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Softening your jaw can improve your rein contact, and your horse's forwardness and suppleness.

Softening your jaw can improve your rein contact, and your horse’s forwardness and suppleness.

I’m a tooth grinder, a jaw clencher, a cheek-chewer—my masseters are where anxiety and pressure get together and wrestle, while frustration punches the walls of my mouth in the background. I know I can blame my afternoon headaches on this tension lollapalooza going on right below my brain, but it never occurred to me my horse might be shaking his head because of the tightness transferred to him from mine.

In her immensely useful new book 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES, biomechanics specialist and riding instructor Wendy Murdoch explains that softening your jaw will improve your rein contact, inviting your horse to stretch down and be more forward.

“You might be surprised by how much effect your jaw has on your horse,” Wendy says. “Horses often mirror the rider’s behavior and movement. If you are having a problem getting your horse to stop leaning on the bit, bracing his neck, or tensing his jaw when you ride, it is time to examine what you are doing with your jaw.”

Next time you ride, notice your jaw. Do you clench your teeth? Do you hold one side tighter than the other? Do you pull your jaw in and up in order to “sit up straight”? Do you push your chin out as you ride transitions or go over jumps? Do you tense your tongue or push it against the side of your mouth?

The masseter muscle is the strongest muscle in your body.

The masseter muscle is the strongest muscle in your body.

Relaxing the jaw frees your head, neck, upper chest, and shoulders—the horse’s too. Your jaw needs to be relaxed and moveable when you ride. Clamping on one side or both sides increases your body tension, especially in the shoulder area. Excessive protraction (sticking your chin out) or retraction (pulling your chin in) will create tension along the back and front of your body. Your horse feels this tension through the saddle, causing him to react in a similar way by tensing his jaw, shoulders, and back.

Try this 5-Minute Fix to improve your rein contact and encourage your horse to let go of excessive tension in his body.

 

SOFTEN YOUR JAW

  1. Observe what you do with your jaw when you drive your car, work at the computer, or watch TV. Find out how often you tense, retract, or protract your jaw. Does the angle of your car seat make you stick your chin forward? Put a sticky note on your computer to remind you to let your jaw soften while you type.
  2. How many fingers (one on top of the other) can you insert in your mouth? If you can’t get more than two, then your masseter muscles are really contracted! Practice sliding your lower jaw forward and back with your teeth parted. Use the tips of two fingers placed just inside your mouth as a guide to prevent you from closing the jaw.
  3. Slide your jaw from one side to the other side. Which direction is easier? Think of making flat circles (parallel to the ground) with your lower jaw as if it were a plate sliding around below your upper jaw. Rest and feel how these movements help you soften your jaw, tongue, neck, and shoulder area.
  4. When mounted, notice what you do with your jaw. Do you clamp your teeth? Does the tip of your tongue press against your palate? If so, allow it to rest behind the lower front teeth. This will relax your tongue.
  5. Practice sliding your jaw forward and back and from side to side while in the saddle. Observe your horse: What does he do with his back and neck when you soften your jaw?
  6. Keep your teeth just slightly parted, consciously relaxing your masseter muscles. You can touch them occasionally as a reminder to stay soft. Feel how this softens your neck, shoulders, and upper back. How does this affect your contact?

 

CLICK IMAGE TO ORDER

CLICK IMAGE TO ORDER

Find more great 5-Minute Fixes in Wendy Murdoch’s 40 5-MINUTE JUMPING FIXES and her bestseller 50 5-MINUTE FIXES TO IMPROVE YOUR RIDING, available from the TSB online bookstore, where shipping in the US is FREE.

CLICK HERE TO SHOP NOW

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In her new book RIDDEN: DRESSAGE FROM THE HORSE’S POINT OF VIEW, Ulrike Thiel explains why it is important that the horse be able to use his neck as a “balancing rod.” She says the horse’s ability to use his “balancing rod” neck defines his balance and instills confidence in his movement.

“The comfort of the connection between horse and rider depends directly on the availability of the ‘balancing rod’ neck,” says Thiel. “And remember, contact should come from the horse—he should stretch elastically into the reins rather than yielding to the rider’s hands. In several modern schools of riding, correct contact is replaced with the horse yielding at the poll and going behind the vertical in response to pressure from the rider’s hands.”

Try this easy exercise to see how important it is for the horse to be able to use his “balancing rod” when being ridden:

First, walk the length of a narrow piece of wood with your arms free and out to the sides.

First, walk the length of a narrow piece of wood with your arms free and out to the sides.

1  With your arms free and held out to your sides, tread the length of a narrow surface, such as a balance beam or even a long strip of wood flat on the ground, such as that shown in the image above. Most will find that this neither causes insecurity nor is difficult to accomplish—you can rely on your “balancing rod” arms as necessary.

Next, repeat the exercise with your arms folded behind your back, but not fastened together.

Next, repeat the exercise with your arms folded behind your back, but not fastened together.

2  Now try the exercise with your arms folded behind your back, but unfastened so you can use them if you need to. While you may fall out of balance and your muscles may cramp momentarily, you know you can put your hands out to the sides to catch yourself and relieve your muscles if you need to. Therefore, again, the exercise is neither particularly anxiety-inducing nor difficult.

Finally, try again but this time with your hands tied or handcuffed together in front of or behind your body.

Finally, try again but this time with your hands tied or handcuffed together in front of or behind your body.

3  Finally, tie or handcuff your hands in front of or behind your body and try again to tread the length of the beam. You will discover you fall out of balance more often and your muscles are more likely to cramp—plus, the knowledge that you cannot catch yourself from falling even if you want to, or relieve your cramping muscles, causes anxiety.

“When the horse is in the ‘classical contact’ (in front of the vertical and with sufficient neck length), he is able to use his ‘balancing rod’ (his neck) whenever he needs to catch his balance,” says Thiel.

This is like treading the beam in Step 2, with your hands unfastened but folded behind your back.

“However, when a horse is held in a shortened neck position by the rider’s hands, he doesn’t have that ability,” she goes on. “This is comparable to us having our hands tied behind our back [Step 3 of the exercise]. Think about it: Police bind prisoners’ hands behind their back with handcuffs so they can’t run away—their feet are free, but their balance is compromised. When the reins act as ‘handcuffs’ on the horse, they not only prevent him from balancing himself, they also cause instinctive fear in a flight animal, since he feels he can’t run away if necessary.”

Click image to order.

Click image to order.

RIDDEN: DRESSAGE FROM THE HORSE’S POINT OF VIEW is available from the TSB online bookstore.

CLICK HERE TO DOWNLOAD A FREE EXCERPT

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