Is your horse a tortoise or a giraffe?
Giraffes, as most riders know, have telescopic necks. They get their heads way above the angle of control making steering and stopping almost impossible.
Tortoises, like their namesakes, have an incredible ability to contract their necks right back into their bodies and set themselves. They’ll set their necks, stick their ears up your nostrils and plough on regardless of any pulling and flapping you may do.
Giraffe or tortoise, your horse is doing this for one reason. To avoid your contact. The cause of it could be many things but it’s most likely to stem from discomfort. Make sure you aren’t the cause of the problem.
Become more aware of your hands when you ride. In rising trot do your hands stay still or do they go up and down with you? Do you pull back every time you use your legs? You may not mean to do any of these things but over time your horse learns to avoid the pressure they cause. Keeping your elbow bent and your fingers moving will keep your hands as soft and relaxed as possible.
There are a million gadgets on the market which offer a quick fix but many of them don’t actually solve the problem. Many slide through the bit so the horse can’t lean bringing his head down and in. That’s all very pretty but the second you remove the gadget up pops his head again. You need something which allows you to concentrate on your contact.
For a giraffe try a standing martingale. Running martingales are ok but, when your horse resists, the pressure still goes to the bit. The only pressure from a standing martingale is to his nose. Ride forward from your leg into a steady but soft contact (keep your fingers moving). Be patient. He’ll accept the contact and relax his neck.
In time you can lengthen the martingale so it’s only there for emergencies. Eventually you’ll be able to do without it altogether.
No gadget or martingale works with a tortoise. You’ll never win a battle of strength but in a battle of wits you have the trump card. You are more intelligent and you know what he’s going to do.
Tortoises have a habit of shrinking their necks as you go up a pace. Most often from walk to trot. Before you trot the walk probably feels soft and submissive. It’s when you ask for it that the softness converts to concrete and the jaw becomes solid.
In walk practice bending his head from the outside to the middle to the inside. Take your time. You’re not swinging his head from side to side. You’re turning his head and neck one way and then the other to stop him setting his muscles. Take three strides to bend him to the outside, three to bring him back to the centre and three to take him to the inside. Use the leg on the side you are turning towards to stop him turning his body. Put your other leg back to stop him swinging his quarters out. He’s a master of evasion so cover all options!
To start with he’ll still try to set his neck. Keep turning his head from side to side and he can’t. If you have to take your hand away from his neck to turn his head then do it. Stay calm even when he’s not. A tug or yank at this stage will just remind him why he started all this in the first place!
Once you’re able to do this without too much of a fight ask for trot. Ask as his head’s turned to the outside. It may take a few strides because he’ll think you’ve gone crazy but you’ll find he won’t be able to shrink back into his shell when you’re bending him one way and then the other.
Once you’re in trot relax but be ready. The second he tries to set his neck bend him to the outside.
These methods may not be ideal for a dressage test but they’re there to break a habit. They’re useful and kinder than many gadgets claim to be. Whether it’s a giraffe or a tortoise you have on your hands there’s only one way to change them and that’s practice and patience. Keep calm, stay consistent and soon you’ll have a horse with a neck that bends the right way! Good luck.