Monday, April 25, 2011

A Tale of Three Necks: Straight, Stiff-as-a-board and Gumby

Yesterday, Easter, was a really beautiful day here - 50sF with a bit of wind and on and off sun - so I managed rides on all three horses.  I really enjoy riding different horses - I think it helps me learn and not get stuck in just one way of doing things, and it's also interesting to compare and contrast their ways of going, natural tendencies and how they respond to what I ask.

Yesterday, what I noticed was how different they are in how they hold and use their necks, and what that says about their balance, posture, softness and where we go next in the work.

First up was Pie.  We went out on the trail for about an hour and did a lot of trotting.  We stopped along the way and looked at things - Pie enjoys doing this and seems to systematically take everything in.  When we were trotting - I had only the lightest contact on the reins - we were in the sidepull - he volunteered stretching his neck and head down on a couple of occasions - his usual way of going at the trot if I'm not directly asking him to soften is with head somewhat high.  I was delighted by this stretching down - I think it means that all the softening work we've been doing is beginning to take and that he's starting to feel that a softer posture with a more relaxed top line may be more comfortable.  The softening work is somewhat hard for him, because his neck is very straight on the top line and relaxing that into a curved top line is physically hard work.  But I think he's beginning to get the idea of softening and its benefits.

Next was Dawn.  The last time I'd ridden her was April 7, but she seemed pretty mellow (for Dawn), so I saddled up and off we went without any preliminary lungeing - she was in the "modified" Dr. Cook's with the fuzzy noseband (I attach the reins to the rings on the noseband instead of the crossover strap rings).  She was somewhat bracey, although I did get some softening at the walk.  When trotting, she was more braced and also somewhat inclined to rush, so we did circles to help her with her pace regulation.  She was able to soften, although not as well as when she's in a bit, as long as we were going straight or bending left.  And she's not tending to do the "curl up" anymore - this was the focus of our work last year - to get her to stretch to the bit rather than falling behind it, and therefore to use her whole body correctly.  When turning to the right and attempting to get a right bend, it was like riding a piece of lumber - she was really struggling.  She hasn't had a chiro treatment yet this year, and I'll bet there's something going on in the first couple of neck vertebrae that's not letting her bend her neck to the right and also soften at the same time - both the joint between the skull and the first vertebra and the joint between the first and second vertebrae have to be able to move freely to allow her to do this.

As an experiment, we did some flexion work to the right while halted - she could do this to the right although it took a little bit of effort, but softening and flexing to the right at the same time just wasn't possible.  I'm planning to have chiro done on all three horses after our dentist visit on May 4, and I expect that will help her out quite a bit.  She's also been showing some increasing discomfort when chewing, which could be her tongue (she cut it quite badly back in December which is why I'm not riding her in a bit right now) or a dental issue or both - I'm hoping the dentist can give us some answers.

Then Drifter got a workout.  This was, I think, my 12th ride on him.  We only lunged for a few minutes to check his attention to me - I expect we'll drop that from our routine pretty soon as his concentration and ability to come back to me after being distracted improves.  I'm still getting to know him, but I would say that he tends to be a bit of a gumby horse - he freely bends every which way but that doesn't mean anything's connected to anything else - I suspect he may have done a little too much lateral flexion work - I'm not a big fan of that exercise for that reason - I do a little bit so the horse gets the idea but not more than that.  But the good thing about softening work is that you can feel the difference between a horse that's softening and one that's just flexing the neck without softening the top line back to the tail or engaging the core.  With Drifter, at the walk we're working on him stretching down and relaxing while staying soft, so the front can be connected to the back - the difference in the quality of his walk is noticeable.  With that modification, his softening work at the walk is pretty good, although not yet 100% consistent.

We've only just started our trot work.  We're working on pace regulation - not rushing (he's Mr. Speedy and thinks he has to go everywhere fast, which may be due in part to his personality and in part to his prior training, particularly if he was a barrel horse) and straightness and focus at the trot.  His "gumbiness" presents some issues when I circle to help him regulate pace - he can turn on a dime so tends to rush through this too - sometimes we have to do numerous circles before he understands that he doesn't have to zip around the turn but just turn in a relaxed manner.  We did manage some decent softening work at the trot for several steps at the end of our ride, where he wasn't just contracting his neck but actually relaxing and reaching - his trot became instantly amazingly elevated and driving from behind - he's got a lot of potential because his gaits can be so good.  I stopped there, jumped off and praised him greatly.

It was a great day with horses - we're expecting a lot of rain this week so who knows how much riding there will be.


  1. Interesting post, relevant to what I'm doing with my youngsters. Remy my five year old is now only just really starting to release and relax through his neck, he holds a lot of tension. My other youngster,Bonbon who's four years old, not as well made in the neck, but much more relaxed and supple and finding the early work very easy.

  2. Thanks for an interesting post. My mare is stiff to the right and we have to continually work on that. But she's getting a little better each time we ride. She was not ridden for over three months because of my surgery, but we're both slowly getting back into shape.

    Our chiropractor comes Wednesday morning and it will be interesting to see what she finds.


  3. I know the types well. I used to compare one horse I rode to a Greyhound bus, with about that kind of turning radius as he body was that stiff. The, I had my Ferrari...fortunately pretty well tuned, but he could go any which a way. I've had the Gumby necks too. Makes for interesting emergency turns when you "really have to," and all that bends is the neck while horse body continues on in the original direction.

    Each one does require an individual training approach while, ironically, you are seeking the same end result.

  4. Ozzy definitely falls under the gumby category.

  5. I have such admiration for you. Discipline, sensitivity to every horse you ride. Understanding. Kindness while working. Would you please post a shot of your Bitless bridle being used as a sidepull? Thanks.

  6. Great days work! I was having trouble staying on my feet let a lone a horse , this weekend , buit the ground is drying up and we will have good footing soon

  7. I agree with you, Kate, about riding multiple horses. It's wonderful and useful. Lately I've ridden my friend K's little Arab while she rides my hot mare, Scout, and even the change is perspective is valuable, I find.

    Can you tell us some time which of the three horses presents the greatest challenge to you as a rider, and why? If they do, that is.

  8. Jaz is stiff as a board, but we're working on it. And we've had rain since late last week, which we so desperately need.

  9. Lori - I have no idea if I'm any of those things you say, I just love riding and being with my horses.

    I've tried without success to get a good picture of my "modified" Dr. Cook's but the picture don't come out well. Just shorten the crossunder straps so the rings rest on the noseband rings - in Dawn's case I take the crossover straps to the last hole and they're still not tight. Then put the bridle on the regular way with a snug but not too tight chin strap. The reins go on the noseband rings instead of the crossover rings - those just sit there doing nothing and bit in the way. Not ideal.

  10. Muddy K - interesting idea - I'll think about that.

  11. We are getting that rain too. Yesterday was the nicest day of the week yet but when the sun came out the wind showed up and was crazy windy and after not riding for over a week riding in that wind didn't sound at all appealing. It is pouring as I type. Steady sounds like a mixture of Dawn and Drifter. I am in the middle of typing up a post on my last lesson. I said to the trainer that I feel like I am riding Pokey and she looked at me like I was crazy and I said, you know Gumby's horse? Very interesting how different all three horses are.

  12. Kate, I'd love to get some advice. Last year we were having tons of problems with Panama rushing at the trot in the outdoor arena. Now that we're starting to ride outside again, I've been using circling to get him to regulate his pace, and I actually thought it was working really well. However, he seems to have recently gotten worse about throwing his inside shoulder into the turn -- always a problem for him, but I think it's gotten worse recently. Do you have any tips on how to use circling without encouraging this? My trainer wants me to take a different approach than circling, but after our lesson today, I'm reasonably confident that what she's telling me to do (halt and back him when he speeds up) is actually making the problem worse, because he gets frustrated and tense, and then starts doing both (speeding up and throwing his shoulder in) even more.

  13. Katharine - not sure without seeing it - by throwing his inside shoulder in, do you mean that he drops the shoulder to the inside, with the head and bend to the outside? If so, you may want to think of the horse as between your two reins and two legs - as rectangle that bends. Keep a good contact on the outside rein and use a little inside leg to keep him stepping under and bent to the right with a slight opening inside hand. I hope that makes some sense - he also needs to accept a bit of leg as meaning "step over" father than "go faster".

    I'm not a big fan of the stop and back - it doesn't tell him what to do, just that he's done something wrong. If you can get him to circle until he's at an appropriate pace and then let him go straight - which is easier - the reward tells him what he's doing right.

  14. Kate, thanks. Yes, he definitely tends to have his nose to the outside. When he throws his shoulder in he just kind of tends to "fall" through the turn, speeding up and generally falling apart as he goes. Part of it seems to be that he struggles with the leg yield -- he doesn't interpret one leg as a "go" button anymore, but he doesn't always move off it, either. He struggles with it most in turns and when I'm trying to get him to bend -- funnily enough, he knows exactly what it means if we are going straight and I want him to move over a little.

    I agree completely about the stop-and-back. Not only does it not tell him what I want him to do, I also feel Panama doesn't handle it well -- he gets frustrated and mad, if it's pushed too far, and when that happens he stops using his brain. Before our session today I was circling until he picked up his shoulder, and then going straight, and we weren't having many problems with him speeding up. He was still tending to lean into the turn too much, but that's easier to work with on its own than both at once. I'm going to go back to circling tomorrow and see if we can undo some of the frustration he obviously picked up today.

    Thanks for weighing in!

  15. Katharine - make sure, when you're turning, that you're weighting the outside stirrup and not leaning - that might help with the falling in as well.

  16. Kate, sorry for the late response -- if you check my blog, you'll see why I didn't feel like responding!

    Leaning might well have something to do with it. This evening was the first time I was able to really work on it again, and I made sure to focus on weighting the outside stirrup. He still "falls" through the turn, like he's cutting corners and rushing to get around, but I've noticed that if I don't lean, he does a better job of self-correcting while we circle. I think I'm going to continue circling and working on my body position, and see if the shoulder-in problem rights itself in due course.


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