Q: I have a 12-year-old gelding who I have been riding for two years. With his previous rider, he was always ridden behind the bit. Meanwhile, we have found one another and he works willingly and diligently with me. At the beginning of each training session, he is usually lazy, but after being warmed up, he is more energetic and awake and I can ride him forward without great difficulty. He accepts the leg aids well and allows himself to be regulated from my seat. For the most part, he makes riding easy. Recently, he has become very tight in the neck and gets behind the bit, and this occurs in every ring figure and exercise. When he gets like this, I can only execute a downward transition from my hand. Transitions from the seat are very difficult to ride. My trainer has ridden him and had the same problem. It is helpful to ride him one-handed. Then, he comes back up, has a perfect neck carriage and goes happily. Perhaps you have some further advice for me.
A: Stretch, Then Stretch, Then Stretch Some More
Questions about tight necks are asked over and over again, and this is a crucial issue in the training of many horses. A tight neck always leads to a dead end and sends the training of the horse in the wrong direction. We see this even at the highest levels. Therefore, this particular challenge warrants special attention.
Horses who have been forced into a certain frame over a long period of time will continually have problems maintaining and carrying themselves in the desired long-and-low stretch, as it is described in The Principles of Riding by the German National Equestrian Federation. In certain situations, the horse will just automatically fall into the frame that he was required to take on under his previous rider—and likely from the day his training began.
With horses who have been trained according to the principles of classical riding, we will not encounter the problem that your horse is having. However, if a horse has never learned to stretch forward and downward to the hand, he has never experienced how good this natural head and neck position—open through the throatlatch—makes his body feel. These horses are missing the physical fundamentals for correct balance. They will continually fall back into the familiar way of carrying themselves. This is not only a physical problem, but also a mental one.
Therefore, your problem is not easy to fix. But your efforts are not wasted and you should leave no stone unturned: use every opportunity to give your horse a comfortable feeling by stretching his neck as often as possible. This can take place as you get him ready for riding, in that you allow your horse to stretch forward and downward into his halter, motivating him to do so with a carrot or apple.
Through this stretching, the muscles of his neck will elongate and his back will lift as much as anatomically possible. This process will do your horse good and he will enjoy it, as he’s able to stand with a forward, downward stretch, open through his throatlatch. When you’ve tried this often enough (and without provoking resistance), your horse will always want to take on this position. This is his natural position, which you can best observe while watching him graze at pasture.
Support from the Ground
I recommend you practice the exercise of “chewing the reins from the hand” before you actually ride. To do so, you’ll need a helper on the ground. This helper must take hold of both bit rings and lightly move the bit around the horse’s mouth (play with the bit). The point is to make it palatable for the horse to stretch forward and downward.
After, during the walk phase of your daily training session, you should make sure the horse stretches forward and downward. If you can’t achieve this from the saddle, I have a tip for you: have an experienced trainer walk alongside your horse. She should loop a finger in the horse’s bit ring on the inside. By responsively and lightly giving and taking on the bit, the trainer can guide your horse forward and downward into a stretch.
With long-term, consistent practice, you create the opportunity for your horse to seek for himself this “wellness frame” more and more. Your horse will feel a sense of well-being as he does so and will therefore want to stretch forward and downward again and again.
This process of getting the horse to stretch himself forward is especially long when a tight way of going has already manifested. I am guessing that this circumstance was created for your horse thanks to an improper approach to training that had already begun when he was a young, green horse. According to the late Maj. Paul Stecken, “Horses want to travel correctly.” The forward-downward stretch with open throatlatch is important for the horse’s balance, and every horse has the need to move in balance while under saddle.
Riding with One Hand
You said you ride your horse regularly with one hand and when you do so, he stretches through his neck and opens at the throatlatch. This tells me that you do still have a chance of getting your horse to travel correctly. The riding with one hand exercise is one you cannot repeat often enough, as it also helps you test your own suppleness and balance in the saddle. Often, one rides—unaware!—with too much inside rein, holding tight, which leads to the horse hiding behind the rein and thereby rolling back behind the bit. In this respect, it will be helpful for both you and your horse if you ride with both reins in your outside hand and, as you do so, simultaneously find opportunities to überstreichen (release the contact).
A good opportunity to improve the stretch of the neck is to have a trainer walk near the horse as described while you are riding the horse in a long rein at the walk. It helps your horse to stretch for himself when the trainer takes gentle hold of the inside bit ring and guides the horse to stretch himself forward and downward by lightly playing with the bit to make it more palatable for the horse.
The horse must always accept the bit as something positive, which he really wants to stretch toward. The more your horse stretches through his neck, the better he feels. This is in accordance with his nature. Überstreichen enables you to check your own balance in the saddle, and your horse’s balance, too. In your case, this is an essential exercise.
Tips for Riding Forward in Downward Transitions
by Beth Baumert
Christoph Hess’s exercise of choice is trot–canter–trot transitions. This exercise is ideal for making the horse supple and obedient, for putting him in front of the leg and developing the ideal frame and contact. Hess’s additional challenge for the rider is that the downward transitions must be done without using the reins. The idea of dressage, he says, is to be able to slow your horse down while using your legs, rather than by using your reins.
Try This Exercise
Start on a 20-meter circle in trot. Be sure that you always feel you can enlarge the circle by using your inside leg. Hess asks a rider many times to use his inside leg, which puts the horse on the outside rein. Then the rider only needs to give the outside rein an inch or so to keep the horse reaching and working more through his back. That reaching opens the horse’s neck, which helps the common problem of a short neck in the downward transitions. Often, when the rider overuses the reins in the downward transition, the horse gets short in the neck.
Next, to do the downward transition from canter to trot, the idea is to slow the horse down without reins. Try this:
• Use the inside leg more than you think you need so the circle can always be enlarged. This puts the horse into the outside rein. Work on this principle constantly.
• Before asking for a transition from canter to trot, try to keep the rhythm of canter. Don’t let the horse run away or get faster in the tempo. When the horse gets faster, the hind legs inevitably go out behind him, away from the center of gravity. You want your horse to step under your seat, where your weight aid can influence the speed and the rhythm. When you can change the rhythm with your seat, you can change the gait; that is, you can go from trot to canter and from canter to trot—without reins!
• Don’t look downward. The more you look down, the less influence your seat has in the saddle.
• Keep your small (pinky) fingers together so you can see your fingernails. This allows your hands and wrists to be flexible.
• Keep your hands low. The higher your hands, the shorter your horse’s neck will be inclined to be.
• Ride with both reins in the outside hand sometimes to confirm that your horse is on the outside rein. Then pat your horse with your inside hand, which helps him relax his neck down.
• Try to slow your horse down while using your leg, pushing him to the outside rein with the inside leg as you ask for trot. Then give both reins, allowing the horse to reach. The horse must seek the bit and not be behind the bit in the transitions.
• When making the downward transition from canter to trot, don’t think of stopping the canter. Rather, think of starting the trot. Start the trot. Don’t finish the canter.
• Refresh the horse sometimes by leaving the 20-meter circle and doing straight lines, perhaps in a half seat, but always think of a shoulder-in tendency, again using the inside leg to put the horse to the outside rein and to ask the inside hind leg to step under your seat.
Hess says that after hundreds of these trot–canter–trot transitions, horse and rider learn how to do them without the adverse effects of too much rein. The rider needs to work on these transitions for weeks, months, years—well, maybe forever. In time, your horse will have a better balance, carrying himself in balance without the inclination to hurry.
In the Arena with Christoph Hess
Want to see Christoph Hess in action? In this flashback video, Hess helps a rider get his horse to stretch into the contact with a longer neck and explains how to use driving aids to slow the horse down. He also teaches the rider how to encourage the horse to stretch using a 10-meter circle in the corner and a giving rein. Enjoy a sneak peek of this training session at DressageTodayOnline.com/christoph or watch the entire training video, plus more than 1,600 others, by taking advantage of a FREE month trial membership with DTO at DressageTodayOnline.com/30free.
Read More from Christoph Hess
In his book Ride Better with Christoph Hess, the German trainer, author and FEI “I” judge in both dressage and eventing collects some of his very best riding and training tips along with well-honed insight related to the topics that he finds most often challenge equestrians and their equine partners. His book provides thoughtful, easy-to-apply advice when dealing with many common issues, including inconsistency of performance, leaning on the bit and lack of straightness. In the following excerpt, Hess addresses the issue of a horse who has been ridden behind the bit and has a very tight neck. In his advice, he discusses the importance of allowing the horse to stretch and offers ways to help him do this productively. This excerpt is used with permission from Trafalgar Square Books.