I taught a lesson last week, where we focused on releasing the brachiocephalic muscles to enable the horse to step through from behind and use their back more correctly.
The horse we were working with has come back into work slowly after being a brood mare, and she’s changing shape nicely and building some muscle and fitness by lots of hacking. Her walk was improved since the last time I’d seen her in that it was more active with a longer length of stride and the mare’s neck was not so concertinaed. However, in the trot she was still locking her neck and trotting. The body wasn’t moving at all, and the legs scrabbling frantically underneath, with my rider feeling barely in control. Their trot was akin to a bolt – the neck set against the rider – but they weren’t getting any faster.
Usually when a rider feels resistance in the horse’s neck, a little flex of the neck and encouragement of the inside hindleg triggers the horse to relax the brachiocephalic muscle and start using their abdominals and topline. However, this mare has such large, solid brachiocephalics she didn’t respond to the small flexions.
In halt, we asked the mare to move her head from side to side. They were big turns of the head, slowly from left to right and back again. Initially I had to help from the ground to provide rein aids so that my rider could understand the exercise. By getting the mare to mobilise her neck we were improving her suppleness, increasing her range of movement, and causing her to relax the brachiocephalic muscles. After all, in order to look left, the muscles on the right side need to relax and lengthen. And vice versa. We had to turn her head quite a way to the left and right before she yielded and softened her neck. Hopefully as things progress she will give her neck to her rider after more subtle aids.
After a few turns, the mare’s neck became softer and you could see she was turning more easily and freely. We let her rest, standing still with a light contact, so that she could think about her posture, and process the exercise we had just done. She stayed standing with a softer neck and lower head carriage.
Then we moved up into the walk. A horse’s head is very heavy, and is held at the end of a lever, so getting them to lengthen the neck and hold their head further away from their body, and then to hold it in different positions, is very difficult and requires good balance and core strength. The walk allowed us to experiment with different head and neck positions, all making the mare more malleable and encouraging the muscles to relax. There was a lot of brain work going on here: the horse had to focus on keeping her balance with her head held in unusual positions (for her, anyway), and she had to focus on the leg and seat aids rather than the reins aids.
After a few releases of the neck, the mare’s walk started to improve by lengthening in stride, the energy in the hindquarters seemed to travel through the body more and she seemed to be more connected – working as one horse. Once my rider felt the change in the mare’s posture I had her straighten the neck and keep everything still. After all, we’re using these large turns to release the muscles and then the mare needs to learn to carry herself straight and with less tension in her neck on her own volition, and we don’t want her to get into the habit of swinging her head as she works, nor do I want my rider to get into a habit of sawing on her pony’s mouth. I reiterate, they are large turns of the head in either direction to encourage the release of the under neck muscles, which together with the leg and seat engaging her hindquarters will trigger the mare to use her topline as she works.
Once the mare was walking with a soft frame and contact, we went up into trot. Through the transition she set her neck and started running, but my rider began flexing her left and right and after a few strides the brachiocephalic was disengaged. So they trotted with the hands still for a couple of strides before the mare set herself again, so we repeated the process. We kept the trot basic: large circles, simple changes of rein, one rhythm, so that we could focus on unlocking the neck as soon as she tensed, rewarding her with quietness when she was soft, and then correcting her again as she tensed up.
Suddenly, they had a lightbulb moment! The trot became lighter, almost floaty, her back began to swing, she was using her hindquarters to propel herself. The trot was getting faster, but only because she was more efficient in using herself and the stride was lengthening rather than her rushing. Yes, every couple of strides my rider still had to move the mare’s neck to keep it soft, but they were now minor flexes and the mare responded immediately.
By the end of the session, we’d started work on keeping the neck soft through the upward transition by using small flexes. The trot was becoming more consistent and the horse and rider looked in partnership rather than having two different agendas. And as we cooled down, the mare wanted to stretch her head all the way to the floor.
It was a very constructive session, and they’ve both got a lot to work on in terms of building fitness so that the mare can be consistent in this new trot, and my rider’s feel so she reacts to any change in the neck before it becomes a solid mass. I don’t think it necessarily looked pretty, in that every so often the mare looked to be swinging her head, but so long as my rider remembers to stay quiet and still when everything’s right, and the rein stays positively opening wide to get the mare to look left or right rather than pulling back, the mare won’t get into a bad, swinging habit.
Next time I want to build on the consistency and then start to introduce a long and low frame so that the mare has more opportunity to utilise the correct muscles and learns to stretch.