The education of the mouth can be broken down into four easy to understand components:
When we talk about the word “contact” we are talking about the connection between the rider’s elbow with the horse’s mouth, through the hand via the reins and to the bit. Leading on from this is the horses’ “acceptance of the contact”. This acceptance of the contact is in essence the question “how confident is the horse to the rider’s rein aids?” Confidence comes from comprehension or understanding of what the bit is used for and what the rein aids are, this is our job as riders and trainers to explain this as clearly as possible.
It is important when we commence the education of the mouth that there are no backward actions on the mouth, all actions need to be in an upward direction – as a rule, up the line of the cheek piece. If there is backwards pressure it causes unnecessary pressure on the horses’ tongue and teeth which can be the first step to loss of confidence in the bit or the hand.
What we want to see is a relaxed mobile jaw or chewing without tension. As trainers, this is our indication that the horse is ready for us to have a conversation and we can build on this. The mobility of the jaw is essential in the ongoing training of the horse, as soon as we start to get this response we are relaxing the mind and the body- no tight jaw can have a relaxed mind or relaxed muscles.
When we talk about balance we have longitudinal (forwards and backwards), lateral (left and right) and diagonal (left front/right hind and right front/left hind). We are looking for the front legs to be at a 90 degree angle to the ground and the point of hock to be underneath the point of buttock. This enables us to get access to the power of the hind quarter by asking for energy, in turn bascule is initiated by the engagement of the core muscles and the process of telescoping the neck has begun. To aid the horse in its relaxation of the mouth we need to educate the posture to be able to maintain as much balance as possible in all these positions.
Once we have improved the balance we can then ask our horses to bend both to the left and to the right. Bend is the lateral flexion of the horses neck – or more specifically the cervical vertebrae. The horses back remains straight through the thoracic, lumbar, sacral and caudal vertebrae. During bend we are looking for the nose to stay vertical to the ground, with no head tilt or poll flexion. and be able to stretch around without force in both directions. We aim to gradually obtain a bend in the horse’s neck of 45 to 90 degrees, to the body, without poll flexion. There should be no loss of balance longitudinally or laterally in this process.
Finally after the first three facets have been established we want the horse to learn to extend the neck without losing balance over the shoulders. We are looking for the neck to extend forwards and downwards, so that the poll is lower than the withers. In doing so, we not only maximise the stretching of the muscles in the outside half of the neck, but we also stretch the horse’s topline. We use an aid called action / reaction to develop this posture.