I had fun earlier this week whilst schooling a horse, putting into practice some tips I’d read in a Carl Hester article.
Carl described the benefits of working a horse in a frame he finds difficult. For example, try to lengthen the frame of a short-coupled horse, or to condense the frame of a long horse. He also talked about how a trainable horse was one who allowed you to manipulate his and position him however you like. For example, riding collected gaits in a long frame.
So I thought I’d give this a go. One of the horses I ride is a long horse, and I’ve been really focusing on developing his top line recently. There’s now neck muscle, which I’m really pleased about, but as he has a long neck we need to keep building his strength.
Have you ever thought about why a weak horse will carry their head up, brachiocephalic muscle working, and neck short? It’s all to do with levers – I knew maths A-level would come in useful one day!
The head is heavy, so carrying it at the end of the neck, as in the long and low frame, is harder for a horse because the back and abdominals have to work harder to balance the head. A bit like the fact that if you lift a box up and carry it close to your body it’s much easier than if you held the box at arms length. If you want more of a mathematical explanation then the internet is your best friend, and there are hundreds of video explanations, which are far better than my rusty decade-old knowledge.
Back to horses. A horse with a weak topline will shorten their neck, brace the underside muscles and hold it higher to save their back muscles from working. Which is what this long horse I ride used to do. All hacks consist of him lengthening his neck, and lowering his head. I know it’s taxing for him because usually about three quarters of the way round, he’ll start throwing his head around to evade working. Our schooling has been predominantly long and low based, and I’m pleased with how easily he is managing this now.
Due to his long neck and body, it’s actually harder for him to develop the necessary muscles to hold himself in the long and low position because the muscles are longer than in a short coupled horse, so take longer to strengthen. But he’s got it in the walk and working trot, for sure.
I’ve been moving onto developing the medium and collected trot with him. Shortening his stride length is harder for him, and I felt a couple of weeks ago that he was getting tight in his neck and blocking over his back: hindering the progress I’d made with building his topline. This is where Carl Hester came in. This week I established working trot in a long and low frame, before playing around at shortening and lengthening his neck and frame whilst maintaining the rhythm and balance of his working trot.
Once he’d got the idea of this, I put him back into a long and low frame before asking him to shorten his strides. Because I’d already shown him how to position his head and neck where I wanted to in a trot he was comfortable in, whenever he got tight and shortened his neck with the collected strides I could lengthen his frame without losing the collection.
We played around with this for a while, and I could feel his back staying engaged and him becoming more malleable so I could position him precisely. Obviously it was baby steps of shortening, but at least now he’s doing it correctly and maintaining impulsion and “throughness” so I can build on it over the next few weeks.
After a little break, I turned to the canter. He can get very long in the canter so I’ve been working on balancing it, getting his hindlegs underneath him a bit more and generally shortening his frame a bit so that he can canter a 15 or 20m circle rather than a 30 or 35m circle! However, he needs to release his brachiocephalic muscle in the canter, which will allow the gait to become more uphill and rideable.
Once he was trotting in a long and low frame I asked for canter. His head came up initially but slowly I managed to get him to drop his nose slightly and soften his neck whilst using my seat to maintain the steadier canter.
This one is work in progress, but the idea of being able to shorten or lengthen the neck whilst almost doing the opposite with the body will make the horse more trainable, supple, strong and balanced. Give it a go next time you’re schooling and you’ll be surprised at how hard they have to work to collect the trot whilst balancing the lever that is their neck. I’m hoping that by practising, this horse will build his trapezius muscle, have better posture, and have a more toned barrel because of his abdominals being toned. Which all reduces the chance of him injuring himself.