I started asking the Choctaw Princess to reset the tension in her head, neck and shoulders using some of the infamous 19th century French horse master Baucher’s ground exercises after she let me know just how much she resented the halter. Baucher claimed that he could render a horse calm, confident and cooperative in just a couple of lessons by holding onto the reins of a curb bit while tapping the horse on their chest with the butt end of a whip until the horse came forward, dropping their head and relaxing their jaw.
I have spent so much time correcting the results of ‘quick’ training methods, that I was extremely skeptical of Baucher’s claims. I was not impressed with his arguments for why his method worked. And, I know from experience that all efforts aimed at fixing a horse’s head into a preset position usually just makes them even stiffer and more resistant.
Then I watched my older rescue thoroughbred completely change the way my younger one moved by thumping him smartly on his sternum with one hock while they were galloping around. The younger one had come to me with bowed tendons that were the result of poor movement from older injuries to his neck and back. He was able to take faster and slower steps at a given gait, but he seemed unaware that he could also moderate the length and height of his strides.
After only a couple of sessions of the older horse’s corrections, the young one was picking himself up in front. As his self-carriage improved, he quickly developed an extra-ordinary display of variation in his gaits. The change was remarkable and remarkably fast.
I was curious to know if there was any current research that could support the change I saw in my horses. I found that horses have an ingenious proprioreceptive mechanism that includes their lower jaw and tongue. The hyoid apparatus is based on a distinctive bone slung between their lower jaws. It is easier to see than describe, so here is an image of it.
Its upper ends are integrated into the muscles at the poll, including those that control the movement of their eyes and ears. Its lower end has three long muscles that run the length of their neck to their chest. The hyoid bone is connected to the tip of the sternum, or the breastbone, by the sterno-hyoideus muscle.
Tapping the breastbone where the sterno-hyoideus attaches prompts the horse to drop their nose, arch their neck and chew which usually triggers a major reset in the horse’s mental and physiological state. There is more to the story than I can go into here. But you can read all about the details I found in The Gymnastic Circle, book two of my schooling series.
I started by haltering the Choctaw Princess, then just standing beside her with the lead line loose. Since she had never read either Baucher’s book or mine, the first time I tried tapping on her breastbone, it got me a glare and then a horse so stiff she might as well have been petrified. So I decided to use my fingers to find the spot on her chest that would respond by releasing and resetting her whole proprioreceptive apparatus.
I found the tendinous attachment of the sterno-hyoideus muscle with no problem, but touching or rubbing that spot got no response. I had to move up a couple of inches to find the belly of the muscle. Massaging the muscle’s belly got her to drop her head, relax her neck and give a quick chew.
I followed that up with a treat. Since grass is everywhere in their natural environment, food is not really a reward for a grazing animal. But, horses do snag a bite of grass to let other members of the herd know that they can relax and eat after an alarm. Offering a treat means that I want her to stay relaxed and I. want her to keep on chewing.
Persuading the Choctaw Princess to drop her head, chew and swallow when I touched her breast only took a few sessions. Then I made very sure that I kept the lead line loose when I stepped out to lead her. She is a princess after all, and given the chance, responds to the slightest hint of movement.
All was going well until I asked her to move her behind over by touching her low on one side of her ribs near her belly. She promptly threw her head up and shoved her shoulder into me once more. When I touched her side again, she waved a hind leg at me in warning.
I turned to Baucher again. He recommends teaching horses ‘flexions of the jaw’ from the ground. He advised riders to play gently with the bit until their horse responds by turning their head and ‘champing’ their jaws. This finally made sense to me when I learned that horses are designed so that every time they chew or swallow, they reset their nervous system and recalibrate the tension in their nervous system.
But the Choctaw Princess has never had a bit in her mouth. She is deeply suspicious of having any kind of gear strapped to her head. Adding a bit was not going to offer a quick fix.
However, on either side of the horse’s neck, the omni-hyoideus muscle smoothly integrates into the web of fascia between the horse’s ribs and their shoulder blades instead of attaching to a bone. I decided to try prodding the spot near the point of her shoulder where the omni-hyoideus muscle heads under her shoulder-blade. Her neck was so tense that I hit a trigger point and her lower neck muscles on that side all began to quiver and twitch.
We were both a little startled by that reaction, but her neck and her attitude did relax a bit once the twitching stopped. As the muscles relaxed, I could seek out just the right spot. When I found it, she promptly dropped her nose as she turned her head towards me and gave a quick chew.
I gave her a treat. Again. After getting the desired response on both sides, I asked her to move over once more. I tried touching her side while she was still chewing and her head was still slightly turned. She stepped over smoothly and promptly.
Now we have our routines. If she is calm and relaxed when I put a halter on her, we just head out together. If she is tense and resistant, we go through the whole chest and shoulder tapping routine. If she drops her head and bats her eyes at me while she chews, I laugh and give her a treat before we head off.
click here for a beginning