Joined: 16 Mar 2006 Posts: 1 Location: Quebec, Canada
Posted: Thu Mar 16, 2006 7:39 pm Post subject: Getting the horse to work on the bit
Hi Galadriel! I stumbled across your site when researching saddle fit for my new horse, who has a sway back. I enjoyed reading a lot of the other postings here as well. I hope your back is recovering well from surgery.
Here is my problem: I recently bought my first horse - a 9 yo OTTB. He was sold off the track at 7, then spent nearly a year at a horrid riding stable that was more like a concentration camp for horses.
He has recovered well since that incident and is turning out to be a really nice amateur hunter for me. He is a long horse, with sky-high withers, huge shoulders and a true sway. Though he has gained some muscle in his top line, the vet says his spine has a sway so that will always be there to some extent. Thus, he has difficulty rounding, plus he probably spent that year as a riding hose running around totally hollow with his nose in the air. Over the winter he has had some schooling by a more advanced rider who uses draw reins, and in that setting he will flex at the poll and engage his rear. I am wondering if there are other exercises that I can do on him to encourage him to engage, round and flex, since I am not skilled with draw reins. When I press him forward with my legs into my hands, he tries to evade by pulling his jaw back and hollowing his neck, or by trying to rush. But if I lessen the contact to try and let him stretch into the bit he collapses onto his forehand. This is more of an issue at the trot than at the canter or walk.
I am working twice a week in group lessons doing your standard hunter schooling stuff. During our other rides I would like to work on this problem to improve our impulsion and balance.
I should also mention that I am in the process of buying a new saddle for him that fits his particular build. In the meantime I have been borrowing a saddle that is not an ideal fit, so that may be a contributing factor.
I have some doubts about the use of draw reins, particularly in this situation. Forcing a horse to bend at the poll does not automatically create hind end engagement; a horse who can't flex at the poll without them is NOT engaged when using them.
It is quite difficult to get a saddle to fit on a horse with a true sway. If your saddle is pinching him at all, he will have difficulty relaxing the back in order to lift his shoulders and drop his haunches. In a horse with an already compromised back, a fit as-perfect-as-possible is SO necessary. So as you said, that may be contributing to his hollow motion.
In a horse who simply doesn't know how to relax his jaw, relax his back, and engage, I have had some success with figure eights. They have to be large (20m +) and they have to be done in a true figure eight: a full circle, a straight line across the intersection of the two circles to change flexion, then a full circle in the other direction.
Doing this you can support with the outside rein, "sponge" with the inside rein to create bend in the neck, and support with your legs to create bend in the body--and once his body is bent, it is easier for him to step under behind, and harder for him to hollow out and collapse.
* keep contact on the outside rein to prevent him from falling in;
* "sponge" the inside rein to encourage him to flex his neck to the inside--not an extreme bend in the neck, you only need to be able to see his eyelashes;
* keep your inside leg on at the girth to give him a "pole" to bend around;
* keep your outside leg on-and-back to bring the haunches into the bend.
Once you have flexed his body, you can add energy by squeezing your legs. If you need to, half-halt to add energy while keeping him balanced. With his body flexed, he should find it easier to do--and easier to UNDERSTAND--what you want. Once he "gets" it you should be able to transfer it to straight-line work as well.
As with anything, don't over-do it. Too much circle work is hard on a horse's legs. If you've been working at it for ~15 minutes or so without progress, drop it and find something he does know how to do. Try it again another day. The liklihood is that if he doesn't get it the first time, he may catch on the next time, or the next.
These OTTB's often have some real mental hangups about contact and flexing at the poll, you know. As a racehorse, their job is to lean on the bit. So they have no IDEA what we want when we ask them to flex at the poll, and to carry their own head too! But once the lightbulb comes on, they are very good about adapting to the new carriage.