This exercise is the first of our attempts
to accustom the forces of the horse
to yield to ours.
It is necessary, then,
to manage it very nicely,
so as not to discourage him at first.
To enter on the flexion roughly
would be to shock the animal’s intelligence,
who would not have had time to comprehend
what was required of him.
Once you have achieved calm consistent responses when tapping the horse on the sternum and shoulder points at liberty (click here) you can start on Baucher’s next step. He explains the importance of jaw flexions this way:
- What is the use of the flexions of the jaw?
- As it is upon the lower jaw that the effects of the rider’s hand are first felt,
these will be null or incomplete if the jaw is contracted or closed against the upper one.
Besides, as in this case the displacing of the horse’s body is only obtained with difficulty,
the movements resulting therefrom will also be painful.
I was struck by his comment that movement is painful for the horse when their jaw is contracted. This is not an observation or concern commonly found in horse training manuals despite Xenophon’s age old warning that forcing either horses or humans to dance by means of whips and chains is both ugly and ineffective. Far too many horse trainers assume that ‘negative reinforcement’ is essential to horse training, although most try to disguise the various methods they use to inflict pain on the horse with flowery hyperbolic language.
- Is it enough that the horse champ his bit
for the flexion of his jaw to leave nothing more to wish for?
- No, it is also necessary that the horse let go of the bit—
that is to say, that he should separate (at our will) his jaws as much as possible.
- Can all horses have this mobility of jaw?
- All without exception, if we follow the gradation pointed out,
if the rider does not allow himself to be deceived by the flexion of the neck.
Useful as this is, it would be insufficient without the play of the jaw.
Putting Baucher’s instructions into more contemporary language, they might read something like this:
- Seek to habituate the horse to respond to the movement of the bit in their mouth with the SYS (stretch-yawn syndrome), resetting their central nervous system to calm aware responsiveness and recalibrating the tensions throughout their entire myofascial system, ensuring their suppleness and preserving their soundness
Horses cannot yawn as they only breathe through their nostrils, so the opening of the jaw and the movement of the tongue are the key elements that triggers their resetting of the central nervous system, the fine-tuning of proprioreception, and recalibrating tension in the myofascial tissues, creating state of calm supple responsiveness. The underlying goal is for the horse to learn how to carry first the bit and then a rider with ease. Given a choice, most horses will gladly work in the way that allows them the most self-expression and the least discomfort.
The bulk of the distortions of Baucher’s work arise because people ignore and/or deny the degree of empathy, finesse, and self-discipline required to ride successfully according to his method. Although Baucher rode with a double bridle and used both snaffle and curb bits when schooling his mounts, most people do not have Baucher’s inborn finesse, and tend to use the curb bit as a tool to pull their horse’s head down and pry their jaws apart. When the results fail to meet their expectations, they resort to pulling harder on harsher bits. He appeared to be aware of this dynamic because he cautions the rider against deceiving themselves by focusing on flexing the horse’s neck, and ignoring the state of the horse’s jaws.
A snaffle reduces the temptation for the frustrated rider to just make the horse comply with their demands. Rather than getting a harsher bit when you do not get the results you want, take resistance from the horse as a message that you need to change your own behavior. So take your horse and the plain snaffle bridle you have been practicing with on the ground out to your schooling pen. Up your chances of success and:
- Give your horse their usual chance to roll and explore.
- Do the tapping exercises on their breast and make sure the horse is calm and cooperative before you put the bridle on them.
- If the horse seems nervous or upset once bridled, repeat the tapping on their breast with the reins hanging loose.
- Be sure to mirror them when they stretch, arch their neck, and drop their head.
When you are both relaxed, you can pick up one rein in each hand. The position you have to maintain to keep your hands with the reins level with the bit in the horse’s mouth is more or less awkward depending on your height and shape, and the size of the horse. Continually double checking yourself, being sure to relax and reset your own body (click here) before asking the horse for anything, will up your odds of success.
- It is most important to stand in front of the horse for this exercise and hold the reins away from your own body as when we relax our arms, they automatically retract falling back towards our body.
Relaxing our arms automatically gives the horse some slack in the reins when we are standing in front of the horse’s head. That instinctive release of tension on the reins is the key to this lesson as:
‘The advantage of the ramener
Is that it occurs
Upon a release
Of the hands,
And not a traction.’
Page 47 Another Horsemanship
By Jean-Claude Racinet
If we face the same way as the horse and stand beside or behind the horse’s head and work the reins, despite our very best efforts, we all too easily drag the reins back when our arms relax causing the horse to tense up and resist. For the same reason, hold the reins in a soft fist, with the rein coming up past the little finger on the bottom and out by the thumb on top. This way you can control its length with thumb pressure while keeping your fingers in a gentle curl. The hand action to practice is a squeeze, closing the fingers firmly while keeping the arm and hand immobile. Closing the fingers and squeeze can shorten the rein 2-3 inches, so start with minimal effort, focusing on your own finesse and delicacy.
If you want to test how subtle of hand movements your horse will respond to, try tying a length of thread to each side of the snaffle instead of reins. If you snap the thread, you need to lighten up your hands (click here).When you and the horse are ready:
- Stand in front of your bridled horse
- Take one rein in each hand with a relaxed fist(click here)
- A few inches from the bit
- Make sure the reins are equally and very slightly slack
- Adjusting the reins so that closing your fist takes the slack out
- Shift your position so it is easiest on your arms
- And you are slightly to the side
- Giving the horse room to drop their head and
- Allowing for a free extension of their front legs
- Then briefly squeeze the rein held in ONE hand while
- Keeping both arms still
- just the one side of the snaffle should move
- Then immediately relax your fist
- If the horse ‘smiles’
- Relaxing his jaws,
- Picking up the bit with his tongue
- And dropping it again,
- You have succeeded.
- STOP and praise him
This is an innate hard-wired response from the horse, so be prepared for the possibility of an immediate and successful response. This is most likely to happen with a horse who has never carried a bit before, but the most battered old veteran can surprise you, especially if you and the horse have prepared for this step. Regardless, quit while you are ahead, no matter how brief the session, as you want the horse to remember how easy, pleasant, and rewarding the experience was. Take the bridle off and do something both you and the horse enjoy. You can alternate hands the next time.
If the horse freezes up and does not respond, as can often happen when they have had their mouth abused, it does not mean that your efforts are in vain. It more likely means that the horse is locked into a muscular memory of resistance. In order for the muscle memory to reset, the horse has to trust that you will not hurt them. So do not despair and give up. Instead:
- Check the length of your reins and
- Check your hand position and
- Squeeze one rein softly,
- Barely enough to move one side of the bit
- Asking the horse to ‘smile’
- Relaxing his jaws,
- Picking up the bit with his tongue
- And dropping it again,
- Pause, reorganize yourself and
- Repeat with the rein in the other hand
- Pause, reorganize yourself and
- Move so you are standing slightly to the other side of the horse’s head
- Repeat the whole series from that vantage point
- Quit, regardless of the horse’s response
If you are brief, gentle, and consistent, eventually the horse will soften. If they have physical damage from abuse, it will take longer as the body needs to repair itself in order to be able to respond without pain. Horses who have been subjected to bitting rigs, harsh bits, and draw reins can have injuries to their tongue, the bars of their jaws, and the roof of their mouth as well as arthrtic changes in their cervical vertebra. If you know that your horse does not have any pain or physical issues and they react to your efforts by twisting their jaws, stiffening up, moving away, or throwing their head up or down, they are usually responding to your tension and/or your overuse of the reins.
- Always keep Baucher’s caution (above) in mind and if in doubt, use LESS effort, not more.
- As you cannot force the horses to relax, release, and reset themselves, you must continually focus on how to show the horse what you want through your own body.
Usually it takes about a week of asking the horse for these brief flexions a couple of times each day for the horse to ‘smile’ consistently in response to your squeezing the reins. If you cannot work with your horse every day, it will take more time by the calendar. Giving the horse plenty of time to absorb their lessons is never a mistake however, so regardless of how much time you have to spend with your horse, just keep your focus on your own clarity and consistency and let the horse tell you when they understand your requests.
Some horses, especially stallions, will be happy to demonstrate their newfound freedom of their front ends by waving their front feet about in the air. This response is one of the first glimmers of self-carriage and genuine impulsion so treat it as the rare and precious gift of the horse to their rider that it is. Understanding that that the horse’s free elevation of the front end and enthusiastic extension of the front legs becomes the beautifully expressive Spanish or school walk under saddle encourages the rider to welcome their horse’s efforts. This behavior means that the horse has not only learned that your squeezing the reins means they should mouth the bit, resetting their central nervous system, recalibrating their myofascial system, and fine-tuning their entire proprio-receptive complex, but they have progressed to the next step of their own accord. They are no longer just preparing for, but are impelled to, action. Regard the horse that volunteers the free and airy movement of their front legs as a priceless (if challenging) treasure since:
The impulsive flexion
Is a technique combining
The relaxation of the jaw
And the forward movement,
So as to replace the couple
With the couple
It consists of demanding systematically
in the frame of action
Each time that one has obtained a flexion of the jaw.
Page 94, Another Horsemanship
by Jean Claude Racinet