, which is not true, and was part of the reason he wasn't accorded the respect he wished during his lifetime).

    Baucher's standing flexions so alarmed Gustav Steinbrecht ("Ride your horse forward and make him straight"), that he had this to say on the topic: "Riders who stand up their horses...and then move their heads and necks to the right and left, up and down, only with their arms, without caring how the remainder of the body turns and bends...will soon have to fight with wobbly necks, insufficient contact, and lifeless paces."

    If you've ever ridden a rubber-necked Western-trained horse who's behind the bit or a dressage horse that's been oversupplied in the neck by a BNT, you'll know what Steinbrecht was talking about! JMHO but this is tricky stuff.

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    1. No worries- my next post will have the "warning label."

      It's that subtle give I was trying to do with Coriander and you saw how well that was working for him (not at all). Maybe Gwen will be more receptive to it.

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  14. I'm so glad that you haven't given up. As I've said before, you are tactful, so you're safe experimenting. When we get together, I can work with you on this, and we'll figure out how to help Coriander get the "lightbulb" moment.

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