Sunday, December 9, 2007

Counter Flexion

I had some good friends visit Brego today and give me some tips for how to deal with his resistance in corners. My arena is not really fenced and on one corner in particular, Brego would like to run out and visit his buddies in the field next door. So the typical ride involves some minor disagreement about Brego bending softly through the corner, staying forward, and not popping his outside shoulder while singing "La la la, I can't hear you" to my aids. The disagreements have occasionally escalated into more of a pulling contest, not something I am very proud of. Pulling on the inside rein never works, it just causes Brego to stiffen his jaw and neck as a defensive posture and spin out his hind end, shifting his weight forward.

I was at a loss of how to solve this problem, and my dressage instructor has been a little under the weather, so I was talking about it with a good friend of mine and she volunteered to come down and help out. So she rode him through the corner, felt immediately what I did, and started trying to get him to soften his inside jaw, with varying success. She did manage to break through, however, and the magic ingredient to this gourmet meal was "Counter-flexion" through the corner.

It is important to me and Brego's training to fix him from back to front, so I wanted an exercise to do in the corner which would shut down his outside shoulder, and take away his locked inside jaw without disengaging his hind end. I think it's really important to keep that inside hind moving under and working and it allows his weight to come back. Counter flexion was the key, because I could isolate and eliminate his strong inside jaw, by physically shifting his shoulders to the inside, holding it for a couple of steps, then asking for straight, then back to a pure bend. It is sheer genius that my friend was able to show this to me, and really improved Brego's lightness off his forehand and resistance to moving through the corner.

This is where we started. I would like to turn left, but he wants to keep going right. He bends his jaw to a point, but then starts pulling and I pull back. His outside shoulder has popped out and my pulling up and back makes it worse. I am behind vertical. His hind end is flagging out somewhere in Oklahoma. He is overbent and has broken his poll to haunches connection, losing power. His gaping mouth illustrates how much we are not communicating. Gross all around.

I've tried to put together some pictures of this breakthrough. Unfortunately, the video did not come out.

Here's a correct bend to the right, tracking right:
Here we are still tracking right, but now he is bending left. Notice how his left front is almost crossing over his right front. Both his shoulders have been shifted to the inside. For this to be possible, he has to balance back on his haunches and stop leaning on my hands to resist through the corner. It's not just about bending his head to the outside, it's about relocating his front end and asking for a bend, keeping the haunches to poll connection.
When he would stiffen his jaw in the circle, I would ask for a counter bend for a couple steps and then shift him back to a pure bend, again through a couple of steps. It was a deliberate shift in his balance back and forth and I would also briefly move my inside bend hand forward and drop contact for a fraction of a second to ensure he was not leaning. It was amazing how much he self carried when I took the hand away in the bend. I would then reestablish contact and ask for him to straighten and then pure bend again. And here we have a much nicer walk as a result. He is more elevated and lighter on the front, not to mention more responsive and engaging that inside hind to push off.
Next we moved on to the trot. He found it much harder to counter bend at the trot, understandably, but it had the same lifting and lightening effect when he did. Both the pictures below are counter bending.

And then working back into the pure bend. A nice forward trot where his jaw is supple and his hind end is engaged. Not bad for 20 minutes of (hard) work.

Lesson learned: Work smarter, not harder. I cannot win a pulling contest, but I can change his bend and move his shoulders. I am so thankful to my friends who helped me to crystallize my thoughts on how Brego was moving and for giving me another useful tool for my tool box.

Updated: I've done some reading and it appears I've made a couple of errors today which I wanted to illustrate. First, in a counter bend, your former inside rein becomes your outside rein and you should not diminish contact with your outside rein through the bend. That allows the horse to pop the outside shoulder, albeit, the new outside shoulder. So my misguided thinking that it was keeping him from leaning on the outside hand was not correct. Secondly, in a head-on photograph above, his head is tilted and this is also a fault. If he were correctly counter bent, then his head would be vertical and gently flexed to the outside.

Which begs the question: How did this counter bend work? Since I believe it was the movement of his shoulders which affected the most good, and proper counter bending does nothing but flex the neck to the outside, was I doing an incorrect left shoulder-in while tracking right? It would appear so, and in doing so, letting his (former) inside hind leg off the hook, so to speak. So the next time I ride, I am going to see if it is the counter bending or the shoulder movement which he respects and makes him rock back. I suspect it is the shoulder movement, since this is the same "trick" I used with my dressage instructor to improve his canter. If I am correct, then doing a properly bent shoulder-in on the circle will have the desired effect.

In other words, is his stiffness the result of a stiff neck, or resistance to bending through the turn because his weight is not balanced back and he doesn't want to work the inside hind? Hopefully, I will be able to figure it out without resorting to more classical errors!

The good news though is that I am going to a clinic in San Antonio next weekend where one of the session will be dressage, so maybe I can get my questions answered there. I don't know if I will be able to ride with my regular instructor this week before I go.


Beckz said...

I have had this problem with all of my horses as they are all young and dont want to work. I do alot of flexion/ counter flexion work as this gives me contol of their shoulders with my legs.

Then when I get to the sticky corner my inside hand stays open but the contact is light, the outside rein is against the neck with my hand just to the outside of the weather and this stops the head getting too bent. Then I push the outside shoulder round the corner with my leg. Thats the best thing I have found.

With horses that fall out very badly, I will keep the head straight round the corner and push them round with my leg, and then use normal bend once they have the idea.

Daun said...

That is a very concise description and I appreciate you sharing it with me. That makes a lot of sense and helps me to formulate some thoughts as I experiment with different bends this week. Also, another astute reader pointed out that I am dangerously close to crossing my inside rein and I need to work on that as well.

Thanks again!!

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