In Dressage, we come across all kinds of horses, and each one (regardless of how easy or hard our equine partner can be) has humble lessons to teach us.
One of them I find to be an ongoing lesson for me and my students is the inside rein. How we sometimes misuse it, especially in cases where we don’t have steady contact and enough driving leg to support our partner to be light in the hand.
I’ve started with some horses with necks of a giraffe; even just wrapping my index finger around the rein to bend made me question - how can I bend this piece of iron? Sometimes for riders, the horse has developed such a strong neck due to incorrect training: not having steady and light hands, too much hand riding for a long period of time resulting in a heavy/stiff mouth and neck.
When we get in these tough situations where the neck is so tough and so unbendable, we overexert our physical strength thinking that we can conquer the neck to be submissive and light. Although, the opposite effect happens - the horse gets tougher, heavier. We all know no matter what, the horse is physically stronger than us humans. So how can we fix this without entering a battle?
Here are some things to consider if your horse is super stiff from the start of the ride. Some horses may be even more challenging than others if they are lazy, and/or run through your aids because they have a stiff and strong jaw.
Sliding the inside leg back, and keeping the inside rein stable by lifting higher than the outside rein.
1. Break the iron in half with a bent inside leg - Regardless if your horse starts like a giraffe to slightly bobbing its head, your inside leg will make it a level playing field to access its body in a supple way, and make the horse more bendable. The more you slide your leg back you are reaching the hind end better, and making the horse move its hind legs, putting it to work. The leg will help the rider lighten the weight off of the reins. This will give you a better chance of not feeling so much pressure in the reins where you might unconsciously be pulling more than you realize.
2. Good vibes from the inside Rein -
- A lot of times it is a lack of a steady inside rein that makes the horse pop, and stiffen its neck/head. This can mean your inside rein gets too long and when it’s time to do an action that requires a lot of suppling/bending, you try to make it by quickly grabbing more rein, but that is actually pulling. That dramatic action of a nonexistent, no contact rein to a sudden punching/pulling one really unsettles the horse’s mouth causing them to go out of frame.
- Another factor is a lot of riders have a weaker body side when riding therefore they drop the inside rein near their hip area (the inside body half might crunch sideways/lean forward) down or away from our outside hand/pommel area of the saddle. This will leave you more vulnerable to pulling your horse. Imagine your inside rein in this little box right above the pommel of the saddle where it rises slightly higher than your outside hand, it never steps out. It will help you be consistent and maintain steady communication with your horse.
- Once you get stronger with your positioning and steadiness of your inside rein, then what’s the correct communication between a heavy horse and our inside rein? The inside rein for the stiff horse is like a masseuse. You have to view that horse’s mouth like a knotted back that needs alleviation. The inside rein is always massaging and suppling the inside rein while the outside is controlling rhythm and submission. The inside rein targets the locked jaw of the horse by creating a give and take relationship. This means that the inside rein puts a pressure by bending your inside wrist to the side. With that action, you have unkinked that stiffness. Then you release the reins by just slightly opening your hands and legging the horse to carry this soft, and supple contact. This is where the give and take relationship takes place. The horse understands a clear relationship where it takes the pressure, and the rider will decrease it when the horse backs off from being hard mouthed. The thing is, this is not something that you do once, and execute in the next 5 minutes. This lengthy explanation is in a matter of seconds, and throughout your whole ride, you are using this action every other step in your ride.
3. No Good Vibes without Good Leg is the catalyst to make this all happen. Before you execute anything with your hand, the leg is the ignition. With stiffer horses, make sure you keep your leg on them. Imagine that if your leg is to go off contact from the horse’s body, the horse immediately hardens into stone because it is only guided by reins. The leg alleviates the stiffness of the horse’s body. By using an effective and consistent leg, you are creating a better support of lifting the horse’s head up. With that, it gives you a more flexible, inside rein to work with. If you feel that your legs aren’t strong enough, you can always use the whip along with the leg by tapping the horse to use its hind end more. This will help you be more consistent in driving your horse forward.
With your leg aids: open your knees more away from the saddle to give your legs more mobility to bend and push forward.
Raquel Santos is based in Agoura Hills/Calabasas at Brookview Ranch Stables. She has experience in turning horses with no experience in dressage into solid dance partners. She furthered her education over in Europe at Dressuurtal Van Baalen for six months, and established her business back in Los Angeles, CA. She currently trains a variety of horses- lower, FEI level, problem horses. Learn more about Raquel Santos Dressage services on Equivont.