Dressage is a most pleasant art to watch. The horses are often well-muscled and round, their heads held proudly on arching necks. It looks like a dance where rider and horse become one; and it is. This connection between bodies and minds is a constant effort. The rider must always respect the horse’s body and allow him to perform while creating the guidelines, and the horse should be willing. That is key. When you ride your horse respectfully, he will want to perform for you.
Too often, the aesthetics are taken for granted, and the importance of the process is forgotten. Riders of all ages and disciplines will speak of that “beautiful frame” that their horse can or cannot do with little understanding, if any at all, of how that “frame” should be achieved. The frame is a term given to refer to the head carriage of a horse with his neck rounded and the profile of his face vertical.
In earnest, the frame is the last thing you should be worrying about. Yes, you want the horse to be supple in the poll, and of course you want the horse relaxed in his jaw, but the carriage of his neck should be a direct result of the carriage of his body. Instead of focusing your energy as a rider to create a pretty picture of your horse’s neck, think instead of encouraging his body to move in a way that he will create the arched carriage of his neck on his own volition. (Have a look at the Training Scale first.)
When a horse is traveling correctly and appropriately for dressage, his hind end is the power house, stepping further beneath him, matching or over-stepping the placement of the forefoot. (For a normal-length horse, the hind foot will generally reach as far forward as a line drawn down from the rider’s position.) This engagement of the hindquarters will naturally cause the abdominal muscles of the horse to contract and lift the body and is supported by muscles that stretch along the top of the horse’s neck and beneath the rider. (For more, see Creating Better Movement: A Look at the Shoulder and Neck.)
When the horse is traveling in this manner, he is traveling uphill. This is the goal. When a horse is traveling uphill, the muscles responsible for lifting the shoulder can do their job. These muscles originate in the shoulder and ribs, and attach in the neck. When a horse is lifting his shoulder in correct movement (for any discipline!), his neck naturally arches because that is how the muscles of the neck are designed to work. From here, we can then begin to ask for collection. In collection, the supporting muscles within the chest, and that run from the neck to the shoulder and ribs, lift the front end of the horse even more. The muscles within the chest contract, elevating the shoulder and base of the neck and create a truly lightened dressage star.
When a horse is collected, his nose should never come behind the vertical since the muscles that create collection do not pull the nose back – the rider’s hands do, or excess tension behind the poll that causes an over-exaggerated flexion.
The sought after end result cannot be achieved if the horse is forced to carry a frame by the demands of the hands. The hands are guides, not enforcers.
To artificially create a frame’ of the horse’s head and neck actually debilitates further gymnastic development of the horse. By restricting the natural relaxation of the horse’s neck by asking that he frame up’ when his body is not traveling correctly uphill, a rider is mistakenly creating a block for correct muscular development and actually contributes to worse habits that are extremely difficult to break.
By demanding that a horse carry a frame,’ his weight is actually displaced to the forehand even more than if her were left to wander on a loose rein. Pulling his chin down creates tension in the neck which reduces lateral flexibility. Since his jaw is being pulled down and toward his chest, the muscles that *should* create the arch, cannot even kick in because the limit set by the reins is preventing him even being able to lift his shoulder at all. The illusion of an arch is simply created when the horse’s chin is pulled toward his chest, creating what looks like a “rounded frame,” but his weight is stuck on the forehand. A rider can continue to ask for more length in his stride and lateral movements to their heart’s content, but the movement will be downhill, incorrect and will inevitably contribute to increased concussion and wear on the front legs and reduce the working life of the horse. This horse cannot progress correctly until he is allowed to stretch his neck and USE it in the manner that is was designed for.
When ridden under tack, a horse that has been pulled into a frame will be naturally downhill and, unless he still resists being forced down, will only result in him bending his chin in towards his chest when the hands ask for anything. To help him develop his neck and shoulder, he should be allowed to stretch forward on a loose contact. Transitions and exercises that should build his body and encourage engagement of the hindquarters will be excellent for him now that he has liberty with his neck to be able use it. The encouragement of stretching forward with his neck, will also contribute to more shoulder movement, and in turn, the muscles that lift the shoulder, those beautiful arching neck muscles, can start to work properly and finally develop.
It can be a long struggle to create an uphill horse out of a man-made downhill horse, but it *is an achievable goal. The effort that a rider puts in will help that horse live a longer, healthier and especially happier working life.
A lesser known fact about a horse, is often his eyesight. When a horse has his head held high (with his nose forward), he can focus most easily because he is seeing through the bottoms of his eyes (and the images are more efficiently processed). At or slightly in front of the vertical, the horse can see all around him, with only slightly less ability to distinctly focus; but when the horse’s nose is behind the vertical and sloped towards the ground, he cannot see where he is going. His sight is restricted to his own forelegs, side to side, and the ground. This does him no help at all in navigating across anything but a perfectly groomed, obstacle-free riding surface. Consider that if a horse gives up his own ability to see, part of his dependence for his survival, he, in a way, is giving up a part of his very spirit. He has submitted to blindness to appeal to the will of his unknowing rider. Consider now, where that rider’s willing partner has gone? Is he being stupid and uncooperative or did he simply give up?
A horse is a proud creature. We all know that and we love them for it. Encourage your horse to be proud! Let him show off! Let him excel! Feel the wonder in his stride when you ask him to march forward and he raises his shoulder and shows you how amazing he can be! Dance with him! Let his spirit come alive when you ask him to join you and you will have a wonder of a partner who sets his audience’s hearts ablaze with delight.