On the Bit 2.0
©Thomas Ritter 2009
Gustav Steinbrecht (1884):
“The steadiness of the neck, that is, the secure connection of the individual cervical vertebrae with one another and their correct position relative to one another can be ensured only by unweakened and well developed thrust. The flexibility of the neck, however, can be ensured only by the carrying capacity of the hindquarters. Forehand and hindquarters can therefore be worked only alternatingly against one another or simultaneously with one another in that the forehand constitutes the main weight against which and underneath which the hindquarters must express themselves by pushing and carrying their weight.”
This is another quote from the “Gymnasium of the Horse” that illustrates a different facet of the issue of riding a horse on the bit. In the last entry, we looked at the stability of the neck that is created through the alignment of the vertebrae. In order to be able to transmit the impulses of the hindquarters to the bit and the rein aids to the hind legs, the vertebrae have to be in touch with each other through a large enough part of their surface areas. If the neck is bent too sharply in one area, the surface area that connects the two vertebrae is too small, and the energy transmission is compromised.
The paragraph above mentions that the stability or steadiness of the neck can also be achieved through the thrust of the hind legs, which can be visualized as a pressure that comes from behind and pushes each vertebra into the one in front of it. The more highly the thrusting ability of the hind legs is developed, the greater is the stability. The thrust of the hind legs is created through the extensor muscles and the flexion of the stifle.
Steinbrecht then goes on to say that the flexibility of the neck depends on the carrying ability of the hind legs, i.e. the engagement of the flexor muscles, and the flexion of the hip and hock joints. The more the hind legs flex and carry the weight, the more supple the neck can be. In the last blog entry, the flexibility of the neck was related to the longitudinal flexion and lateral bend of the neck vertebrae, which requires a certain suppleness and elasticity in the neck, poll, and jaw musculature.
These two quotes describe different types of connectedness/steadiness and suppleness. The first one focused on the lateral stability that is created through framing of the neck and shoulders with the reins and knees, whereas the second one focuses more on the back to front stability that is created by the thrust of the hind legs. In the first quote, the lateral suppleness is created through bending rein aids, whereas here in the second quote the suppleness of the neck is a result of the carrying ability of the hind legs, i.e. balance and collection.
The thrusting and carrying ability of the hind legs must be balanced as well. If there is more thrust than carrying capacity, then the extensor muscles dominate over the flexor muscles, and the neck becomes stiff. If the carrying power outweighs the thrusting power, the neck may become wobbly and unsteady in certain places.
To begin the conversation with the horse, the rider has to ask him to engage his extensor muscles and to create a pressure of the hind legs from back to front, even if it is at the halt. Then the rider has to align and balance the horse, so that the energy is channeled properly to the bit, and when it arrives in his hands, the rider can ask for suppleness with the rein and weight aids. This is done in part through half halts and in part through bending rein aids that are applied when the lateral hind leg is on the ground. For instance, a bending left rein can be applied when the left hind leg is on the ground, in order to flex the left hind leg as well as the neck.
Steinbrecht mentions in the second half of the quote that the front end and hind end are worked in such a way that the weight of the forehand is used to bend the haunches. There is a reciprocal relationship between the two. The thrust of the hind legs can be used to eliminate or soften certain muscle stiffnesses in the neck and poll, while the weight and the leverage of the head and neck can be used to eliminate certain resistances in the hind legs by flexing and compressing them rhythmically between the ground and the body mass. The increased flexion of the haunches then eliminates further resistances in the neck and shoulders. In practical riding, many horses will go forward and thrust with their hind legs when asked by the rider, but they lose their lightness and suppleness. When asked to stay light and supple, they lose their thrust. To them, thrust and lightness seem like an “either/or” issue: they either push with their hind legs OR they are light and supple. The rider needs to teach them that they have to go forward AND stay light and supple. Fulfilling only one of the demands is not enough.
To be continued…
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