I’m a tooth grinder, a jaw clencher, a cheek-chewer—my masseters are where anxiety and pressure get together and wrestle, while frustration punches the walls of my mouth in the background. I know I can blame my afternoon headaches on this tension lollapalooza going on right below my brain, but it never occurred to me my horse might be shaking his head because of the tightness transferred to him from mine.
In her immensely useful new book 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES, biomechanics specialist and riding instructor Wendy Murdoch explains that softening your jaw will improve your rein contact, inviting your horse to stretch down and be more forward.
“You might be surprised by how much effect your jaw has on your horse,” Wendy says. “Horses often mirror the rider’s behavior and movement. If you are having a problem getting your horse to stop leaning on the bit, bracing his neck, or tensing his jaw when you ride, it is time to examine what you are doing with your jaw.”
Next time you ride, notice your jaw. Do you clench your teeth? Do you hold one side tighter than the other? Do you pull your jaw in and up in order to “sit up straight”? Do you push your chin out as you ride transitions or go over jumps? Do you tense your tongue or push it against the side of your mouth?
Relaxing the jaw frees your head, neck, upper chest, and shoulders—the horse’s too. Your jaw needs to be relaxed and moveable when you ride. Clamping on one side or both sides increases your body tension, especially in the shoulder area. Excessive protraction (sticking your chin out) or retraction (pulling your chin in) will create tension along the back and front of your body. Your horse feels this tension through the saddle, causing him to react in a similar way by tensing his jaw, shoulders, and back.
Try this 5-Minute Fix to improve your rein contact and encourage your horse to let go of excessive tension in his body.
SOFTEN YOUR JAW
- Observe what you do with your jaw when you drive your car, work at the computer, or watch TV. Find out how often you tense, retract, or protract your jaw. Does the angle of your car seat make you stick your chin forward? Put a sticky note on your computer to remind you to let your jaw soften while you type.
- How many fingers (one on top of the other) can you insert in your mouth? If you can’t get more than two, then your masseter muscles are really contracted! Practice sliding your lower jaw forward and back with your teeth parted. Use the tips of two fingers placed just inside your mouth as a guide to prevent you from closing the jaw.
- Slide your jaw from one side to the other side. Which direction is easier? Think of making flat circles (parallel to the ground) with your lower jaw as if it were a plate sliding around below your upper jaw. Rest and feel how these movements help you soften your jaw, tongue, neck, and shoulder area.
- When mounted, notice what you do with your jaw. Do you clamp your teeth? Does the tip of your tongue press against your palate? If so, allow it to rest behind the lower front teeth. This will relax your tongue.
- Practice sliding your jaw forward and back and from side to side while in the saddle. Observe your horse: What does he do with his back and neck when you soften your jaw?
- Keep your teeth just slightly parted, consciously relaxing your masseter muscles. You can touch them occasionally as a reminder to stay soft. Feel how this softens your neck, shoulders, and upper back. How does this affect your contact?
Find more great 5-Minute Fixes in Wendy Murdoch’s 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES and her bestseller 50 5-MINUTE FIXES TO IMPROVE YOUR RIDING, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.