In the Bible when the people were rebellious the prophets would often call them “a stiff necked people”. I’m sure the visual reference “stiff necked” was referring to livestock, such as oxen, donkeys or horses. The animal will show his resistance by pushing or pulling against the pressure. If the rope is attached to the face the resistance will be apparent in his neck. In horses we see this resistance probably with every horse that ever wore a bridle. The horse’s neck becomes stiff as he pushes against the bit, his face held high and sometimes nearly horizontal with the ground. As this becomes a habit of resistance the lower muscles of his neck will get thick and strong from the isometrics of pulling against the reins. The horse may be generally trained but without careful attention the resistance continues to be apparent in a stiff, uncompromising neck. Even after thorough training, if the horse becomes afraid, desires to go faster, doesn’t want to stop or wants to go a different direction than you want him to, he will show his resistance in his neck. This habit will impede or disrupt the athletic ability or the work that the horseman is trying to accomplish.
Horsemen answer this problem with tie-downs, martingales or more severe bits. The equipment may seem to answer the problem and perhaps does appear to be a quick fix, but the fluidity of the horse’s natural gait, his total athletic ability, not to mention the general comfort of the horse will be hampered by the equipment. Rather than more or severe equipment it is a better option for the horse to be trained against his own natural inclination to resist pressure by pushing back. Almost from the beginning of training this natural resistance must be softened. This takes time, vigilance and subtle skill.
After the new trainee is barely safe to ride, I begin working on receiving a flexible neck (flexible at the pole). Tonight I began to work on this in earnest with Kiwi and Dawn Treader.
Both horses have been showing resistance by throwing their heads around, especially at any transition on our trail ride. We were practicing the halt, move out, trot, canter and rein back. My whole body is a means of communication: my legs, my torso, my verbal, my hands, the distribution of weight, etc. The new trainee has no experience to notice, to appreciate or to interpret my communications. There also remains some apprehension or fear which confuses or camouflages my cues. After the fear has been dissolved by repetition of presenting the object of fear, the appropriate action to the cues begins to emerge and the cues gradually become more subtle and less visible to an observer. I attempt to instill a consistent response to all my physical and verbal cues, desiring to encourage the transitions to be smooth and light. There is an ongoing, gradual transition in training from desensitization to sensitization. The horses loose their fears and gradually beginning to listen, learn and obey.
As all this subtle training is going on, they are expressing a resistance to my hands: Kiwi by throwing her head and Dawn Treader by flipping her nose up and down. Meantime I’ve been riding with a loose rein, gently applying pressure to communicate a cue. At this point I introduce a new method of training or discipline. I tighten one rein to contact not more than two or three ounces of pressure to their noses. With the other hand I pulse intermittent pressure, releasing and applying pressure. My holding hand needs to be flexible to their natural movement but rigid to their pushing/pulling noses, so when they throw their heads they hit solid pressure where the bosal hits their nose. The exercise works best when the horse is walking or trotting.
Tonight the exercise worked great with both horses! They started to walk with their faces in the correct position–that is vertical to the ground. Also I could feel the welcome change in their total performance; they became more fluid, they kept a more consistent cadence, and their back legs were reaching deeper to support a better distribution of weight. They received immediate relief from the pressure on their noses by walking correctly.
After our ride I entered another related exercise for encouraging flexibility at the pole. I looped the mecate’ attached to the bosal around the back of the saddle, pulling the horse’s nose almost vertical, with enough slack so the horse could find relief from pressure by bending at the pole to where it’s faces was straight up and down vertical to the ground. I let them stand this way loose in the round pen for five or ten minutes.
I am doing this training with a bosal but I’ve also been successful with the snaffle, using it in the same way. Sometimes a particular horse will be so naturally hard mouthed that a snaffle will be necessary. Other horses can be successfully started with the same techniques using a rope halter. (This technique is illustrated below in the photo.)