In her new book RIDDEN: DRESSAGE FROM THE HORSE’S POINT OF VIEW, Ulrike Thiel explains why it is important that the horse be able to use his neck as a “balancing rod.” She says the horse’s ability to use his “balancing rod” neck defines his balance and instills confidence in his movement.
“The comfort of the connection between horse and rider depends directly on the availability of the ‘balancing rod’ neck,” says Thiel. “And remember, contact should come from the horse—he should stretch elastically into the reins rather than yielding to the rider’s hands. In several modern schools of riding, correct contact is replaced with the horse yielding at the poll and going behind the vertical in response to pressure from the rider’s hands.”
Try this easy exercise to see how important it is for the horse to be able to use his “balancing rod” when being ridden:
1 With your arms free and held out to your sides, tread the length of a narrow surface, such as a balance beam or even a long strip of wood flat on the ground, such as that shown in the image above. Most will find that this neither causes insecurity nor is difficult to accomplish—you can rely on your “balancing rod” arms as necessary.
2 Now try the exercise with your arms folded behind your back, but unfastened so you can use them if you need to. While you may fall out of balance and your muscles may cramp momentarily, you know you can put your hands out to the sides to catch yourself and relieve your muscles if you need to. Therefore, again, the exercise is neither particularly anxiety-inducing nor difficult.
3 Finally, tie or handcuff your hands in front of or behind your body and try again to tread the length of the beam. You will discover you fall out of balance more often and your muscles are more likely to cramp—plus, the knowledge that you cannot catch yourself from falling even if you want to, or relieve your cramping muscles, causes anxiety.
“When the horse is in the ‘classical contact’ (in front of the vertical and with sufficient neck length), he is able to use his ‘balancing rod’ (his neck) whenever he needs to catch his balance,” says Thiel.
This is like treading the beam in Step 2, with your hands unfastened but folded behind your back.
“However, when a horse is held in a shortened neck position by the rider’s hands, he doesn’t have that ability,” she goes on. “This is comparable to us having our hands tied behind our back [Step 3 of the exercise]. Think about it: Police bind prisoners’ hands behind their back with handcuffs so they can’t run away—their feet are free, but their balance is compromised. When the reins act as ‘handcuffs’ on the horse, they not only prevent him from balancing himself, they also cause instinctive fear in a flight animal, since he feels he can’t run away if necessary.”
RIDDEN: DRESSAGE FROM THE HORSE’S POINT OF VIEW is available from the TSB online bookstore.