One of my students (who is an instructor that attended the Florida Dressage Experience Program School), recently attended a dressage symposium with a notable Olympian who was the guest instructor. She observed the increasingly frustrated instructor direct a first level demonstration rider, on an attractive old style Quarter Horse, to “make your horse rounder to the bridle” for the third time. Progress was not being made and atmospheric tension was increasing. Her raised hand and intelligent question of “Would you like this rider to lower this horse’s neck more (it was already clearly low and on the forehand) or close the horse’s poll?” should have elicited a wonderful opportunity for a discussion on bio-mechanics.
It goes without saying that our attention in riding and training must first and foremost be directed to the “Training Scale”: Rhythm, Relaxation (emotionally attentive and lack of tension due to stress/tightness in the muscles), Contact, Impulsion, and Straightness, which bring us into improved Balance / Collection. All aspects of the above and their nuances and developing qualities must be practiced and observed. None may be overlooked or neglected. Attention must be directed to the rider having the ability and balance to keep lower leg and seat on the horse to elicit enough active impulsion to make a true connection ,and last but not least, the ability to ask the horse with the lower leg and seat to keep its trunk up so that its back is correctly basculed .
With that said, there are two bio-mechanical components of “make the horse rounder to the bridle” or “get the horse more on the bit.” If you have the horse actively in front of your aids, in rhythm, relaxed in an attentive way and the instructor asks you to make the horse “rounder to the bridle” the two components which are universal are the height (higher or lower) of the neck and the closing of the poll. (It was the closing of the poll that the lovely above mentioned quarter horse was not achieving. ) These two components are inherently a part of the horses bio-mechanical ability to re-balance itself, to extend and contract its strides and outline (frame), lift the shoulders and bascule the back; hence, “get the horse more on the bit.” How much the rider opens or closes the poll, and asks for lift or lowering of the neck depends on the balance, abilities, training, conformation and requirements of the pace/exercise requested of any given horse at any time.
Many divisions of equestrian sport euphemistically make reference to “setting the head” and deal primarily only with theses two components of balance/structure and ignore other directives of the Training Scale. Still, despite ignoring most of the Training Tree, they are amazingly successful at ‘setting a horse’s head” recognizing at least the two bio-mechanical components of it. Visualize an example of a schooled western pleasure horse. The preferred “head set” demonstrated by the winning competitor at the jog exhibits a low neck, with top of the poll level but not higher than the withers and the poll open with the head/face clearly well in front of the vertical ( poll open). Are you also visualizing a well executed outline similar to an extended walk? The description of the head and neck position are the same.
The winning Saddle Bred Good Hands Horse will demonstrate the highest neck position possible with the poll the highest point showing a completely closed poll with head virtually perpendicular to the ground (face on the vertical). This position is evincedin the best passage (of course in a well-executed passage all other attributes of the Training Scale are present, i.e. rhythm, suppleness, contact, impulsion, straightness, carrying power toproduce collection.)
It is interesting to note that both components, the ability of the horse to lift orlower theneck on demand, and the willingness of the horse to close or open the poll on request are necessary for correct contact, true connection and longitudinal suppleness that will produce correctextensions and collection and for the horse to be “more on the bit.” Many riders and trainers have a clear understanding of how the height of the neck affects a horse’s ability to use the shoulders, front legs and back correctly in order to place more weight over the hind legs. Observing, understanding and training the required positioning, suppling and relaxation of the poll is not so often understood or accomplished.
Clearly for the horse to come over the back, exhibit thoroughness and to be elastic and willing in his engagement, the ability to raise and lower the neck on demand must be developed. Additionally, the horse must be requested and trained to open the poll on demand (follow the hand forward… reach to the bit …. nose forward) and close the poll (bring the nose closer to vertical ) with the neck staying relaxed and in a relaxed arch upon request. Poll rotation (lateral poll flexion) is a component of poll suppleness that must be developed for horses to show true suppleness in the poll. Poll rotation may be used to develop the horse’s ability tolearn to close at the poll and it is the important first step in achieving correct bending and lateral positioning.
Lack of top line suppleness is often directly related to the neck being too high or too low, or the horse being braced or locked in the poll and failing to “close” correctly. Addressing both aspects of a horse’s roundness (i.e. height of neck and closing of the poll) and addressing all other aspects of the Training Tree will help a horse achieve correct ability to be “round to the bridle” and “on the bit.” The challenge is for the horse to be willing to open his poll and extend his neck while going forward and to easily demonstrate willingness to close the poll and lift the neck with shoulders and forehand to follow, to produce power in collection. Both components are necessary for the horse to be truly connected and “through the back.”
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