Help My Horse Soften His Neck

Help my horse soften his neck (Your Horse February 2011)

"I've owned Gatlin, a six-year-old Trakehner gelding, for two years. He's done very little so far - a few showjumping clear rounds, cross-country schooling and hacking - but my plan is to eventually do some affiliated eventing. Gatlin is generally laid back, but he can also be quite sharp, which I find difficult to deal with. He has nice paces but feels very fixed in the contact and I find it difficult to get him to flex - especially on the right rein."

Rachel Ryder and Singing Gatlin

Meet The Expert

Amanda Brewer, British Dressage Accredited Trainer

Amanda Brewer

Amanda is an Event Horse Owners Association and British Dressage accredited trainer, as well as being a qualified BHSII instructor. She started out in her native Australia reschooling ex-racehorses to event successfully at three-star level. A move to the UK - and a chance meeting with the former team GB dressage trainer Conrad Schumacher - sparked a passion for pure dressage. Amanda is still trained by Conrad.

Amanda believes correct dressage training, combined with a sympathetic attitude, produces stunning results for all disciplines at all levels. The horses she trains are characterised by softness, suppleness and swinging paces, which enable them to perform in all spheres, often gaining results way in excess of their owners' expectations.

As Rachel walks around the arena Amanda comments on what a lovely walk Gatlin has. "It's an active walk with a good over-track. The problem you have is that Gatlin's fixed in his neck position and you look as though you're holding on to him." Amanda explains that while he's carrying his neck in this way Gatlin can't work over his back correctly and he'll find it difficult to go forwards. This is why it's such a problem when he spooks - he's so tense it's difficult for Rachel to control him. Rachel needs to alter the position of Gatlin's neck so he becomes softer and rounder. "Once he's more supple in his neck you'll find schooling and riding him much easier," explains Amanda.

As Gatlin's only six and hasn't been on many outings, he can still find going to new places a little exciting. To help him settle Rachel always likes to give him a few minutes on the lunge before she gets on him - and Amanda agrees that this is a good idea. She always puts safety first.

Before Rachel starts lungeing, Amanda also suggests walking him in-hand around the arena. "It's important with young, inexperienced horses to keep everything calm and relaxed," says Amanda.

Once Gatlin has a trot and canter on the lunge on both reins, he looks nice and calm, so Rachel gets on.

Amanda wants all of the work today to be done on a 20m circle. "As you're riding round on the left rein use gentle rein aids - just little feels from your wrist and elbow down the rein - to encourage Gatlin to lower his neck. Now ask for a little more bend to the left." Gatlin slowly begins to realise what Rachel is asking and every so often lowers his head slightly for a few steps.

"Come onto a smaller circle as this will make it easier for you," says Amanda. She explains that when the circle's smaller, you need to ask for more bend. Gatlin is able to stay in a more correct shape for longer, allowing him to relax and soften. "The activity from his hindlegs is good - all you need to do now is to encourage him into more of a frame."

As Rachel asks Gatlin to flex to the inside she must also use her inside leg to keep him on the circle, and allow him to bend by keeping her outside rein elastic and supporting. As they practise this, first on a small circle and then out onto a larger circle, we start to see a big improvement. "Having a conversation down the rein helps him understand what you want. As he starts to soften you can see his neck muscles start to wobble."

Riding an accurate circle

Amanda takes the time to explain to Rachel how important it is to ride accurate circles - as Rachel's circles have too many straight bits!

"Every step of a circle should be on a curve," she says. "There are four circle points you must ride to. On the left rein, starting your circle at C, your first circle point is 4m after H, then to X; 4m before M is the third circle point before riding back to C to complete the circle. If you understand how to ride a circle correctly you'll be surprised how much your horse's way of going will improve."

Being disciplined and riding on the correct line of a circle all the time means, subconsciously, you'll give your horse the correct aids to help him bend, and this will improve his suppleness, engagement and acceptance of your aids.

Riding a circle correctly and your horse's way of going will improve.

Still on the left rein, Rachel asks for trot. The transition is good but Gatlin rushes forward slightly and Rachel goes back to her old ways of holding onto him. Rachel needs to ask Gatlin to soften - he has a good rhythm in the trot with a nice natural swing to it - but there's no point asking him to go more forwards at this stage when his head and neck are up. Once Gatlin is softer through his neck he'll become more forward.

"Keep your elbows elastic, as this gives him nothing to sit on," says Amanda. "Make sure your reins don't get too long. If your hands are back near your tummy you're pulling against him." Gatlin begins to go in a softer shape.

Changing onto the right rein, it's easy to see this is Gatlin's stiffer rein. He's looking to the left when he's on a right circle, and appears lazy and unwilling. "It's like you have two different horses - on the left he's nicely forward and on the right he's more reluctant," says Amanda. Rachel needs to be positive and ride him forwards from her leg first. She can then focus on her circle points and start to ask for right bend.

Rachel finds this work difficult, and so does Gatlin. As soon as she gives an aid with the right rein he slows. She has to be brave and ride him forwards. "He isn't being difficult, he just doesn't understand. You need to be clear - he needs to understand that he has to react to the aid on the inside rein and look in that direction."

Because of the stiffness to the right, Rachel will have to be firmer with her aids to encourage Gatlin to soften in his jaw, but she must keep the feel elastic and not pull. Once he gives to the inside rein she can release it for a step or two as a reward. To help, Amanda suggests using a smaller circle again.

It's not long before Gatlin starts bending to the right - and what a difference - he looks like a different horse! However, Rachel needs to keep his head and neck turning, and also keep him going forwards.

Amanda is quick to say that this change won't happen in one lesson and Rachel will need to keep working on this until Gatlin bends consistently on both reins, remaining soft in the contact.

After a short break in walk to let Gatlin stretch his back, Amanda is keen to see if they can recreate the work they had before.

"Gatlin finds it very easy to bend to the left, so you have to watch you don't get too much bend, otherwise he'll just fall out through his right shoulder," says Amanda.

"Straightening him slightly with your outside rein and using your outside leg, too, will help to keep him on the correct sized circle."

Focusing on the circle points helps Rachel ride more accurately and keeps Gatlin bent correctly through his neck and body. Rachel has to watch she isn't hanging on to Gatlin and that she's only using her outside aid to help him stay in the correct frame.

"When he lifts his head, keep your contact elastic and ask him to lower and soften his neck again. You want his neck to be round, fat and bouncy!"

Rachel continues to trot on a 20m circle. If she loses the inside bend she comes onto a smaller circle until Gatlin softens, before going out onto a bigger circle.

"As you change the rein, don't worry if Gatlin slows, I want you to focus on keeping his neck soft as you change from left flexion to right," says Amanda. Once Rachel's on the right rein, Amanda reminds her she needs to ride Gatlin forwards before asking for right bend.

It's not long before Gatlin is bending nicely to the right and is going in a much rounder shape. If he brings his head up, Rachel rides a smaller circle to re-establish the bend.

"Don't forget he must go forwards - he finds it difficult this way but he needs to maintain a good working trot and keep turning to the right. Once he's bending nicely to the right let him have a stretch."

Rachel needs to position her hands wide and low to encourage Gatlin to take the contact forwards and down.

"OK, come back to walk. What we've done today isn't rocket science, it's just good, basic training and riding. Gatlin has tried really hard and there's been a big difference in the way he's going compared to how we started the lesson. He has given a huge amount - and hopefully this has helped you understand what you should be aiming for when you're schooling at home."

IS THE PROBLEM ME OR MY HORSE?

Amanda says

Rachel has lost her way a little with her schooling - she really needs to focus on getting Gatlin even and supple on both reins. Now Rachel understands how important it is to ride good circles and how to encourage Gatlin to soften his neck, they should make good progress.

Once Gatlin is going in a correct way they can incorporate other school movements, such as serpentines, into their schooling, which will improve his suppleness even more.

Gatlin has the right attitude and talent - it's all there - it just needs channelling. I'm sure it won't be long before they're out competing.

Rachel says

I'm really pleased with the way Gatlin went today - he improved over the course of the lesson and felt much softer. It has made me realise how much harder I need to work when I'm schooling. I need to be much more disciplined and ride more accurately.