I find it pleasing that to have our horses in a forward, down and out (FDO) position to lengthen and stretch the neck and develop good posture, we need to work with our horse, and have a conversation. We are unable to pull their head into this position whilst we are riding. Yes the head can be physically pulled down low, but then the nose comes in, which is not useful for good posture development and causes problems of its own. In-hand work is very useful in developing FDO in our horses, and is the best way to start the process. Yet our horse will need to have a reasonable level of two things for FDO; relaxation and balance.
Our horse needs to be reasonably relaxed, mentally and physically. If the horse is worried, or tense, he or she will generally not assume the FDO position. Rather it is likely their head will be higher, the poll and lower neck tense, and the back hollow. So we need to pay attention to our horse, we need to ensure we do not unwittingly develop fear or trepidation or anger in our horse, and we need to allow and encourage our horse to manage their emotions. We absolutely do not want to get into a fight with our horse, or to be thinking of punishment, or be thinking with annoyance or impatience. We are schooling ourselves and our horse, always! For our horse to be relaxed physically, we need to ensure we do not develop tension or resistance through the way in which we ride and use our aids, and through our attitude. We want our horse to be mentally attentive, emotionally stable and physically prepared with muscles that can easily contract and relax (rather than being held in constant contraction, or tension) so he or she can learn to move in unaccustomed ways, which to begin with takes our horse a considerable amount of physical and mental effort.
Our horse also needs to have a sufficient degree of balance. If a horse does not feel balanced, it will not be able to relax, it will not be able to adopt an FDO position, it will not be able to lift through the wither and back using the correct muscles. If a horse feels unbalanced it may turn the head outside of the arc or circle, may push through a shoulder, may drop a shoulder and fall in, may stiffen through the neck and/or torso and more. All of these things are not done by the horse to annoy us, but to maintain its balance in a way that it can physically and mentally cope with, and in a way to which it is accustomed. When a horse is in balance and is relaxed it will often ask to lower its head and neck into the FDO position. Then all we need to do is give with our hands and rein and say ‘yes thank you, well done’.
Our horse will need to be given the time to discover how to balance itself in different ways to what he or she is accustomed. The first time I asked my mare to step back whilst in an FDO position (and this was in-hand not under saddle), I waited while she thought about it. Then she tried shifting her weight in several different ways. She started to move, then would stop. She had to really think about how to take one step back, without raising her head and hollowing her back. It took her time to think about it, to experiment with it, and finally to have a go at doing it. It was a bit like me when my physiotherapist asked me to do a certain exercise for the first time which used my core muscles. I didn’t know how to do it. I had to think about it, move my weight around a bit, then to have a go at it, and honestly to then do it rather poorly. It felt uncomfortable, unnatural and difficult. When we have empathy for our horse and we realise that this work can be difficult, we are gentler with them; we give them more time, and more encouragement. Some people think that because a horse is so big and strong and fast, that simple physical things are not hard for it. This is simply not correct.
What is often forgotten is that horses will need to learn how to best carry the weight of the rider, making the most efficient use of their skeletal and muscular structures. Normally, without a rider, horses move in ways that are not helpful for them when under saddle. In order to have a horse carry itself well and healthily under saddle or in harness, it needs to move differently to that way of going. We need the horse to learn to be upright, to have a continuous line through its centre from back to front, to use its core muscles to maintain its balance, to lift through the wither and back. That lift through the wither and back is perhaps the most important thing in the long term of developing good posture in a horse, as it lifts the back in an arc much like a bridge. The spine of the horse in the area of its back is often called a vertebral bridge, and if we do not train the horse to lift that bridge into an arc, it will sag downwards, interfering with correct movement, creating pain and in the longer term creating damage.
The time it takes for our horse to develop appropriate postural strength and balance is continuously underestimated. Yet while the process is time consuming, it is not exceptionally difficult to teach. What is difficult is to remain patient and to give our horse time to develop the strength to allow it to move and to balance itself in healthy ways. What can also be difficult is recognising in what way our horse is out of balance. But that we can learn. We need to not ask for things which our horse is not yet strong enough to do, while in good balance. Our circles or arcs are large and gentle, and few in number. When the horse loses its balance or becomes resistant, we ask for less, not more. We would widen the circle, not make the circle smaller. We ask for less, not more. Each time we ask for a movement, we want our horse to be in balance throughout the movement. If they cannot manage this, they need to be asked for a little less, so that they can manage, even if just for a few steps. If our horse loses its balance during a movement, it will also lose relaxation and it will be unable to maintain FDO. If our horse cannot manage an eight metre circle in balance, we do not insist on a five metre circle to ‘supple’ them. To do so will encourage resistance, tension and soreness, and will induce a loss of balance, relaxation and FDO. Rather we remain patient and empathic, and we keep listening to what our horse is really saying. This is the difficult part for us humans. It is amazingly easy to think the horse is being a bit of a shit and needs to work harder, and to just ignore their difficulty. For goodness sake, the fault is ours: we have not given the horse the time, support and the appropriate training for them to be where we expect them to be, or would like them to be. If we think our horse is being a little shit and not listening, it is much more likely it is us who is doing exactly that.
We horse people are always training ourselves to be patient, forgiving, calm and sensible and to maintain enthusiasm. Our biggest and best teacher is always the horse. Knowledge is of little use if we do not listen to and converse with our horse, and if we have no humility and are not willing to admit to our mistakes and to learn from them. For we will keep making them. We are only human and our horses speak a different language.