Dressage Just Got Real Part 1

Dressage arena set up with letters Tower Letters are molded using 100% UV-stabilized HDPE. White with large black letters molded onto all three sides. Letters are stackable with anti-suction tabs to prevent sticking. 10-017 10-018 Wellington Dressage Arena 2-023 2-024 2-025 2-123 920PW 920PWC Wellington Arena Package Wellington Arena Tower Letter Package WATowerp1 WATowerP2

My mind = blown. I never knew such a short lesson could bring about such revelations! Where has this amazing trainer been hiding all my life?!! Now it’s taken me almost an entire week to digest and understand exactly what she told me throughout my lesson. The information I learned will also be broken up into several posts because it’s so much I don’t want to overload  and confuse you.

The camera we were using for the lesson decided to hate my memory card so I didn’t get it on video and I’m attempting to re-create it with my go pro but like all thing technological it seems to never want to work when I need it to…. or I fried the memory card.

Before we begin I want to point out that I put Cash back in a bit for the lesson. I figured that since I was riding with Carol McArdle who has an extensive background in not only dressage but eventing as well, (Check out her bio HERE)  that maybe she would see something that I’m doing or have ideas on how to make him happier with the bit.  I was right!

To start our lesson I got on and started walking around in warm up. Carol wanted to see my typical warm ups and how we worked together on a normal basis. As we were going around the arena Cash saw two horses just chilling on the other side of the rail and decided he REALLY wanted to meet those horses. He did his classic “I wanna go THIS way” move while I was telling him “No go this way” and we were arguing over which direction we were going.

This was literally about 2 minuets into the lesson. It was at this point Carol stepped in. She said

“You have a communication issue. Your horse doesn’t understand what your asking with the reins.”

Now the next bit is gonna sound weird. It goes against almost everything I have been taught but hold out on me. I promise it’ll get a bit clearer.

She then grabbed the right bit ring with one finger and lifted gently straight up and gave a tiny vibration and Cash instantly turned his head to the right.

“The key to a horse is not pulling down and back like you were doing. It’s pulling straight up on the bit. Your horse has never done this before and see what he did? He automatically turned his head.” and  then proceeded to tell me to get off my horse.

Wait…What?!…I froze….What did she just say? Get off my horse??!  Pull straight up???  HUH?

This is the FIRST time in my entire life that I’ve been at a lesson and I was kicked off my horse. I thought maybe she wanted to get on him and show me something. I kinda prayed she had insurance and jumped off.

As I hopped off she put my stirrups up. So I waited even more confused. Did I screw up that badly that we were ending the lesson already? Then she told me we are starting at the very beginning basics.I was still confused. I thought I was at those basics with Cash but she was not talking about the basics in the saddle.She meant starting at the basics on the ground by doing in hand work!

Now in hand work is something I have always attempted/wanted to do. I have about three books on it and I’ve watched countless videos but I never quite understood what they were doing. So she grabbed the reins and began to show me.

I was blown away and secretly grateful that she did this.

The information she told me has completely changed the way I handle a horse with a bridle. So for the next bit I’m gonna break it down to help explain why you do this first evolution by pulling UP on the bit.

All right a little tid bit on some basics of how bits work in a horses mouth varying on how you pull on the reins. This was how Carol explained it to me. I added some pictures to help clarify.

Pulling straight back with the reins: This pulls down on the tongue and possibly the bars of the mouth causing intense discomfort. Think of it this way. When you’re at the dentist and he puts his finger on the back of your tongue and pushes what happens? It creates gag reflex. The same is true in your horse. The pressure is not comfortable in any way so they try to evade it one way or another or brace against it.

Bit pulled straight back best

Pulling down: Puts INTESE pressure on the bars of the mouth and possibly the pallet as well. The bars of the mouth are extremely sharp and narrow. It’s very easy to cause stress fractures as well as bony spurs on the bars with constant downward pressure and severe bruising to the tissue of the bars of the mouth and the roof of the horses mouth. Just ask a vet or dentist if you don’t believe me.


Pulling straight up: Puts pressure only on the corners of the horses mouth. As the bit moves up it tickles or strokes the tongue causing the horse to lift his tongue and swallow releasing pressure in the poll. It has no effect on the bars or pressure on the tongue and is much easier on the horse. And for horses like Cash doesn’t invoke a fight response to pain. In the picture below you can see the action of the bit as due to the angle of the horses head. The bit is being pulled up along the tongue not down.
Water 312722

The best thing she told me to remember was “Ask. Wait a moment. Give the horse a chance to respond to what you’re asking. If they give the wrong answer or don’t respond at all ask again! Once you get the right answer praise praise praise!”

DO NOT PUNISH a horse for giving a wrong response. This just adds unnecessary stress and confusion for no reason.  PRAISE is mandatory for a horse to know when he has done something correctly.

As Cash was standing there he was nervously chewing on the bit. She calmly took both bit rings and gently moved them up in his mouth until he RAISED his head just a little bit.Cash went to walk forward and turn but Carol calmly walked with him until he stopped. She lifted the bit again then he lifted his head a tad and lots of praise followed. It didn’t take him long to figure out when she pushed up on the bit he had to raise and hold his head up.

Now if you’re like me you’ve been taught to put the horses head down. That’s why side reins, draw reins and even martingales are used. It is commonly taught that we want the horse’s head round and down and taking contact on the bit for a young horse. But there is a very good reason to teach the horse to raise his head in the beginning stages.

I’m going to explain the biomechanics of the motion and how using a horses natural biomechanics to help train is really beneficial. And why wouldn’t we want to use what’s already given to us to make our lives easier? and easier on our horses? After all the goal of dressage is to teach a horse to carry a rider as naturally as possible and to build the strength in the horse to do the movements we are asking of them. Dressage is nothing but continual training of the horses mind and body.

shift weight picSo in nature as a horse hears or sees something unknown they immediately raise their head. When they do this it causes the horse to automatically shift its weight back to its haunches in case that sound happens to be a predator. This frees up the forehand and allows them to make a rapid movement should escape be necessary. Putting their head up also switches their vision for distance so they can see if a predator is near. How does this help dressage?

When asking a horse to raise his head, I’m not saying raise it to the point where if it rains he drowns.  I’m talking mere inches here. Not even as high as the horse in the picture.  He will naturally raise his head much higher to check something out like above. You want him only to raise his head high enough where you see the small shift of weight from front to rear. And it’s subtle so it’s very easy to miss if you’re not paying attention.

Now that the weight is more towards the rear it is much easier to ask a horse to more his shoulders left and right.

I’m going stop this post here. Part 2 will be coming soon but just let this idea sit in your mind for a bit. Part 2 will show you how this first step will make everything much easier and how it helps your horses suppleness without anything crazy.….Intrigued yet???

If you want to read part 2 check it out HERE. In part 2 you will understand why lifting the head really helps the next exercises 😀


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