A horse will never be light and responsive until the tension in his body is released. As your horsemanship improves, you should be able to feel when the horse is tense and when he is relaxed. There are several exercises you can do under saddle to help him let go of any tension both in his body and his mind.
One goal we should have is to get any braces in a horse broken loose. A horse can have braces in his feet, loin, back, neck, poll, shoulder, hip, and, of course, in his thinking.
Braces and tension prevent freedom of movement and can be the cause of various physical and behavioral problems. They are also an indication of unsureness and heightened self-preservation instincts.
If you’ve ever done any type of yoga or flexibility training, you know that a key factor is to use breath awareness to help release the tension in your muscles. That allows them to lengthen and stretch which can prevent soreness, joint issues, and improve your performance. Your horse needs that same release.
Breaking At The Withers
Breaking at the withers is when your horse lowers his head to release any tension in his topline.
To begin, with your horse in a stationary position, and your hands wide and low, bump one rein at a time. You will bump left, right, left, right. Closely watch the top of his head while you are doing this. When he lowers his head, even very slightly, give him a full release. The timing of your release is critical. Begin again with the right, left, bumps. Any lowering of the head causes your full release. It should not take long before just slight bumps immediately cause your horse’s head to lower from the withers which will help release tension in his topline.
Now you certainly don’t want your horse riding around like this with his nose close to the ground. He should travel with a natural headset. If they carry their head too low, it can cause them to be unbalanced and have too much weight on the front end.
Breaking At The Poll
Use a slightly different technique to release tension in the poll. The horse will be standing still with his head in a natural position. Your hands will be closer together than in the ‘breaking at the withers’ exercise above. You will use more of a lifting motion with your right and left rein bumps. Watch for any slight loosening at the poll. Immediately give the horse a full release at any sign of the poll softening. Build on that until the horse easily and immediately brings his face vertical as soon as you ask.
Release Tension By Bending The Neck
Another exercise is to bend the neck around to your toe. Don’t overdo this exercise. You don’t want to end up with a rubber necked horse. Use your right rein, pull out directly to the side with slight bumps until his nose moves towards your toe. Give the horse a full release any time he gives to the pressure. Repeat on the left side. Work on this until he will bring his nose to your toe without any resistance.
Release Poll Tension Laterally
For this maneuver, use your supporting rein to keep the neck straight. Then use one rein to have the horse flex his face laterally. Again, quickly reward any softness by a full release of pressure. Repeat on both the right and left sides.
The better you are at recognizing and rewarding a small change, the quicker you will see a major improvement.
For more advanced bending and flexion go here: Lead Changes, Flexion, and Lateral Movements
Down The Road
At this phase, you are simply getting them to turn loose and release tension.
Beware of too much softening at the poll before your reins are connected to the feet. Firmly establish control of the feet. Then add softness and form.
You don’t want a horse that will give you his face, but not his feet.
These exercises are how you would begin to ask for some softness. It will help down the road when your horse is ready for traveling in a more collected way to maintain an athletic and balanced posture.
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