Wednesday, July 29, 2015

A lower frame

After working with a couple of trainers, I've had a concept practically shoved down my throat:
When I'm having a tough ride, I need to put Guinness in a lower frame and ride him much deeper until he relaxes and gives.

Let me start at the beginning because while this might seem advanced, it really isn't.

Guinness is built to carry his head and neck fairly high. It's lovely, and really ideal. His neck is tied in high on his body and is nice and long. With a good arch in it, his poll is the highest point and he is a lovely picture. Unfortunately, he isn't always strong enough to hold this frame and work over his back.
Here's an example... (I am so sorry for the quality of these terrible screenshot photos!)
See the dip in front of his withers and how his back is hollow? Sure, he's still stepping up nicely but that is just because he is a nice and athletic horse. I guarantee you this trot feels like crap and that he is NOT in the bridle at all. You can tell he isn't in the bridle because my hand is back and down, trying desperately to maintain some sort of connection with his face. (Note: not the right way to do that. Oops.)

I've always thought the best way to get him into the bridle and working through from this position is to push him forward into that frame, basically forcing him to lift his back and loosen up. This usually ends up with me chasing him forward into the contact; him racing forward, getting more and more heavy in his shoulders, and causing me endless frustration. A half halt is pretty much impossible here, too. His lack of connection makes a good half halt completely ineffective, usually resulting in him slamming on the brakes and throwing his head up.

So what's a girl to do? LOWER THE NECK.
Wow. Terrible quality. Try to focus on the silhouette, okay?
Note how his poll is no longer really the highest point? It's hard to tell in this photo, but his neck is also wider at the base and he's lifting and filling out that space in front of his withers. His back is much less hollow, and he's actually pushing from behind and into the bridle. This trot is amazing to ride. It feels like floating, is super easy to sit, and is slow yet filled with energy. It's not "collected" but it's a great working trot and perfect for warming up or loosening the back.

When I lower Pig's neck (similar aid to stretchy circle, you just don't stretch all the way), I make sure to keep my outside rein solid. Almost the moment his neck lowers, I can feel him relax and start swinging through his body. It's that instant.

He doesn't stay here long, though. Every couple of strides I have to remind him to keep his neck down. It's harder work down there, and he's constantly looking to go back to the higher-headed way he's used to.
Stay here....
Once I feel he's relaxed and comfortable in the lower frame, I ask for the same thing at the canter.
Nice and round in the neck...
Depending on the day, this work is either easier or harder at the canter. Once I get the lower neck and relaxation at the canter, though, I know I have it for the day. The key at the canter seems to be not letting Pig bulge out through the right shoulder and keeping his haunches under him while he sorts out the lower neck thing. He tends to want to swing wide behind to avoid actually lifting his withers and getting good movement through his back. Though, that swinging wide thing is probably also a symptom of his stifle issues.

If I find Pig is leaning on my inside hand to maintain his bend, I push him more with my inside leg at the girth and give for a step with my inside hand.
Giving with the inside hand, should probably be giving less with my whole damn body. Oops.
The moment of release tends to get him back on the outside rein and bending around my leg instead of my hand. I make sure this release is very brief. Too much use of the release and he stops trusting my connection and the whole endeavor is lost. He has to trust my connection to keep his neck lower and fuller.

There are a couple of things to remember when working your horse in a lower and deeper frame:
1. Keep the nose out in front or on the vertical. If your horse is prone to ducking behind the contact, this may not be the exercise for you.
2. Keep your hands steady. While making them a little wider and lower is helpful here, I wouldn't go overboard and plant your fists on your knees. The goal is to be able to lower your horses frame and ride him there with normal hands. In fact, I find lowering the neck takes my hands out of the equation. With a lower neck and more active back, Pig moves almost entirely off my seat.
3. Focus on relaxation of the poll and jaw to get relaxation through the whole body. When the poll and jaw are relaxed, the horse can move nicely through the neck and body without a spot of tension ruining it.

This lower-neck trot work is not just for warming up. It is also great for developing nice collection and thrust. I shorten my reins, keeping the neck low, and ask Pig to compress his frame. I don't ask for faster, but instead "bouncier."
So fancy!
His poll naturally will come up, but the work asking for a lower neck keeps his withers lifted, his back engaged, and his neck relaxed and happy. Meanwhile, he is able to engage further and really give me a great trot! If he later gets tight or nervous in this higher position, I ask him to lower his neck for a moment and see if that will reset him. Most of the time it will!

I have known about changing the frame for a long time, but for some reason this is the first time the exercise's use has actually sunk in for me. Maybe Pig and I had to be at the right place in our training to be able to effectively use it. Still, I think it's a great tool and one I'll be using a lot!

Have you guys ever experimented with changing your horse's frame like this?

28 comments:

  1. Great post! And one I totally agree with. I totally believe in working in the "frame" that is most beneficial for your horse that day or moment. Even Hampton, who is totally downhill, benefits from working a little deep and round at the beginning of rides. After he is soft, THEN I can bring hile poll up. If I ride him with his poll up when he is not soft, I might as well try to soften a 2x4. Like you said, the important thing is that the withers come up, the hind leg comes under and the back comes up. You can mess with the poll later.

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    1. Yes! It seems like people are allergic to a lower frame now that Rollkur is a thing. Like "oooh, can't ride my horse lower or deeper, that's TORTURE." Well, yah. Rollkur is bad, but a lower or deeper frame is absolutely not rollkur.

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  2. Love love love this post! The small tips are helpful too as I am trying to achieve this same thing with my horse...and not giving with my whole body when giving the inside rein ;) My inside hand (most right hand in general) has a hard time with that!

    http://somethingtotalkabouteventing.blogspot.com/

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    1. Haha, yeah. For some reason my whole body feels like leaning with my hand is doubly effective. Dear self: nope.

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  3. Great post! The tips are great. I've been working with my guy on similar things, especially getting him in a good frame! It's tough work but super fulfilling when they finally just do it and work properly! :)

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  4. Love this! Gives me some things to try with by OTTB Giraffe. She loves to hollow her back and race forward. I've been working on maintaining light, steady contact on the reins so she can trust the connection and not holding her face. I also throw in small circles when she starts to rush, so I don't have to pull on her face and she has to slow down and balance herself. We still have some work to do, but I can't believe the improvement I'm already seeing!

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    1. Awesome! As the owner of reformed OTTB Giraffe, I wish you much luck. If you haven't checked it out, watch George Morris's flatwork classes on USEF Network (http://guineaforaguinness.blogspot.com/2015/01/sensitive-horses-contact-and-george.html). There's a lot of good stuff in there about reeducating a rider and horse about good basic contact.

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  5. Did two months of deep and low with Mikey as he was recovering to work on engaging the muscles at the base of the neck to make him go over his entire topline. It paid off big time in a better connection to the bridle. He's never going to come around like Pig, simply because his neck ties in too low to his neck, but he's definitely doing better.

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    1. Yeah, Pig is some kind of TB dressage freak. He is not built for racing at all! Ha!

      I think your work with Mikey really shows. He seems so much happier working through and in your connection.

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  6. What a difference! You guys look great :)

    I think you're right, that after the rollkur movement, people have been going crazy trying to get the poll up, sometimes to the detriment of relaxation and throughness. For horses with naturally higher set necks (Rico has one but TC's freisian neck makes Rico's neck feel super low haha), riding low is completely necessary. I have a rule- find the best gaits and throughness regardless of where the neck is, strengthen the horse in that place, then start thinking about what it all looks like. A lot of my warm up rides with Rico were BTV and way low (and that's where we disagree, I think BTV is totally fine for a lower outline, as long as it does not become curling, but to fix curling I meet a horse where they want to be- BTV- and then ride them out in the nose so a horse that curls may live BTV for a bit too), but this allowed me to really access his back and work on suppleness, before he'd be put into competition outline, which I wouldn't ask him to hold for very long at first. It's all about building strength!

    TC will live in as low of an outline as I can get him. My pictures over the last few months show that we're working to lower and lengthen his neck. He'll live in that longer, lower outline for the first year or so of his training to strengthen his back and reduce tension. And by then we'll work to lift his withers and the poll will naturally come up. I imagine that riding him will always be about lowering his neck but it will look less like that later on. Uphill horses never need to be held uphill (which is nice!).

    Keep up the excellent work! :D

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    1. Thanks! I'll be honest, even our bad days feel pretty damn good right now! So happy about that.

      I don't disagree with you about BTV, but I worry about saying it's okay. I don't want someone out there holding their horse's head in and freaking them out. Pig goes behind a little bit pretty often, but if he is still comfortable and relaxed, we go with it. I know I can always get it back up. Ha!

      Really interesting about higher set and longer necks. I kind of figured that was the case here, but it's good to hear that thought seconded. I had a trainer recently have me spend the whole ride with Pig's head in the air. While we eventually did get him working well, it took almost 35 minutes to get him together, and I would have no hope of getting him to that point by myself. I can't imagine doing that every day, and I can't imagine my horse would want me to either. So, it's deep and low and working slowly on building up that muscle memory of swinging relaxation!

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  7. Yes! In one of my recent lessons we worked on this, it's especially hard for me because like you mentioned, mine is prone to ducking his chin to avoid the contact so I have to really work to get him lower his neck without curling under and breaking at the poll. We can't hold it for long right now either but it's an amazing feeling when it happens!

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    1. Ooh, yeah, those who duck behind can make things SO frustrating. Pig used to do that, and I rode him up and in front of me and with a lot of forward to get him out of it. We weren't really working on dressage much then, so I'm not sure how helpful that is for you!

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  8. What a difference! Paddy loves to play giraffe almost as much as he likes to stick his nose on his chest, and for me what works is riding a shit ton of transitions off the seat. If I try to ride him "lower" he just falls more on his forehand and runs, so we focus on slowing his feet and me not getting in his face. Very cool to see what different things work for different horses!

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    1. It is so interesting. I think Paddy is one of those cases where being ridden more "up" is useful for him. He's such a compact little package, any sort of on the forehand is just bad news!

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  9. I really like this idea. We don't apply it quite at this level, but it's the same concepts I've been using with Courage. I used to try to run him "forward", but he's so much more successful when we slow down and ride under the rhythm until his balance is right, then increase.

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    1. I had a trainer tell me to slow down my trot to almost a jog to introduce Pig to new concepts. She said he had to figure out where to put his feet before he could do it at speed. It totally made sense and works so well with him. Even now, slowing him down to do things seems to really help keep his brain thinking and pull his hand off the panic button.

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    2. This is also Mary's philosophy: it's sometimes easier for them to learn new things at a slower pace. It worked for teaching Mo about contact, but now he needs to freaking go forward because slowing down is one of his evasions.

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  10. So fancy, indeed! Love this post. Will try with Griffin in upcoming rides to see what it gets us.

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  11. I really love this- just last night my trainer had me really focus on using my inside leg at the canter to get my girl to maintain her bend and stop leaning on my hand for balance. We're not dressage stars, but definitely trying to use these concepts to get more softness!

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  12. Love the dressage geekery! Dino needs to start out in a much longer, lower frame than even a true Training level frame to warm up and stretch. Once he's focused and warmed up, I can start bringing the poll up a lot more. That is when he responds to my leg. Great post!

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  13. I can totally see the difference in the pictures. Interesting!

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  14. Great advice!! Moe is a lot like Pig- built with his neck tied high into his body, naturally tracked up, etc. I've been trying to work him in a low, low, low frame to help him develop his back and neck, but he currently can't carry himself that way for too long!

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  15. Yup! This is how I ride Red right now, and it's in my head when I'm riding Mo but he's not as ready for it as Red is. I will sometimes put Mo in a frame that's a little too deep and round if I'm going to do a transition, because then if he lifts his head he's coming into a proper frame. But Red will not duck behind the bit and Mo occasionally will, so I'm more careful about it with Mosey.

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  16. i'm finding that my mare has a really lovely balanced trot when i slow it down a little bit and go for this lower frame. like you say, the trick is to NOT let her duck behind the vertical, but when i get it right i can really feel the push and moment of suspension. feels fancy!

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  17. This is something Chemaine has had me work on with Speedy. She instructs me to get him deeper and slower first. Once he's deeper and rounder, I can push him forward, but when he pops his head up or loses balance, we slow the trot/canter back down and ask for deeper and rounder again.

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  18. Great advice as always and fab food for thought, I need to get our butt back into arena work but the temps have me running for the shaded wood trails ;-)
    Plenty time for arena work in the approaching cold months :-p

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