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Improving free walk in green horse?

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    Improving free walk in green horse?

    My horse is fairly green to shows. At home and in clinics, he has a decent free walk. But at shows, there are horses over there, and people over that way, etc. So given a loose rein, he covers ground, but doesn’t stretch his head down/out. His head goes straight out of his neck as he gazes around at all the sites. My thought is just to keep showing, as he has a nice walk at home. But figured I’d ask what folks do here to improve the free walk in your green beans - time/mileage, or specific aids for stretching?

    IMO, he just needs continued training. More specifically, he needs to know the difference between being on the buckle and his being on a long rein, but still very much on the job. Ride him around in the busy schooling ring on that longer rein and focus on keeping him (lightly) in the contact and between your aids. IMO, we should be able to ride them with their heads still in the game with any length rein. This takes time and practice to teach.

    Also, I ride an off-breed mare who could curl behind the bridle and leave her back low if I wasn't careful. I taught this mare different "buttons" for "telescope out from the base of your neck, and open your throat latch" and "relax your jaw, perhaps closing your throat latch a bit." I can't tell you how much it helps to have taught them a signal for stretching the base of their neck! This means I can ride my mare on a longer rein without her thinking I have given her a coffee break.

    Last but not least, I'm a fan of asking a young horse to go only as long and low as they can without tipping onto their front end. I'm sure I won't get rewarded for my lack of dramatic demonstration of a western-pleasure-low head and neck. But at least I asked the horse to do what I think the point of that exercise is: to demonstrate that she is not held in/up or her head and neck posed by my hand, and her body being in an uphill posture.

    I have not been riding dressage for long, so take this with a grain of salt. I will be interested to see what more expert dressage competitors have to say.
    The armchair saddler
    Politically Pro-Cat


      Original Poster

      Originally posted by mvp View Post
      Also, I ride an off-breed mare who could curl behind the bridle and leave her back low if I wasn't careful. I taught this mare different "buttons" for "telescope out from the base of your neck, and open your throat latch" and "relax your jaw, perhaps closing your throat latch a bit." I can't tell you how much it helps to have taught them a signal for stretching the base of their neck! This means I can ride my mare on a longer rein without her thinking I have given her a coffee break.
      Mine is an OTTSTB, and can go both high (and pace when he does) or curl behind. He’s getting much better (got a 7 on submission at some shows), but completely understand this. What are the “buttons” you installed? Just curious. Thanks!


        Sometimes a suggestion of a shoulder fore helps.

        chief feeder and mucker for Music, Belle and Tiara. Someone else is now feeding and mucking for Chief and Brain (both foxhunting now). Spy is gone. April 15, 1982 to Jan 10, 2019.


          Get really strategic about when you do it at home - and do it with 8+ score standards. Extra good moment of submission? GOOD PONY -> free walk (a proper one, back swinging and marching). End of hard work interval? GOOD PONY -> free walk (then a break if need be). Extra effort at canter or baby leg yield or baby lengthening or whatever? GOOD PONY -> free walk. Deliberately associate it with relaxation and reward, but also set the standard that it does still mean we are working.

          You can get more stretch out of your free walk at home by doing them on big curving lines. Ask for them in warm up and cool down too. Make it deliberately different from just relaxed walking though.


            The free walk takes alot of relaxation. Mileage at shows absolutely helps.

            And, make sure your hips stay loose, yet strongly following the free walk rhythm by walking your hips actively forward, L, R, L, R, with your legs supporting in the same L,R timing.
            Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.

            Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.


              Originally posted by LilyandBaron View Post

              Mine is an OTTSTB, and can go both high (and pace when he does) or curl behind. He’s getting much better (got a 7 on submission at some shows), but completely understand this. What are the “buttons” you installed? Just curious. Thanks!
              It takes a bit of an explanation since we aren't in the ring together where this would take all of 20 minutes to teach you both. Hang in there:

              1. Some training philosophy: Horses are in the business of recognizing patterns. So when we add pressure (in this case, we take with one hand-- more on that below), they are asking what they can do in order to get us to release that. Young, untrained horses don't know yet that that's their job and the puzzle; they don't know that they can dictate how we ride them. But we want to be very precise and consistent with when we give and take so that they start to learn that *we* have buttons that they can push in order to get "silence" or no aids/requests being made of them, or, in this case, you giving with your hand.

              2. So just as with colts, when you pick up your hand and take, again this is just with one hand, you should be prepared to let go instantly when you feel him change in the way you want. In this case, we generally feel him give and him put slack in the rein. And the key to installing the "neck out" button rather than the "just relax your jaw and tuck your chin" button is *when you let go*. So when you pick up your hand on the uneducated horse, he'll brace against you and you know to just wait. If he has mentally-checked out and quit working on the puzzle of how to make you let go, you might add a little goose with the leg-- more pressure-- to get him "inspired" to try again to figure out how to position his body in order to make you let go. But at some point, he'll find the pressure on his mouth uncomfortable and he's move his head to try and relieve it. He doesn't know yet where what will earn him more rein; he just throws sh!t at the wall by trying different positions with his body until he finds the magic "open sesame" move. This is why it's your job to be very precise and consistent.

              The majority of very green horses will give with their chin and lower their head lower their head from the base of the neck at the same time. It's only the incorrectly schooled ones that leave the base of their neck stiff and tuck their chin. But either way, when you pick up one rein, and you might have shorten it some to get this for a horse who has been taught to accept lots of contact, you release when they have turned their head and lowered their neck, too.

              Notice how many people are suggesting moves that involved some bend at the base of the neck. The shoulder-fore is the standard dressage move which, IMO, gives the rider a chance to get rid of any "brace" or held stiffness in the base of the neck on the outside. The soft bend will do this as well, though in an easier way for a green horse who doesn't yet understand how to shape his body between "conflicting" aids of hand and leg that create that angle.

              BTW, I think there's an anatomy-based thing go on here, too. The tongue connects to the front of the hyoid bone, a hanging, swing-like bone at the back of the horse's mouth/TMJ/poll. The hyoid bone connects to another long muscle that attaches to the front of the rib cage. IMO, all riders would like to use the bit to soften the jaw, but also to keep the muscle on the underside of the neck soft, too. Also, IMO, a horse can't brace in the base of his neck if he's stretching it.

              3. In any case, and specifically about the buttons in my mare. I spend a helluva long time in this pattern of taking with my hand (and arm-- more on that in a sec) and giving only when she also lowered her head from the base of her neck. *Then I divided my aids.* If I take with my elbow and shoulder, she should lower the base of her neck. If I massage the reins with my fingers (hand in place, no taking back) she should relax her jaw and close her throat latch some.

              Some things that were key to this: You have to start with that little massage in order to relax the jaw, even if you want to access the base of the neck. But! Once you have the jaw relaxed, and you feel the tiniest submission to your fingers, stop asking for that and offer you hands forward, from your elbow. Unless you are riding a very screwed up horse, he'll gladly fill up that rein by lowering his head (which makes his life easier because he can stop tucking his chin. Because of the nuchal ligament, lowering his head takes no muscular energy while tucking his chin does.). In any case, give your big release for that second move. Maybe stroke him on the crest of the neck, too, in order to encourage relaxation there and call his attention to it.

              Also key (and I can't stress this enough): When the head has lowered or you feel it start to, you have to give with your arms and make your fingers still. If you don't, you are essentially telling the horse to continue to soften his jaw aways from the bit with his head lower. If you do that, he will keep his throat latch closed and go behind the vertical because you asked him to with your fingers.

              The key to being able to ride the base of the neck, IMO, is creating this parsed-out set of aids from your hand, and then being very sure to quit asking for a closed throat latch quickly. That's because even though you can talk to the jaw and tongue and change the position of the head most easily, that's not actually the part of the body you care about. What we should care about shaping on the fly is the base of the neck because it participates in holding the front end of the ribcage up. IMO, people who forgot to let go of the jaw are the folks who then have to go to Long/Deep/Round or Rollkur because while they have the chin as tucked as possible, they still didn't get a change in the base of the neck, so they have to fold up the horse's neck even more in order to reach the part they wanted.

              For your horse's free walk, then, what you really want is the ability to ask him to lower his head and neck from the base and leave his throat latch open. So parsing our your hand aids will help. Think of your shoulders and elbows as speaking to the base of the neck, and your fingers (plus as-relaxed-as-possible forearm) as just working in place to speak to the jaw. IMO, the free walk is the movement it a test that was supposed to demonstrate that the horse would use his head and neck in dynamic ways as his balance dictated; he wasn't always curled up at his poll and then posing with his neck as he raised or lowered if from the base.

              But you have a conceptual problem as well in that when you give your young horse more room in the reins, his attention wanders from you and your aids. This just takes time and attention on your part to correct. If I were riding your horse, I'd do as others have said: Pick a time where he's wont to walk long, relaxed and low, like after some sustained work. Do this somewhere busy where he'll want to look around. From there, when you let him walk and breathe, your job is to attend to his head and, even prior to that, his ears. If he starts out with his neck low and starts to raise his head, you try to bring his attention back to your and relax his jaws with your fingers. If this happens a couple of times and you are a bit late, you'll notice that he (probably) turned his head slightly and put his ears on the thing he saw before he raised his head. That moment is the one where you want to touch/massage for a moment the side of the jaw that was stiff, probably the "outside" one in this case. If you are too late and he raises his head (from the base of his neck) to take a big, frank look at the thing while he's still walking, add some arm to it. Now you are going back to riding him like a colt, looking for a big, complete release of pressure from him. You can make it easier by turning in the direction of the thing he's looking at. You might have to turn a circle, but give when his jaw and base of his neck are relaxed again and where you want them.

              If you ride him like this long enough, what he will learn is that a bit of movement from your fingers in place might end up with a combination of aids (not just your arm, but some leg, or even some shoulder fore) that have him un-brace the base of his neck. When he learns this, you will be able to keep him how you want him to be in your hand in the free walk and in control of the base of his neck. Again, you'll be able to do this because you rode this horse in a way that was so consistent that he could see the pattern of aids that was coming and changed his body at the smallest/earliest/lightest one.

              When instructors say things like "push his head down"-- while we only have reins with which we can pull-- they are assuming that we have taught a patterns of taking and giving that reliably has the horse lower his head and fill up the reins. I think lots of us have figured out how train that, but very few people explain much about how to teach that to a horse and how to equitate it. I'm glad your horse has a nice walk somewhere. When he's walking that way, keep a nice, but closed-fingered feel of his mouth. Without moving your fingers, offer your elbow forward and see if he takes the rein. If he does, really praise him with your voice or bridge your reins, trying to keep the same feel in your arm, and give him a long pet down the crest of his neck. When you have that feel that he'll stay "in your elbow" as opposed for your hand, and he's marching a long with a swinging back, I think you have a legitimately "through" horse. If you can ride that same feel in your elbow and hand (your hand is pretty passive or minimal) and you feel no brace in the base of the neck (which he can't do in the long/low walk because he's stretching), pay attention to what that feels like in your arm. IMO, that feeling in your arm is legit and what you want all the time because it means you have the jaw and, more importantly, you have the base of the neck.

              It's a little much, but take what you like and leave the rest. I hope it helps!
              The armchair saddler
              Politically Pro-Cat


                Very informative! Thank you (I'm not the OP, but interested in this as well.)
                My hopeful road to the 2021 RRP TB Makeover:


                  If I see one thing at shows (and when I've judged schooling shows) it's that the free walk is often ridden incorrectly. If you are like a lot of riders, you essentially throw away the contact and ride the horse on a loose rein. That's incorrect and would allow the horse to look around and not stretch down. A correct free walk has the horse stretch forward, down, and out to seek the contact - all the way to the ground. If you drop the contact and just let him have his head, of course he's going to take the opportunity to look around. You should soften your hand so that he can pull the reins through your fingers, but never relinquish the contact. Now, OP, I'm not saying that is what is happening with you specifically, only that it's such a common error that it could be your issue. Give it some thought.


                    All said be very careful about drilling and training the walk at home. Much of the young horse issue at shows will go away with experience. At training level judges are usually pretty forgiving

                    Over working the walk can result in impure gait and tension. Make sure when working that you keep it very short and specific. start and end through the trot. If you want to reward with a loose rein walk do not do this after working on the free walk , directly. Make an up transition and then back before the loose rein.
                    -- * > hoopoe
                    Procrastinate NOW
                    Introverted Since 1957


                      Original Poster

                      Good stuff! I think these threads are best when I don’t provide extensive details on my theory/approach, other than the specific problem at hand. I think mvpinadvertently hit on part of the issue - timing! In free walk, if I give him room to stretch down and he quickly pops up to look at thing x or y, it’s pretty tough to regroup on a short diagonal in the small arena, at least for me and him at this point. Lots of good ideas, along with just more shows to truly allow him to adjust to distractions.... I keep mine at home, so main thing is lack of horses working in another arena. He has been great in lessons, so it’s not other horses, it’s being apart from those other horses - show ring vs. warm up ring. And getting true relaxation when he’s worried about that - baby steps! Thanks, all! And always open to others’ experiences - how long it took, etc.... it’s his first year of dressage shows, and only 6 schooling shows due to Covid.... But if there’s ideas for helping him, my job to seek out all the inputs, and play with what works.



                        I practiced the free walk on my mare today to see if I actually rode the way I described it (and also to practice lengthening and shortening the reins without her Filing A Grievance With Her Union Rep Against Management Taking Up Contact).

                        The other tool you need to install in your ride and your horse is the ability to use your seat and leg to help hold his body straighten when you offer that rein. My ride is a wiggly Half-Ay-rab, so she can fall side-ways on one of her front legs at the drop of the hat. Part of the reason I have baby sat the base of her neck so much is keeping her head and neck directly in front of the shoulders. But when I lengthen the reins and I ask her to stretch down, it would be very easy for her to lose that balance laterally (as Arabians do in a way this is worse than any other beast, it seems) and start to veer off course.

                        I spoke to her about this with my leg and tried to not pick up my hand to help. She got it and started paying attention to my seat, saying right underneath it so that she didn't have to "run in to" one of my legs. So my advice to you, OP, is to realize that your greenie will be helped by learning about your weight aids so that you can allow him a long rein without loosing your steering.

                        The armchair saddler
                        Politically Pro-Cat


                          Original Poster

                          Happy update! I did play with making a more obvious aid in the form of a distinctive wiggle (not pulling) of the rein and a light rub of his withers, but don’t know that I did enough to cement that as an aid - simply not enough saddle time to make it part of the lexicon.

                          We went to our last show of the year this weekend and in our second test, Intro B, he was legit relaxed about the atmosphere and we got a 70% - 7s on all marks🙌 Great way to end a short season, and the first time the judge didn’t ask what breed he was, because he didn’t pace and moved like a sporthorse! Hallelujah!


                            Hack him out!!

                            forwardness improves enormously when on a free walk, free trot out in the open. You can out there casually work on supporting aids.
                            Some riders change their horse, they change their saddle, they change their teacher; they never change themselves.

                            Remember the horse does all the work, we just sit there and look pretty.


                              To reiterate what Mondo said, the free walk is NOT expected to be done "on a loose rein". It can be done on a medium rein or a long rein, but you do NOT want to throw away your contact.

                              chief feeder and mucker for Music, Belle and Tiara. Someone else is now feeding and mucking for Chief and Brain (both foxhunting now). Spy is gone. April 15, 1982 to Jan 10, 2019.


                                mvp shout out for a great post a few weeks back. I think you did a great job of putting into words a lot of the elements that trainers assume people understand and then riders end up misinterpreting.