By Mark Russell
Article appearing in PRE Magazine Fall 2011
Building from the premise that the release builds trust; educating the horse to the bridle springs from our early work with the horse in the halter. If we have been successful in teaching our horse to respond to the slightest pressure in any direction from the halter we can more easily begin to teach him about the bridle.A crucial element in the horse’s education to the bridle is teaching him to relax his jaw: a relaxed jaw indicates a relaxed horse, which is the foundation of lightness. Educating the horse about the bridle is an important component of the training process which is often misunderstood or overlooked altogether; however the bridle can be a very sophisticated way to access the musculature and skeleton of the horse to allow him to achieve a higher potential.
Introducing the Bridle
Before we begin to educate the horse to the bridle we first have him carry the bit while he is still being worked in the halter or caveson to give him the opportunity to feel it and play with it while focusing on something else. If we have taught the horse to understand releases the in the halter then it becomes easier for him to comprehend our requests in the bridle. When he is ready, with a bit in his mouth and with halter and lead rope in hand, we ask him to feel a connection to the bit by asking for releases to both sides. The halter with lead acts as a buffer and also supports our request. Additionally it can be relied upon if we need to abandon a request or refocus him without risk of creating a negative experience with the bit.
Releases are taught to the horse progressively: first from the halter, to the halter with the bridle, then the bridle with the halter, then finally bridle itself. Each step begins on the ground at a standstill then in movement; then under saddle at a standstill and in movement.
Releasing the Jaw
Using a snaffle bit; I stand at the horse’s head with it slightly flexed to the side towards me and I place my hands on each side of the bit. The hand on the inside directs the ring diagonally across under the jaw towards the opposite shoulder, while the hand on the outside ring lifts it upward. This should induce the horse to open his mouth, lick, or chew, which are signs that he has released his jaw: and to which I immediately release pressure. In the early stages of teaching I might need to induce him with a little treat to compel him to release. With practice I will be able to elicit a release of his jaw from a simple vibration of the rein upwards towards the corner of his mouth.
After he releases his jaw his poll will be inclined to relax. I then encourage his head and neck to stretch down; I support and help guide his head keeping him slightly bent. This stretching in relaxation with a slight bend will begin to release the muscles over his topline; eventually resulting in activation of his spine and hind end; allowing him to position himself from a subtle indication of the bridle.
The jaw needs freedom to move both laterally and from front to back for it to be able to release. Freedom in these natural movements will incline the horse to lift and savor the bit with his tongue. If, during the training process, he loses his balance and does not have the ability to move his jaw or open his mouth, he will bump into the bridle. Such restriction of his jaw precludes a fluid release to rein pressure creating fear and worry. When this happens repeatedly the horse cannot relax or work with the rider in any meaningful way.
Savoring the bit is an essential component of achieving true lightness; the horse will learn self carriage in a way that is unique to artistic dressage. The concept of through the bridle instead of up to or against the bridle ultimately gives the responsibility of balance to the horse and the responsibility of gymnastics to the teacher.