The problem: The horse stiffens his jaw going in to and throughout the stop.
Why does this problem happen? The horse is not soft in the bridle while stopping because he has not learned to respect the bridle or he braces because he is scared.
How to correct this problem: A horse can be stiff in the jaw whether the rider has contact with his mouth or not. Either way, it affects the stop – negatively. When he is not soft and giving in the bridle, his poll, neck, shoulders and front end are stiff as well, which results in hollowing the back so he cannot use his loins, stifles and hocks to stop. It can look quite ugly and will not score well.
The first thing I would check if my horse is not soft in the bridle is the bit. Is it too much bit and he is scared? I might change bits for a while, even go back to a snaffle to help him get his confidence back. If it is a matter of respecting the bit and the training program, I will have to school, beginning at a basic level and working my up.
Staying soft in the bridle in the stop begins in the rundown. If the horse is bracey in the rundown (See Stop Fix #2: Stay Soft in Bridle in Rundown), he will still be that way when he stops. Even if there’s no contact with his mouth, the stiffness in his body will result in a heavy, bouncy stop. The heaviness that begins in his mouth runs all the way back. He won’t be able to use his back, loins, stifles or hocks to achieve an effortless, smooth stop. If it’s necessary to apply rein pressure to help him stop, the problem gets worse because he will have something to brace against.
The only way to fix this problem is to re-school basics, concentrating on establishing true lateral and vertical flexion and collection in circles and straight lines and establishing confidence (the horse’s) at those levels. I break it right down to one rein (lateral flexion), checking that my horse is truly ‘giving’ to rein pressure and that I am releasing that rein pressure when he gives – very important! I can do this at a walk and at a jog until I am confident that he is willing and relaxed. Then I can ask for vertical flexion (both reins) and collection at a jog, trot and lope. At first I do this exercise in a circle, then straight lines, repeatedly asking my horse to collect, first with leg pressure then rein pressure. My responsibility is to reward him when he complies – with release of pressure. Soon he will be soft in the bridle and I can go back to rundowns and stops. If he has a déjà vous moment in the rundown or stop (and he probably will!), I may have to re-enforce the lesson. When I school though, it is important that I always fix the problem when it happens. If that means dropping back down to basic level, then that’s what I will do. Eventually he will understand that he needs to stay soft all the time – warm-ups, rundowns and stops – if I am consistent with my corrections.
|Example of horse soft in bridle without contact|
|Example horse soft in bridle with contact|
When a horse goes in to a stop with his jaw relaxed (soft in the bridle) with no rein contact, he presents a pretty picture to the judge. If the rider must pick up the reins (because of deep ground or other) to finish the stop and the horse stays soft in the bridle, there is no harm done at all. He still presents that pretty picture.