Jaw Releases

Posted in: Classical Equitation, Clicker Training, The Journey – Dancer

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As anyone who has studied classical dressage (French as opposed to German) will know…the release of the jaw is the key to everything else! Its central to everything, since without it we don’t have the ability to communicate back and forth with the ‘whole’ horse, which after all is the ultimate goal in classical horsemanship – that of the horse and rider becoming one – floating together in divine lightness and balance.

What is a jaw release?

To explain, in short, this website and the work and training we are doing with our horses here at Equi-libre Horses have much of their roots deep within French Classical Dressage Principles. The jaw release, better known as ‘Cession de Machoire’ is at the very heart of French Classical principles. It is the beginning, the middle and the end of every single step, both physically and metaphorically, towards the ultimate goal of classical lightness, balance and collection we all so wish we could train our horses to offer us under saddle.

Many classicists, both historically and today, achieve this release (or yielding) of the jaw by educating the horse about the bit. This done well teaches the horse to accept the bit and the rein as well as to truly follow the rein, and therefore the hand. This results in a horse who ‘takes the bit forwards’; ‘stretches into the contact’; and ‘comes onto the bit’. I am sure these are all terms you have heard before bandied about by instructors many times previously!

I am barely even skimming the surface upon this vast subject here; Cession de Machoire is just one integral piece of an intricate jigsaw within French classical principles and riding and training towards them – there are so many others but the Cession de Machoire is one of the core fundamental pieces of this full puzzle.

The reason Cession de Machoire is such a fundamental piece of the historical classical dressage puzzle is because it is the connection point between the rider and the horse’s spine – the jaw. The jaw is often spoken about in terms of being the door to the horses soul. If the horse accepts the bit with a released jaw, it is often said that mere thought can ride the horse in light, balanced movements. If the jaw is tight or holding tension rather than relaxed, the horse cannot truly release, relax and extend at the poll. Which means the head cannot ‘hang like a chandelier’ from the neck; a metaphor which modern day classical international trainer and rider, Charles De Kunffy uses.

Bitted or bitless?

But what if we dont want to use a bit? Is it possible to achieve this lightness and balance without?

Perhaps you are one of the many individuals out there who simply doesn’t want to use a bit on their horse – after all the number of us with the wish to keep our horses ‘iron-free’ is growing monumentally these days! Can those of us who wish to train this way access and train in classical principles and knowledge?

Absolutely! If we can maintain a tension-free jaw, we can teach the horse to find releases in a domino-effect running backwards through their whole body all the way back to the hind feet. We can then teach them to maintain this released posture into movement; free of tension and in their optimum balance.

Let me assure you it is absolutely possible to achieve the release of the jaw and achieve this deeply refined communication without a bit.

The problem is finding someone who really and truly has deep knowledge and understanding of the anatomy and bio-mechanics of both horse and rider AND classical dressage; let alone someone who will genuinely and keenly accept training bitless PLUS assure and guide you towards achieving that classical lightness, balance and anatomically correct collection!

I have searched and searched for many years. Finally I found Clicker Training with Alexandra Kurland. It has given me the tools to be able to open the door to classical bitless collection! I now train with Alexandra herself as well as other classical trainers and equine behaviourists. For more information on who I train with and my Continued Professional Development (CPD), please see the Experience page.

Tension, resistance and blockages

Tension, resistance and blockages are the issue – whether bitted or bitless. If tension or resistance is introduced any number of things can happen in the horse’s body. What we often see is the horse drops its nose behind the vertical and ‘breaks’ at either vertebra C2 or C3 of the spineous processes. The poll is no longer the highest point; instead these vertebrae become the highest point. This occurs because the jaw is holding tension and thus the poll is not released.

Tension in the jaw and poll results in knock on effects throughout the body; the horse isn’t able to engage the pectoral muscles to lift through the base of the neck to lift the shoulders and come up through the withers. The result is a dipped, arched, hollow back and sagging abdominal area which then forces the pelvis to rotate backwards. This makes it virtually impossible for the horse to step up under its centre of gravity with its hind legs.

Tension can be as a result of a vast number of physical reasons, just the same as in us. But the great news is that we can help our horses to stretch and release areas of tension and therefore overcome many postural issues they may have. The key to freedom from resistance and tension begins with the release of the jaw which then allows further releases to filter backwards through the horse’s body.

The only bio-mechanics for safe weight dispersion of both the horse and the rider together is to bring their natural centre of gravity more rearwards over the power house of the horse – the hind quarters. This is technically defined as ‘collection’.

So as you can see; the only way to achieve this correct collection therefore MUST begin with a soft and relaxed jaw, in order to allow the released and loose effect to domino all the way backwards through the horse’s body in order to allow the rotation and tuck of the pelvis. This rotation allows the hind quarters to step under the centre of gravity, transferring the weight rearwards and relieving the forehand of some of the overall combined weight of both the horse and the rider.

Bitless jaw releases

I want to share some video footage of Dancer practicing her jaw releases at halt in hand, in nothing but a head collar and leadrope. In true French classical style – we teach the release of the jaw progressively beginning in hand at halt first, building through into walk, trot etc. and then under saddle in the same way.

If we teach the horse to release through the jaw as we pick up the rein, which in turn then allows them to find more releases backwards in a domino-effect through their whole body, they are able to find their optimum balance and collection in halt. From here we can teach them to allow this released and collected posture forwards into movement.

Remember, your horse is never wrong – he will give you what is right for you and him in that moment, on that day, in that month of that year. Tomorrow might be completely different, but if things do stay the same and you are not liking what you are seeing posture wise, balance wise, that’s ok too – you can sculpt it slowly, gently, click by click… just like tweaking a beautiful piece of art, brush stroke by brush stroke; so we can refine these individual, beautiful pieces of art that are our horses.

Each horse is an individual and so, therefore, is their balance.

And this is especially important to understand as you train towards collection using the clicker. We don’t train the end goal from the outset; we explore the individual components that make up the end goal. We allow the horse to explore its body and sculpt and refine their individual beauty slowly. The result is confident, connected horses who know how to access any part of their bodies and find the releases to any blockages or tension they may have. Isn’t that incredibly amazing!

What you see Dancer offering here is true, classical collection in halt. There is no force, no coercion, no gadgets, just ultra soft and gentle communication via the leadrope. She even offers it a couple of times at liberty for me.

The jaw is released, which allows the poll to release and extend. The pectoral muscles engage and the base of the neck lifts, the shoulders drawn upwards, supported by the ligaments and muscles surrounding them and the withers are lifted. The abdominal muscles engage, pulling the tummy up rounding the back upwards. The body weight shifts backwards which allows the pelvis to rotate and tuck, engaging the abdominals and lifting the back further still. This allows the horse to ‘sit’ on its hocks as the weight is transferred more off the forelegs and rearward onto the hind quarters. The centre of gravity is shifted backwards.

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