Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Relaxing the jaw

I'm not going to presume to tell you how to do the exercises designed to get a horse to relax their jaw, you can't teach what you don't know, but I don't want to leave everyone hanging. So here are some helpful resources to get you started:

"Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage" (expensive but worth it)
"The New Method of Horsemanship" (free)
"The Education of Horse and Rider" ($7) 
"Equitation" (free)


WARNING:
There's a fine line between using flexions to get the horse to relax and accept the hand and using them to abuse and dominate the horse. I feel confident that those of you who regularly read this blog are not at risk of using these techniques to abuse your horses, but since it appears that so darned many people have fallen into the trap of misusing these flexions *cough ROLLKUR cough* I'm going to add a word of caution.

As an example, here are two methods of relaxing the jaw I pulled from Baucher's book.Can you see how these methods could become dangerous and abusive in the wrong hands? Gently moving the bit in the mouth to encourage chewing could so easily become sawing on the mouth and pulling to get the horse to "submit."

Crossing the reins under the jaw

Pulling the reins away from each other.

Froissard was so worried about people using this information incorrectly that in his book he prefaced the flexions with this:

"Since, aside from their suppling action, these exercises are a powerful means of domination, they also are rather dangerous and their practice requires great discernment. The trainer must be experienced enough to know which should be emphasized, which should be played down and which should not be employed. He must, moreover, be possessed of both innate and acquired equestrian tact, a somewhat rare commodity. Nothing is, we know, as dangerous as a little learning, but even an experienced trainer might fall into the trap of blithely and fragmentarily applying what may have been but a casual discovery on his part."

-Jean Froissard, "The Education of Horse and Rider"

When the trainer does not have innate and acquired equestrian tact and tries to employ the use of flexions bad things happen. Unfortunately you can't watch an international competition these days without seeing the evidence of that all over the place.

Poor use of flexion
Poor use of flexion
It's enough to make a person want to avoid the use of flexions at all cost in revolt of this abuse, but I'm not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If gentle, moderate use of flexions will help my horses become the best that they can be- then, by golly, I'm going to learn how to use them.

33 comments:

  1. I think it all depends with the second photograph. I have to see a video here, I think. If that horse gave his head willingly with no resistance, this would be fine as the opposite reign is very loose. I do this with my horses, have them flex down. I lift the center reign up and travel my hand down the side of the rope... that is usually enough of a trigger to get my horse thinking "She is asking me to do something" and then my hand goes out in a triangle a bit before I bring it back up towards my waist.

    This has been extremely important as I want to avoid yanking on their mouth, but a horse that doesn't know how to do this could lead to a very dangerous situation.

    How do you handle a horse, keep him soft and responsive, flexible with his neck? (this is not said in a smarty pants tone, I truly would love to know :)

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    1. I'm going to partially answer your question by quoting Katie's comment on my cession de machoire post:

      "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!"

      So the problem is not with the flexion in itself- obviously it's good to stretch the neck and loosen the muscles as with carrot stretches, the problem is when you overuse the flexion and teach the horse how to disconnect the neck from the body. When the horse has figured out they can move in whatever direction they want no matter where their nose is- that horse has effectively taken the reins out of the equation and turned the rider into a helpless passenger.

      What you're talking about sounds like single-rein riding, a John Lyons concept, which I have used with both of my horses.

      That photo was my own peevish dig at a BNT who is pretty well known for training his horses with overflexion. I just can't stand that guy.

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  2. I'm always baffled by the individual-who-shall-not-be-named in your second photo and his "flexing". I'm sorry but to me, these are not "soft" horses, but horses that are afraid of the bridle! He says so often that he has never heard anyone complain about a horse being too soft. Well, I'm afraid to say, and I know I'm no rich famous clinician, but there is a difference between soft and afraid of contact and my sister complains about her horse being afraid of contact all the time! Ok, I feel better now.

    Great series of posts. I think I'm starting to understand the idea. I downloaded the Baucher Kindle book and I so hope someone gets me that Twisted Truths book for my birthday! Top of my list!

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    1. I knew somebody would know who that was without my having to label him. I wholeheartedly agree with you about soft vs. afraid of the bridle. I would also add that his horses are afraid of HIM (along with everyone who works with him apparently).

      I have another post in the queue that I think you'll appreciate :)

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    2. i couldn't agree more and i think this gets to the heart of what's wrong with this over-flexing 'technique' (though calling it that may be giving it too much credit.) i see it happening all over: in the western world, in dressage and in the big h/j barns too. these horses aren't soft, round, engaged, etc., and i've never yet seen these extreme neck bends yield anything useful to the horse's training or development. the effect is purely psychological for the benefit of the trainer: it makes the horse afraid of and overreactive to the bit while giving the rider the illusion of extreme control. but fear of the bit and relaxation of the jaw aren't exactly compatible aims...

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    3. I think I would have recognized him even even if you'd put a big black square over his head to protect his identity lol. Looking forward to the future post.

      BTW, I really like how you titled the post "Relaxing the jaw". I think it describes the subtlety of the exercise very well.

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  3. Interesting thoughts. I use some basic flexing to soften their necks. Some trainers I've worked with, I felt, had me take it too far, and I was never really sure what they were trying to achieve. I chalked it up to my ignorance. But my gut instinct was always to soften them up gently and incrementally--as if I'm doing basic stretches like I'd do from the ground.

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    1. That's because you have innate and acquired tact :)

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  4. Oh, I know WHO the second guy is ... read a book of his that seemed fine but have never seen him in action - on video, live or tv. Yes, James did call what he taught me "single rein riding" but I also know he doesn't HATE the man you mentioned above.

    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

    First, I'm not sure what a BNT is. Also what does "stand up their horses" mean?

    When I flex my horses neck, I lean forward grasping the reign higher up and pull outward for a second and then bring my arm back by straightening my back and gently wait for my horse to respond and I release the pressure AS SOON as he starts to turn his head and then we keep repeating the process until his head is turned left or right in the position I want.

    Does that sound right to you. I might have done a poor job explaining it. I can't say I move his body with my legs or anything... If he was cantering and I needed to employ this in an emergency, I imagine I would also use my legs to turn him. I stop him by lifting up on the rein with one hand, lifting my one hand up further on his neck...

    I am really interested in this topic as this is all new to me. When I was "younger" I just pulled back on both reins. Supposedly a "no no". :)

    I'd love to see a demonstration of how you do it... or do you know someone who demonstrates this well? Perhaps a You-Tube video? Thanks.

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    1. I have no problem with John Lyons and single rein riding, actually I have a lot of respect for him, but I do not respect the man in that picture. I think the difference between their training styles are like day and night.

      BNT= Big Name Trainer

      I believe "stand up their horses" to mean working with the neck unmounted while at a standstill.

      The point is to do the flexions in moderation, which it sounds like you are. The best video example I can point you to is here at the 50 second mark: http://youtu.be/8OgBfZhzm18.

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  5. Thanks for yet another thought provoking post.

    Jaw flexion is one of those subjects that I know I don't know enough about to employ safely or effectively. I focus on keeping the neck straight. Val is very flexible, and easily moves into noodle neck land if I don't watch out. :)

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  6. These posts on jaw flexions are a very good lesson to everyone who should be able to spot the difference between doing it right with a minimum amount of pressure and over flexing with too much pressure. Looking at the horses in those photos you only have to ask yourself if those horses look happy and comfortable in their jobs and if the flexion is just a tad too much.

    I tend to stick to a very simplified philosophy: if it doesn't look right and more important doesn't feel right then don't do it. If a horse doesn't look happy, comfortable and natural doing what you ask then find another method. The best thing we can do as riders and caretakers of our horses is to educate ourselves. I think that's one of the great benefits of blogging with the horse community. We get to participate in good discussions concerning diverse topics.

    p.s. That guy shouldn't be allowed within a hundred feet of a horse and neither should the rider in the top photo.

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    1. I'll second that that philosophy!

      That's why I wanted to do these posts though- because there are so many examples out there of people doing it wrong, but very, very little information posted about how to do it in a way that actually benefits your horse.

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  7. At shows I see a lot of this type of thing used in the warm-up arena... it looks completely pointless to me because when I flex, I'm really looking for my horse to also round his body. Like you said, the type of action in the second picture does nothing but create a rubber necked horse.

    Lilly is getting better about this, but I think since we started doing western riding she has become more tense in her jaw. I'm not sure if it's the change in bits or if it's because we're really working on a lot of new stuff, but when I remove her bridle after the ride she yawns over and over. I feel like she's releasing the tension she has been holding in her jaw. That she is releasing it after the ride is good, but I'm hoping to find ways to keep her more relaxed.

    This is a great place for me to start... thanks!! :)

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  8. I applaud those of you who are venturing into the deep end - and Shannon for not shying away from the topic or the task. Forewarned is forearmed. I wish you all great success.

    I'm happy to see that this technique, with all its potential pitfalls, is making a comeback as riders search for a more sensitive connection with their horses mouths and a way to unlock the horse's poll, neck and back through mobilization (or as Shannon accurately describes it, relaxation) of the jaw.

    Now, if there were only more teachers who could demonstrate it well. It's a shame that, as P. Karl points out, flexions disappeared from the German foundation manuals. Although I did see Christoph Hess attempt to demonstrate standing flexions at a seminar last year. Those who have watched the DVD "Classical vs. Classique" will appreciate the irony.

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    1. How would you feel about being cloned?

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  9. I haven't read through the comments, just your post, so I may or may not be repeating something. I am a student of a student of Phillipe Karl's so his method is the one I use and there is a very fine line in properly doing the flexions. Both pictures are clearly not proper flexions. I won't even bother with the first picture because that is just abuse in my book. As for the second, flexions should be done with an open poll, this horse is closing the poll and has his neck tilted at an odd angle so he's not properly flexing those muscles, the horse is just finding away to avoid the contact which totally negates the relationship between the hand and the bit. I don't follow the western world so I am not sure who the rider is.
    People often say "oh, that rein is loose so there must be softness there," softness can be contact, which is what P.K teaches and what I have achieved with my horse through his methods. When doing flexions you want to maintain a light contact on that outside rein so that the horse cannot do exactly what his horse is doing in this picture; twisting his neck and finding a way to avoid the contact. Plus, he is clearly not paying attention to what he is doing with his horse. When I am, or my trainer, are doing these, even when teaching them to others, we carefully watch our animals and pay attention to what we are doing because there is that fine line between what is proper and what can be damaging. It is no different than stretching our own muscles or lifting weights; our bodies must be in the proper form or 1. we may not be working/stretching the proper muscle or 2. we could could seriously injure ourselves.
    I have ridden horses that have been "tied around," and had the method of hold the reins in place at the withers and drive them forward so that they get "light on the bit," but what is actually happening is they are simply learning to avoid the contact by coming in and back. You pick up the reins and the horse curls in, it appears that the horse is on the bit, but when you have ridden a horse that is truly on the bit, you know the difference. There is no mutual, "lets hold hands" sort of feel on that bit. It's very hard to put into words, which I think is why it is so difficult for very many riders, it really takes a lot feel and knowing the difference that must be learned by each rider.

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    1. Thank you, you just described exactly why I chose those pictures.

      Learning feel is probably one of the hardest things to do- I'll readily admit that I don't have it yet. Because I want that "let's hold hands" feeling, I'm learning this "new" way of interacting with my horses :)

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  10. Hmm, looks like an interesting post. I'll be back to read it. Just wanted to respond to your comment about Faran's hooves. I'm not sure how deep the hole is, but when we clean it out we get a lot of crud out of it. True that the central sulcus is more of a dimple (good description). Chrome's are grooves because his heels are contracted. They are spreading out some already since I got his frogs on the ground though. :D Thanks for the link! I've been exploring your blog, but I'm just so short on time. :)

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  11. You know I actually liked CA when I was a teenager and first learning about this "natural horsemanship" . . . stuff, but now I'm not so sure. I was watching a video series of his recently and noticed on the flexions that if the horse didn't flex quickly enough he would pop them in the mouth with the bit! I was NOT happy about that! Then seeing this photo (never seen a still shot of her flexing) and you pointing out her expression makes me realize how right you are about her fear of the bit (which makes sense considering he pops them in the mouth with it!), so thank you for that.

    My only question is, what is your method for stopping a bolting horse? I was once given a Thoroughbred who was taught all of the CA methods and he bolted on me. He wasn't bucking, more like crowhopping as he galloped. I used the emergency stop that CA teaches and it worked. However another time I was riding a friend's horse who doesn't know CA methods and he bolted. I could NOT stop him!!! So just curious what method you guys use for stopping a bolter? I love horses (well maybe not that one so much anymore lol), but my safety comes first and I would like to know a way to stop a bolter if it ever happens again because that was terrifying! I don't think I'm going to have that problem with Chrome because I'm training him slower and more thoroughly than that horse ever was, but in case I'm on someone's horse who does bolt it would be nice to have a tool to use. I can't teach him the emergency stop, so a method that doesn't require training (since it's not my horse) would be appreciated.

    Also I was doing the flexions with Chrome (not by pulling on the reins, taught it with clicker training so he was doing it on his own without any force), but now that everyone mentions how difficult noodle necked horses are I'm wondering if I should stop doing it . . . or should I lure him with a carrot like in the carrot stretches? How often do you do suppling stretches of the neck? I want him to be supple, but not a noodle lol.

    Thanks for the post. It was really interesting and the photo confirmed what I was already beginning to think about CA (I'm a little slow sometimes lol!).

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    1. I just think he's a complete a-hole in general. He's abusive to horses and people alike.

      I think I mentioned before that standing flexions used to stretch the neck aren't the problem, those can actually be quite good. It's overflexing while the horse is moving where the nastiness happens.

      I've heard scary things about using a one-rein stop on a bolter, sometimes they fall right over! Try either a pulley rein or, if there's room, steer the horse into a circle. That's the best I can offer.

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    2. Hmm, I've never seen him being abusive to people or horses before. At the only clinic I went to years and years ago he seemed like a funny, nice guy. I've never worked with him though or participated in a clinic so I probably just missed it (or maybe I was just so young I didn't recognize it). Like I mentioned before I was starting to change my opinion of him when I saw him jerking on that Thoroughbred's mouth and having this picture pointed out. It's sad, but it's good to know the truth. I had already decided I wasn't going to use his methods before this just because they are just too forceful for my sensitive horses.

      That's good to know about the flexions standing still. The comments had me worried I was turning him into Gumby or something LOL! He's very stiff on one side so I like to help him stretch that out. :)

      What is a pulley rein? Never heard of it. Turning a circle does help on some horses if there is room. In fact the OTTB I mentioned in my previous comment went in a half circle when I used the one rein stop on him. I didn't just jerk his head around to his shoulder. Like you said, that's just asking for the horse to fall over!

      Thank you for sharing and discussing this interesting series of posts!

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    3. Here's some info on the pulley rein: http://www.juliegoodnight.com/questionsNew.php?id=85.

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  12. I can see I've missed a lot since I've been down. Wish I had the time to catch up on everything that's been posted but will be sure to try to get through this series you've been doing. Good for you taking on the well established, supported methods that are so destructive to the horse.

    There's a lot of wisdom in the comments too. I also noticed the second horse was locked at the poll as well as dropping through the outside shoulder so actually evading being trapped in a position it really can't maintain nor should. You can actually see by the horse's eye it is looking for that way out.

    The idea behind "natural horsemanship" as I understand it is making it easy for the horse to do the right thing and difficult for the horse to do the wrong thing. There's nothing wrong with that concept. It is meant to make things easier for the horse. But its manipulation by those who don't want to take the time, or make the additional effort, to really do right by the horse really frustrates, no actually, it really angers me. Unfortunately, I could write volumes (and have) about those who exploit the horse and call it training.

    I do like to teach my horses to flex their necks from side to side, even to the point of touching my knee if they feel tight to me but not in conjunction with "forward" movement. That doesn't mean I expect no movement. I leave that up to the horse. For me the exercise is not about collection at all but more a getting the kinks out, loosing and stretching muscles before we actually go to work kind of thing.

    My rule of thumb for flexing with collection is I don't want to see the horse's full eye or he/she is flexed more than is necessary or maybe even safe. Turning the horse's head just enough to see a small portion of the eye is enough. With horses with big, prominent, boney structures over their eyes that are visible even when they are looking straight on (which my horses have) I just want to see a slight change to that look. I think maybe its a couple of inches off center, no more.

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    1. So nice to see you out and about again!

      I specifically chose this picture because of what you're talking about- if they were standing still it probably wouldn't be much of a problem, but since she's moving it's a whole different ball game.

      Katie's been telling me the exact same thing about how much flexion to use while the horse is moving- just enough to see their eyelashes, anything more than that is too much.

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  13. Valerie- I don't know why your comment didn't post but I wanted to say that my horses were both introduced to the one-rein stop before I started riding them. I still use it with Gwen occasionally when she's not listening to me. I agree that you should be able to phase it out over time.

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  14. :) I was worried I said something offensive!

    I work on phasing it out, and I DO have to use it on my mare when she is too forward and refusing to listen to the half halt or the reins. I want my horse FLEXIBLE and able to move their head free of their body, but not turn them into a limp noodle. Ive ridden a few horses that were really good at the whole "lets run with my head on your foot" thing. Don't get me wrong I am still learning, but trying to do it right!

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    1. Nothing offensive- just Blogger being weird :)

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  15. When I was taught the one rein stop, I wondered what the heck the purpose was and it scared the heck out of me! I had a horse fall with me a few years back so the one rein stop just made me feel like the horse was going to fall again.
    as a kid, I had a very bratty appy that would run off with me all the time. I finally read a book written by a female jockey that learned the trick for a tiny woman to stop a run away racehorse; criss cross the reins and pull back. It was the only thing to stop my appy!

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  16. Sorry, I came to the party late. How did I miss this awesome discussion? Way to go, Shannon.

    I agree with horsemom. A young horse fell with me way back when, which completely turned me off to the one-rein stop. I use what I believe is the pulley rein (one hand stabilized on neck) with a hold and release motion and, most importantly, I put my legs ON the bolting horse. If I can talk to the legs, I can get the horse to stop.

    Thank you for mentioning the "nose to boot" flexion practices taught by many, many trainers. I have watched a number of riders who know very little about feel and contact in the bridle pull their horses necks around and look satisfied about it afterward. This irks me to no end. Often those same riders cannot steer their horses without large rein movements, ride a nice circle without the horse falling out, or stop nicely on the trail. I know this is not everyone, but I have witnessed it a number of times. It really bothers me when a group of us stop on the trail. My horse stops when I put my legs on and close my hands. He stops straight, his neck stays straight, and he is holding the other end of the reins. He is not tense or bracing on me. Meanwhile, some of the experienced trail horses trained to flex their necks around have to be circled and their riders flex them to get them "soft" so they relax. I keep hoping someone will learn from my silent demonstration, but I think the problem is what has been described above in a couple comments. The rider has to learn the feel of the "holding hands" contact, which just isn't possible if you are teaching the horse to drop the contact with misguided flexion techniques.

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