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Significance of head carriage?
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sammy
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 Posted: Sat Jun 23rd, 2007 10:04 am
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I'd be grateful for some input on the significance (or otherwise) of a horse carrying his head vertical, behind the vertical or in front of the vertical. Some trainers/authors seem to pay little attention to this as long as the horse is responding softly to the bit, others imply that for a horse to be even slightly behind the vertical indicates that what is happening is necessarily incorrect.

Can the muscles of the topline be in release and the horse's head be behind the vertical? My simple logic says that if the muscles of the top of the neck are decontracted, gravity means that the head will hang vertically downwards - but perhaps the situation is not as simple as that! Does the horse's neck (and other) conformation make a difference? And I've seen lots of photos of classical masters such as Nuno Oliviera and Phillippe Karl riding piaffe and other movements on horses that look beautifully collected but whose heads are in front of the vertical.

I'm not obsessed with headset (honest!), but just want to understand the significance of what I am seeing for the overall softness/carriage of the horse. 

Many thanks. 

DrDeb
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 Posted: Sat Jun 23rd, 2007 05:00 pm
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Sammy, to begin with, in the horsemanship world that I advocate, there is -- and can be -- no such thing as a "head set". The head is not "set", i.e. it is not held stiffly in one position, at any time in any normal mammal. What the head is doing at any given moment is the product of the entire oscillatory dynamic of the spine. A photograph, which is what you are going to see printed in a book or magazine, captures or "freezes" a single moment of this dynamic. Whenever we are looking at photographs, we have to remain cognizant of this. To properly (or profitably, or accurately) get out of a photograph what was really present during the living moment when it was taken, the observer must be able to mentally "fill in" the moments preceding and following the single frame that the still camera caught. This takes considerable experience, which can best be gained by detailed examination of short strips of film or video.

Now if we run this idea the other way -- let us say that somebody DOES live in a horsemanship world where there IS such a thing as a head-set. And we know that this is not a hypothesis; we meet such people every day. And the way they go about it is to first look at the head and say, "well it isn't in the right position" (whatever position they think is "right" we don't for the moment really care). And they then do things, such as put a martingale on the horse, or adopt certain techniques with their hands -- such as continually making short backwards jerks on the reins, or perhaps taking a very firm and unvarying grip -- which they have seen other people who were prizewinners do, which worked. And these techniques DO work -- they certainly will teach the horse to freeze the position of its head.

Then what happens? Did you read the Ray Hunt transcript that was in the January "Inner Horseman"? Did you read where Ray said, "well if I looked out there in the pasture and I saw one of my horses moving like some of those horses in Western Pleasure do, I'd call the vet"?

Because here is the rule: spinal dynamics govern limb dynamics. This means that whatever the spine is doing, the legs will reflect that. The head and neck are part of the spinal chain. If you teach the horse to carry itself woodenly in the head and neck, then you also, willy-nilly, teach it to move its whole body woodenly, as if it were lame.

So whether the horse's head is ahead of the vertical, behind the vertical, or plumb on the vertical might be normal, or it might not. How do you decide? You have to look at the whole dynamic, the whole body in movement.

On the Peralta Brothers videotape that I often show to horsemanship classes, one of the most valuable things about that presentation is that these two men, who are the greatest mounted bullfighters in the world and absolutely wonderful in their degree of feel and in their ability to apply feel and modify it to suit the circumstances, we see them riding a variety of their own horses. One horse has drop-dead gorgeous conformation, with perfect articulation and shaping through the base of the neck, the ganache, and the throatlatch and poll area (plus everywhere else in its body). Another one has a stovepipe neck, short and thick, set on high enough but hardly any length in the turnover at all. Another one is long and fine in the neck, with the base a bit low (more of the TB coming through in that one's conformation). And what is so wonderful is that these guys permit EACH horse to carry ITSELF according to its own best dynamic. So one horse has its head (I kid you not) 30 degrees ahead of the vertical....one is often slightly behind the vertical....the other one is perfectly vertical. But my point is this: the result is a "perfect 10" for each horse!

So you can get stuck in the picture, and thereby join 99% of the rest of humanity; or you can climb out of the picture, get above it, and enter the realm of feel, where questions about "head set" not only are not necessary, they have no meaning (because they have no context).

Your question, Sammy, is I also want to note, very much akin to the archetypal "intermediate" student's question, which is, "how much pressure should I have in the reins?" This question is buried within the question you frame here, I think, because obviously unless the rider abandons the reins, it will either be the rider who pulls the horse's nose in past the vertical, or else it will be the horse who pries his nose out and takes the reins away from the rider. Neither of these things, if they are what is really going on, imply harmony or good feel.

But to the question, "how much pressure should I have in my hands" there is only one perfectly honest answer: the question has no meaning. The questioner does not realize that they are barking up the wrong tree. How much pressure is there between your chest and your arm? Do you see what I mean? The question has no meaning because your arm is, obviously, part of your own body. But this is what the reins are too: for when there is perfect harmony, which means perfect "feel", then the horse and the rider are one body. Ray says, "mah hoss's body IS mah body." And if this is the case, any physical thing that connects your body to your horse's body (such as the reins, driving lines, or a longe line) are also part of that body, and, as a result of this, they are alive because they share in the corporate body that is riderhorse. This is what you need to get to, Sammy, where you know this to be true because it is the experience you're having. When that happens, the type of question you will be asking then will be of a different order.

Best wishes -- Dr. Deb

Annie F
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 Posted: Sat Jun 23rd, 2007 06:50 pm
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Sammy,

There is a lot of discussion of this in the dressage world.  I'm not an expert, but I would say the comments on this come from two different perspectives.  One is "how things should look" and the other is "how things function." 

First, how things should look:  Some dressage riders and trainers focus way too much on the horse's appearance or "frame"--i.e. they think that even when a relatively young horse is just beginning work it should look like an advanced horse--at least, in the most superficial way possible:  by carrying its head like a more advanced horse.  They translate this as " the horse should never be in front of the verticle."  If you look at photos of very young horses being marketed for dressage, they always show them in this frame, otherwise people feel they don't look like "real" dressage horses.   Of course to get this look, they use martingales, draw reins,  see-sawing on the bit, or whatever it takes.  But if you look at photos of a young horse being properly trained, it should be reaching for the bit by learning to stretch forward, down, and out, so it can be relaxed in body and mind, and use its back more effectively. It works for a long time "in front of the verticle" and the trainer doesn't worry about it--he or she focuses on the "whole horse" and especially his back.

Of course the real objective for a more advanced dressage horse is to have his poll be the highest point, regardless of where his face is.  In pictures of top dressage performers from "the old days" you often see even grand prix horses slightly in front of the verticle, and this wasn't considered a problem or error.  But many dressage trainers and riders who are striving to  return to the former focus on dressage as a benefit to the horse and a way horse and rider can be "at one" -- i.e. as more of an art form than a sport--say that these days such a horse would be penalized in competition, while a horse that is behind the verticle and his poll is no longer the highest point is not penalized.   I'm not a judge or a competitor, so I can't speak to whether or how often this is true.

But another issue, at least in the dressage world, is one of how things function.  A few winning and highly prominent trainers and riders have begun using the horse's head and neck as a training device--by making the horse work with his nose pulled down to his chest.  One reason this practice got started was because riders were looking for a way to make their huge, strong warmblood horses submissive .  I'm not an expert in this, and I'm sure no one wants to clog up this forum with all of the heated debates over this practice that have been going on for several years in the dressage world, but it seems pretty obvious that riding the horse this way makes it hard for him to see and breathe.   It also throws him on the forehand changes the purity of his gaits, the opposite of what dressage is supposedly striving for.  Of course this isn't done during competition (and for a long time those who were doing it in the warmup ring have tried to keep people from photographing or filming them, or talking about the practice).  But sometimes when dressage people talk about whether or not it is proper for a horse to be behind the verticle, they are really talking about this practice. 

Of course as Dr. Deb points out, neither the trainer/rider of the green horse worried about the frame, nor the trainer/rider of the advanced horse hypyererflexing  the neck, seem to have a worry in their heads about how the horse can best use himself in the activity he is being asked to do, given his conformation.  I have never seen the Peralta Brothers tape, but it sounds like they understand function and feel in a much more meaningful, dynamic way, and I would love to see it! 

At least these days there are a few more people looking for a better way.  Some people (like Mike Schaffer) have never gone down these wrongheaded paths, and those of us who don't ride "western" can also learn so much from Ray Hunt and others featured on Dr. Deb's website.  Being less familiar with their work, I always enjoy hearing about their advice and experience.

Annie F

sammy
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 Posted: Sat Jun 23rd, 2007 08:36 pm
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Many thanks, Dr Deb, for your full, fascinating and, in many ways, liberating response to my questions. I am not surprised you detected a lack of feel (or feeling) in my original post – if, indeed, that is what you did – since, having re-read it, I realize it contains none.

 

Your answer has again made me think about the years I have spent interacting with horses in one way or another, and how they can largely be characterized by ‘feel’ on the one hand and ‘technique’ on the other. The journey so far has been a (sometimes sickening) pendulum ride between the two, with some synthesis at points along the way. A few years ago I seemed to have found a way to go that worked well with many of the horses I met, particularly on the ground, and was based largely on feel, I think. Then I became aware once again of my lack of ‘technical’ knowledge and set out to discover more about how horses move, carry a rider and so on, and methods to work on these things – and somewhere along the way the feel disappeared once more.

 

Maybe this is just the way it goes sometimes: both aspects are essential, if unequal, parts of the whole, and it is the balance between them that often goes awry, at least in my case! When I look at the relatively few moments when I have experienced amazing things with horses, they have always been based on feel. I love that bit in Paul Belasik’s book where he talks about being a child: ‘How much wiser I seemed then. So excited. So satisfied just to be on the back of a horse, riding towards the light.’

 

Best wishes

Sammy


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