4.25.24 Eclectic Classroom - The Magic of Draping Reins with Deb Bennett, Ph.D

Join us for an illustrated lecture followed by a question and answer session with Dr. Deb. Post questions here ahead of time if you have any on this topic or that are generated from the article that will be the jumping off point for this class.

“What Is Collection? Collection is necessary before a horse can perform more strenuous, more complex, or more beautiful maneuvers. Collection comes in all degrees, from the minimum “rounding up” to the maximum seen in the High School horse or the reined cow horse. Assuming your horse is healthy and sound, he’ll “collect up” for you very happily just as soon as you clarify what you’re asking. Here is a definition of collection. A definition tells “what some- thing is”: Collection is the posture in which weight bearing is easiest on the horse. Let’s unpack this definition by expanding on some of the terms…” - Deb Bennett, Ph.D. from “How Horses Work Installment #5: The Magic of Draping Reins”

Read the full article here.

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Do I understand correctly that when a horse raises the base of his neck, he is raising his neck from the base instead of bringing his head and neck higher?

I took a Dressage lesson in order to experience a ride on a balanced horse. I discovered that the lesson horse was not balanced at all. After the lesson the instructor remarked that a student had told her that the horse was falling out. The instructor got on the horse and discovered that the horse was indeed falling out, but that she, the instructor, hadn’t noticed because when she rides she unconsciously shifts her weight to bring the horse back into balance. Will the horse always need little adjustments like this, or can we hope that, one day, the horse will carry itself balanced all on its own?

Dear Kristina: When I speak of the horse raising the base of its neck, I am saying precisely what I mean. It is the BASE of the neck that needs to rise. When the BASE rises, the neck arches. Raising the BASE causes the horse to make what is called a “neck-telescoping gesture” – the same gesture he makes when you proffer a carrot and he smells it and wants it but you don’t give it to him immediately. His neck becomes long, arched, and beautiful, all in one moment and irrespective of how bad his previous training, muscular development, or muscle-use habits may have been. The instant a horse begins using his body correctly, he becomes just as beautiful as he was intended to be.

There are two well-recognized stages to this, which is fundamentally a change in the horse’s posture, i.e. the way he uses the chain of vertebrae which compose his spine. In the first stage, the horse is asked to go “long and low” or “round and down” or (I hear this phrase recently) he is asked to perform a “stretchy trot”. The old German term for this exercise was “showing the horse the way to the ground”. You tell him by means of your aids and your intention and mental picture, that what you want him to do is to raise and round his back, and when he does that you anticipate that he will make a neck-telescoping gesture. This actually does make the neck longer and therefore the distance from your hand to the bit also gets longer. So as you ask him to round up under the saddle, you expect and anticipate that he will want to arch and extend his neck and somewhat drop the level of his head, and you allow this, without losing the feel of his tongue, by allowing the neck-telescoping gesture to pull the reins through your fingers, much like a fisherman “playing” a fish on the end of the line. This is altogether different, mind you, from allowing a horse to yank the reins from your hands, or to pull hard or brace up. You are PLAYING him, and he will enjoy the feel of this. You are learning also to coordinate this “playing” with the aids of your legs, so that the one follows the other and the horse comes to understand perfectly what you want.

When this has become a good old game between the two of you, you begin using it as a warmup. Later in the arena session, you’ll shift to other exercises such as “expanding the circle”, leg-yielding, an building perfect figures of eight (i.e., the “8” is composed of two perfectly round circles conjoined at a single point). You’ll think about Nuno Oliviera’s admonition to remember that “every correctly ridden corner in the arena is a small moment of shoulder-in”, i.e. it is shoulder-fore, so that you never pass through a corner without bending the horse enough, or even a little more than enough. And you work in both directions, and a little more in whichever direction the horse seems least able to bend. And you remember that the change of bend in the center of a figure-8, and indeed every change of bend no matter where it occurs, means PRIMARILY that you are changing the untracking hind leg.

This is a description of the low school, or the beginning of training. As George Leonard points out in his book “Mastery”, however, living on the plateau – loving every moment of the time you spend doing what LOOK like elementary exercises, doing them perfectly, doing them over and over again in every conceivable combination so that they never become boring or in any way like drilling – when you live like this, you are actually working on the most advanced exercises. They are all the same exercises, but what happens betimes is that the horse evolves and develops; your relationship deepens; your coordination gets better and smoother; and the horse tunes into you more and more.

And when that has gone quite a long ways, you may then begin to think about elevating the head. To elevate the head is not to raise the poll, or I should say, not MERELY to raise the poll. One must NEVER “merely” raise the poll. Saddle seat trainers sometimes speak of “breaking the horse back at the base of the neck” as their first step in training, but that is because their entire philosophy of riding is the opposite of ours, vis., they expect and desire that the horse move with a stiff, hollow back. They are willing to sacrifice softness and suppleness, which we develop by living on the plateau, for height at the poll; because any time a horse goes with a hollow back, his ability to raise the POLL is enhanced. But we do not want the horse to raise the POLL; we want him to raise the base of his neck, and to arch his neck by means of this raising. When we speak of elevating the head, therefore, what we mean is that we will stack the middle and upper sections of his neck on top of the base. We will never raise the poll higher than is justified by the raising of the base. It is easy to make a mistake with this, and it’s OK if you make a mistake, because you may not be able to tell at first how high you can ask the horse to raise its poll without “losing” the base. The way to tell is by looking and feeling as to whether the base of the neck has fallen down, or is trying to fall down, or has ceased to try to rise. As soon as you feel this “dropping out”, the horse will be “above the bit” and you shall know thereby that you have gone too far. So the next time you ask, you don’t go that far. It is wise to let the horse tell you how high he can arch his neck, and instead of you “demanding” that he carry his head at some predetermined height, you let him show you how high he is comfotable going on Day One, and then thereafter you see each ride whether he can arch up a little bit higher.

In our next lecture, which is more or less “part two” on collection, I am going to show a bunch of great examples of horses trained by people who very well understand all of this, one of whom was Tom Bass, the great early-day Saddlebred and Saddle Seat trainer from Mexico, Missouri. Born a slave, Tom Bass succeeded through the height of the Jim Crow era and was able to compete directly against whites in horse shows when no other Black person would have been allowed to do so. And this was because he was head and shoulders better than the competition and everybody knew it. You will see every one of Tom Bass’s horses, which were trained to a very high level, raising the base of the neck, arching the neck, and having the very high poll up there because it is stacked upon a raised base, not because the head has merely been pulled up or back. See you next time in class. Cheers – Dr. Deb

Kristina: Yes, it is remarkable what gobbledygook trainers will spew when they try to explain away what they’ve been doing that was not in the horse’s best interest – or in theirs, either.

Almost all horses – by which I mean 99% of them – have a side preference. They have had their particular favorite hock and favorite way to bend since birth or even before, and they will retain this preference throughout their life. A horse ridden by somebody who happily goes along, blithely unaware that the horse is travelling crooked underneath her or on the longe line, will go right ahead and continue to go crooked because this is what is most comfortable to the animal. It is somewhat uncomfortable, as we mentioned in class – especially in the beginning – for the horse to meet our demand to equally weight and equally work off of both hocks. So we have a sympathetic understanding of this, and we exercise mercy first by recognizing which hock it is that the horse does not want to weight as much, and secondly by limiting the number of steps during which we expect him to weight that hock equally. In short we go at it by nibbling; one little bit at a time, so as never to push the horse into a spot where he’s uncomfortable enough to want to refuse our request or demand. You show him that you’re not going to kill him, and he’ll learn from that to try his heart out for you. “Don’t get greedy” and thereby blow his trust. You have to balance this – don’t blow his trust, but don’t fail to make progress, either.

And now to answer your query directly: yes, every horse you ever meet will likely need your assistance forever. You sit square, you expect him to come up to meet your butt square. You ask the left hind leg to untrack; you ask the right hind leg to untrack; you circle right and you circle left. You expand the circle to the left and to the right. You practice trot and canter departures to right and left; you play at leg-yielding and shoulder-fore and shoulder-in both right and left. Nuno Oliviera, but also Franz Maringer and Freddy Knie, have all gone on record as reminding students to always ride the horse with feeling and intelligence, so that he is brought back to the stable after having had his body exercised thoroughly, symmetrically, and rhythmically; so that he has broken a light sweat but no more; so that the whole experience feels good to him and to you too. He comes back to the stable in better condition, both physically and mentally, than he was in when you took him out. And that way, he will come to look forward to when you show up to ride him. Horses do not have to be given food treats in order to lean to long for their riders, because they are animals built to move and meant to move, and they so much enjoy expressing the freedom, softness, and roundness which we advocate. Cheers – Dr. Deb

Dr. Deb: Sometimes it takes as long find accessible, trustworthy information as it takes to learn how to apply it. Your lectures/articles on straightness and collection are particularly exciting, as they come at just the right moment for me. I’ve been immersed in this topic for weeks. Thanks.

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Dr Deb,

From your last two lectures, I’ve finally figured out one of my horses sags and doesn’t just bend incorrectly, something that has confused me for a while despite my best efforts to apply what you teach. This horse (Alfie) is also very sensitive and sounds like your painty, and came to me with a lot mental issues. He wanted to constantly remain physically straight as in his body (not sure of the terminology) and was very braced throughout. He has really forced me to put my thinking cap on and figure out how to help him. I’m now at the point with him where he trusts me and I can work with him on the arena, without him constantly on alert, and he will keep his attention on me. He still braces at the poll, and while he will release his poll when I twirl his head while riding him, it seldom reaches his back/hind. When working with him from the ground, I have tried an exercise of Josh Nichol’s, and he is very resistant. By Loneging him as you explained, i am getting a bend through his ribcage correctly (finally) and from this i hope to be able to start riding him soon! My Questions are:

I was told that horses like to remain physically straight/no bend in the body if they are tense or in flight mode, as it makes escaping quicker. Is this true?

Do you have any recommendations on how I may help him to release the poll from the ground and incorporate it with my longeing?

What steps/exercises do you recommend I take once I hop back in the saddle? Should I just be doing lots of un-tracking in circles/curves/serpentines and twirling the head as necessary? I had tried this previously with him but the shoulders weren’t following and now I know why and can fix from the ground first. I am guessing the release of the poll while I was riding him, was not getting through to the back/hind, was due to the stiffness in shoulders/sag through his body.

Once again thank-you! Your work is so helpful and has really benefited myself and my horses. Much happier horses!

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