The text of a talk given by Philippe Karl in Verden on 21 November 2009. The presentation slides which accompanied the talk are available to view in pdf format here. The text in the slides is in German but they contain many helpful diagrams.
In his talk, Philippe Karl explains his natural and rational method of progressively training the horse to become "on the bit".
Philippe Karl Verden, 21.11.2009
Putting the horse “on the bit” – Search for a natural and rational way –
The dressage society is reluctant to talk about the hand. It deals with it very basically, always in terms of exploitation, never in terms of a learning process. Problems (resistances, defences...) are supposed to be solved thanks to variate coercive equipments (clenched nosebands, side reins, running reins, etc.).
Is this a fatality? The most reliable of all masters: the horse itself, will reply to this issue.
Many classical masters advised to refer to the nature of the horse... such as:
• Salomon de la Broue (16th century): “... I want that the capacity and the nature of the horse are always the main goal of the rider.”
• Duke of Newcastle (17th century): “Art must always follow nature and never oppose it.”
• François R. de La Guérinière (18th century): “Knowledge of the nature of the horse is one of the cornerstones of the Art of riding; and all horsemen should make it a main point of study... Without this theory, practice is always uncertain.”
• Alexis L’Hotte (19th century): “Nature is the first of all masters. Its book is the fairest, most knowledgeable of all books... the most useful to consult.”
Nowadays, we have enough knowledge (physiology, biomechanics, motion, balance, ethology) not to be content with counter-nature riding concepts.
Therefore let us study how to put the horse “on the bit”, by the light of these sciences.
1 Tightening leaning
The usual definitions of these equestrian concepts are generally cloudy, and even contradictory.
Let us see about them, in terms of elementary biomechanics. The best questions are the most simple ones.
• How is a horse tightening the reins?
From a natural attitude, it is by advancing its nose that a horse can move the rider’s hands forwards. In other words: the horse is tightening the reins by opening the poll.
• This means: a horse initially yielding by flexing the poll, is in fact coming behind the bit... This is a path towards overflexion, and maybe Rollkur.
• This contains a risk of coming “behind the rider’s legs” (restivity). When horses are using their full means (jumping or racing), are they ever doing it by flexing the poll? NB: Opening the poll is an essential factor of forward movement. A proof? Using stick reins is the only means to immediately restore forward movement and obedience to the legs, with any inveterate restive horse (L’Hotte: “Questions équestres”).
• Due to synergies between muscles flexing the poll and muscles lowering the head, a horse coming behind the bit is also dropping its neck... and falling to its shoulders.
• For lack of progression and time to adapt, the parotids are prematurely compressed (pain, defences, inflammation, etc.).
• Putting “on the bit” should on no account start by flexing the poll.
• The rider should never let the horse take the initiative for it.
-> So... No helping reins (the worst ones being side reins and running reins)
• Under these conditions, how should the horse yield initially to the hand?
It is only by moving its lower jaw back that the horse can reduce the tension of the reins... without flexing its poll at all.
• This “jaw yielding” restricts leaning on the bit down to a mere contact on slackened reins. It enables movements of the tongue that are similar to swallowing (not chewing).
Jaw yielding produces a light salivating and clicking of the bits (when ridden with double bridle). One could say: “The horse is tasting the bit.”
• As strengthened by osteopathy: due to chain reactions, jamming or mobilizing the TMJ are propagated to the whole upper line, from poll to quarters.
?Mobilizing the TMJ in purpose is thus setting up an effective means to relax the whole horse.
• The jaw yielding is the prerequisite for a respectful way to teach the horse the hand (instead of flexing the poll).
• In other words: teach him to “say yes” instead of forcing him to “do yes” (nod).
-> Therefore: tight or clenched nosebands have to be banned.
NB: General L’Hotte : “The right position of the head does not only consist in flexing the poll. It originates in the submission of the lower jaw, which is the first join that receives the action of the hand.”
-> All in all
Tension requires neither flexing of the poll, nor leaning on the bit (factors of contraction, loss of balance and impulsion).
“Légèreté” is not refusal of tension and activity, but smooth availability of the lower jaw... in any attitude, including the proper stretching of the neck (neck on the horizontal line, nose in front of the vertical line).
2 The mouth: First key of schooling
• The mouth is the most sensitive organ the rider is directly connected with. It is located near the brain (communication seat) and at the very end of a long balancing pole / lever arm: the neck. Communication imposes that the rider set up the best relationship with the mouth.
?Balance and motion require that he take full control of the neck.
• In the place where the bits are located in the mouth, the lower jaw is very sharp and right under the surface of the gum. Microfractures or extoses are easily caused by traumatisms.
• Highly vascularised and innerved, the tongue is hypersensitive. It is attached on the hyoid bone, which is linked up to the poll (occipital muscle), to the sternum (sterno-hyoid muscle), itself connected to the shoulders (scapular aponeurosis).
• The mouth is a crossroad of numerous biomechanical synergies. As such, it is concerned by anything that occurs in the whole forehand of the horse (at least).
• Strong or continuous pressures on the tongue or the bars are painful and traumatic... physically and psychologically. They are to ban.
It is well known that mobilization of lower jaw and tongue (“licking”) is typical of the submission behaviour of horses.
-> All in all
• In order to become the natural leader of the horse, and to influence its balance and motion through the position of its neck, first of all , the rider has to mobilize its jaw and tongue. This is a guarantee of relaxation, attention, gentle submission... in one word: confidence.
• Jaw yielding is the subtle dialogue that enables the rider to come into the intimacy of his horse.
Without acting on the tongue or on the bars, the rider has to provide the horse with the most favourable conditions for teaching the jaw yielding.
• By raising its neck, the horse is shifting the weight from its shoulders. Being in self-carriage, he has no reason and no means to lean on the bit or fight with the hand.
• Thanks to its stretching, the sterno-hyoid muscle is relaxing and freely working to mobilize the tongue.
• A clearly opened poll frees the parotids from any compression and liberates the TMJ.
All these elements promote mobility.
-> Therefore: It is rising its neck and opening its poll, that the horse can easily learn to give its mouth.
• Equestrian solution
Raising the hands (on the snaffle)
By evenly raising his hands (“demi-arrêt”), the rider can ask the horse to hold up its neck and keep a steady position... without acting at all on the tongue and bars.
The movement of the bit towards the gullet is acting on the corners of the lips. It causes the jaw to release. Then, as soon as the hand is lowered, the tongue is mobilized. The contact is then reduced to the minimum: half opened fingers on loose reins (“descente de main”).
NB: The binomial: demi-arrêt – descente de main is shared by both La Guérinière and Baucher.
By repetition (first in halt, then in walk, in trot etc.), the rider sets up a reflex anticipation effect. The horse will yield increasingly quickly and will tend to keep a released mouth for longer, with more and more discreet actions of the hands.
NB: low hands: They act backwards, directly on the tongue and bars (pain, contraction, defences). The horse can get rid of it only by flexing the poll and lowering the head: all what should not occur!
A clenched noseband will hush up the protests of the horse (tongue shrinks back, above the bit, out of the mouth), without removal of the causes. The horse will just be allowed to grind the teeth.
-> All in all
• Low hands harshly enslave.
• Raising hands kindly masters.
• Low steady hands are a valid objective (descente de main), but they have to be rejected as means, because being coercive and aggressive.
3 The neck: second element for putting in hand
• Physiology: Proper training of muscle should always start with stretching exercises.
• Osteopathy: Free and complete lateral flexibility of the neck is an absolute necessity.
• Partial stretching: lateral flexion
The more the poll is flexed, the more the neck shortens, the more its lateral flexibility declines.
- The extreme compression of the inner parotid is painful.
- Inner processus paracondylaris bumps underneath the first vertebra. This prevents the lateral flexion.
-> Therefore: The rider should teach the lateral flexions from a high and opened poll.
Raising one hand, the rider is acting on the inner corner of the lips. He achieves a jaw yielding and easily bends the neck (up to 90°). He makes sure that the horse does not lower its head or flex the poll. (Demi- arrêt if necessary).
He validates the lateral flexion with a jaw yielding and a descente de main.
Pronounced lateral flexions alternatively stretch both sides of the neck. They contribute towards symmetry and suppleness of the whole spine (search for straightness).
NB: This is of paramount importance when known that maintaining the dorso-lumbar bend around the inner leg has no reality. Biomechanics is categorical about this.
• Overall stretching: extension of the neck
Pronounced lateral flexion and reversing the neck are incompatible. In order to make the pronounced lateral flexion easier, the horse will always try to bring its neck on the horizontal line. The rider has only to give enough in order to get it.
This position, with a long neck and nose forwards, is stretching the whole upper line (relaxation). It amplifies the periodic undulations of the dorso-lumbar area. It enables the rider to regulate and develop the gaits from the very beginning of the schooling (a major gap in the baucherism).
-> All in all
• Longitudinal flexibility should result from developing the lateral flexibility.
• By stretching its neck, the horse brings its nose near the vertical line... without ever having to flex the poll. NB: Then, the expression “seeking the bit” really makes sense!
4 Flexion of the poll: third element of putting in hand
The flexion of the poll is part of the longitudinal flexibility. As such, like the stretching of the neck, it should result from lateral flexibility.
• How to teach it, without backwards action of the hands and its negative effects?
• Raising one hand, the rider gets the jaw yielding and the lateral flexion.
• If, instead of giving, the rider is resisting on the outer rein, the horse will yield by flexing its poll.
• Any tendency to lower the head must be cancelled with a “demi-arrêt” on both reins.
• The flexion of the poll should be validate by a jaw yielding. All the more as the contact is now mainly on the tongue and bars. So: légèreté... or back to the starting point.
NB: Progressively, the flexion of the poll will be trained from a higher position of the neck.
At the end, the horse will be “in hand”. “Ramener” is the combination of a raised neck with a flexed poll and jaw yielding.
At any time, the horse should keep ready to stretch its neck again... within any bend and at any gait.
In order to teach the horse the hand in a respectful way (in other words: a classical way), the rider must keep up with the following chronology:
• First of all: get the mouth (relaxation, balance, confidence).
• Secondly: control the neck. Lateral flexibility (suppleness, straightness) to achieve longitudinal flexibility (stretching the neck: tension and forward movement).
• At last: flex the poll, which eventually ends up in “ramener”.
Flexing the poll is valuable only when combined with a raised neck, and accompanied by jaw yielding.
On its own, putting the horse “in hand” reveals two conceptions of dressage:
• One is a trial of strength between the rider’s arms and the neck of the horse.
• The other one is based on a dialogue between the mouth of the horse and the rider’s hands.
The first one is quite simple for the rider, but unfair and painful for the horse. It needs coercive equipments. It requires overtalented horses... and many of them disappear prematurely.
The second one is very demanding for the rider, but fully respectful of the horse. That is why it bans any constrains and gives nearly all horses a chance to achieve a high level of schooling.
One just has to choose.
Quite obviously, the riding that grants the hand only a subsidiary role, is on the wrong track. The hand is a peculiarity of mankind... the key stone for a clever and intelligible schooling.
Légèreté, Légèreté , Légèreté!
By the light of scientific data, the concept of légèreté does not appear any more as a simple riding option among others... It is indubitably the one that corresponds to the needs of the horse.
Moreover, this rational approach enables to make some points:
• When deeply understood, légèreté is neither refusal to take the reins, nor incapacity to give the back, nor lack of activity... On the contrary, it has to be a guarantee of efficiency, instead of a special field for starchy and ineffectual riders.
• Most often, légèreté looks confused, complex and extreme in Baucher’s and his main disciples’ books. All in all, it is so hard to get the essence out of them, that in the end légèreté seems to be an unusable concept.
?Baucher’s flexions posted up on the walls of the covered arena: that is far from being enough!
• The best masters of the French school attached great value to the idea of légèreté. That is the reason why this nice word sometimes appears in the French officials’ speeches. It is nothing but a quest of historical legitimacy... In fact, unfortunately, due to the lack of a judicious synthesis, the French modern schooling has been constantly renouncing this fundamental and specific concept.
• “Légèreté in a sauce”! Some years ago, nobody wanted to use this unpronounceable word. But all of a sudden, it became fashionable. I would rejoice about that... if opportunists of any kind were not mainly using it as a profitable slogan. Be careful! Nothing better than a fashion can promote forgeries, and finally change an essential concept into a disposable product.
The important thing keeps: Say what you do, and do what you say. We will see to this in the practical demonstrations this afternoon.