Lesson of the Hand
What I will call the “Lesson of the Hand” is the real starting point for the Baucherist progression. It is also the point at which Baucherism separates itself, in general, from other forms of equitation such as colonial stock-style equitation (which often abandons contact altogether and declares it “light”), or hunt style (which usually implies traction), including those addressing high school equitation, such as sporting or German-style dressage (which generally implies heavy traction or appui).
The Lesson of the Hand serves as the first half of a solid foundation for creating true “lightness”; the second will be the Lesson of the Legs (discussed later), culminating with the integration of both lessons, the Effet d’Ensemble or Combined Effect.
Together, these studies put the horse truly “in hand”, and provide the controls necessary to effect the rassembler – leading indirectly to the finished ramener; and also the means for operating the horse gymnastically in a perfectly straight manner.
[Note: By the complex equivalent “straight”, we really mean “true” or “plumb” – not necessarily “straight” like an arrow, though, of course, the horse should be that kind of straight on a straight line. But in practice, we are generally traversing an arc … a portion of theoretical and perfect circle – the size of which is implied by the bend of our horse at any given time. The horse may be (and should be) perfectly “straight” therefore while tracing the line of a circle, long as the length of his body (viewed from above) is bent to precisely match the arc describing this circle’s perimeter}
By teaching the horse a) how to respond to subtle pressures from the bit, vertically and laterally, and b) never to resist it, he is immediately imbued with a new quality of lightness, and he will retain it as long as we foster it.
What I consider the Lesson of the Hand includes the Baucherist “flexions” of the jaw and neck. Indeed, Baucher used this terminology to describe the introductory procedures. In modern usage, however, I think the terminology risks obfuscating the real point of things, which is not merely obtaining relaxation of the jaw from the horse, but subsequently managing this new “give” effectively.
Here’s what we are going to teach our horse, whether he is a mature, previously “basic-trained” animal we would like to begin schooling to high school, or a greener horse who has only recently been backed:
- The only proper response to pressure from the bit is to “give” without resistance
- The “giving” must occur in a specific way:
- He must give with his jaw first – not simply his head (bending at the poll for a reluctant instant), or his neck (diving below the below to escape contact).
- The only way to ‘give’ with the jaw is to physically open his mouth (however slightly) to the bit – with experience, you can feel the difference in the reins.
- The ‘give’ we seek is a continuum – not binary command. Specifically: I don’t want the horse to reflexively slap the stirrup with his head if I only ask for 3 degrees of flexion.
- He must never compromise the hand by bracing against the bit with his bars … because The Hand never gives until given to. In Baucher-speak this concept is known as The Fixed Hand.
How much better would your riding experience be if you could simply install this one concept?
Imagine never fighting with him over the reins? No more pulling from his end. At all. Ever. Just listening.
As an added bonus, this lesson in isolation will lead to a newfound affability in your horse. He’s going to get easier to get along with in general, becoming more sensitive your touch – whether through the reins and bit, but also your hands and legs. Why? Because your touch is going to become more sensible to him – not simply an annoying reminder that he’s done something wrong, but rather a welcome presence which clearly indicates what needs doing.
The Lesson of the Hand will be a rather singular exception to most of the work we will be doing, in that it will start from the ground.
In general – even where groundwork techniques exist for teaching high school concepts (such as the piaffe), I prefer to do the work from the saddle. But without the essential products which will flow from the Lesson of the Hand, I have no way knowing whether the horse is really predictable from the saddle. I want to ensure the lesson is successfully conveyed, yet I would also like to avoid direct conflicts I am not 100% certain I will win. I want every physical advantage, and to allow for no means for the horse to ‘escape’ in one direction or the other; nor do I want to become inadvertently preoccupied with staying on or in one place.
The Jaw Flexions
From the ground we will introduce the jaw flexions. This means nothing more than effecting a relaxation response (chewing, licking of the lips) from the horse using the bit while also assuring the head and neck remain in a fixed position by keeping at least one side of the bit “fixed” position.
This prevents the horse from “diving’ under the bit, or pushing through the bit, and instead encourages the relaxation of his jaw, which he will signal with chewing. When he does so, we will release all pressure immediately and reward him.
Preparatory Lateral Jaw Flexions
We will begin with a lateral flexion (to one side) by lifting one side of the bit and depressing the other (keeping the LIFTED side stationary) – as if gently prying the jaw apart, using the ground as our static base of support. The horse will typically resist momentarily – moving left, right, forward, or backward slightly in search of an answer – eventually standing stationary, giving to the pressure, and exhibiting a relaxation response. When he does this consistently, we will repeat the process on the other side.
We will repeat this several times on each side until we achieve an easy, consistent response – with NO resistance – every time to either side. This is generally obtained in one lesson of a few minutes.
Direct Jaw Flexion
We will then move to obtaining the same response using equal pressure on both sides of the bit. Remember: we’re not trying to ‘set his head’ at this point – we just want the relaxation response (which will induce him to ‘give’ to the bit). Once obtained, we will move on to the direct jaw flexion, which is our primary object in this exercise.
Here, we will lift both sides of the bit upward toward the corners of his mouth (NOT directly against the bars of his jaw), holding the bit stationary such that he may neither escape left nor right. This should fairly quickly induce the relaxation response – and necessarily implying a relaxation of the jaw against the indirect pressure of the bit. At the very instant this response occurs – at the very moment we feel softness begin to occur through the bit – we will release the pressure on the bit, and reward him. He will quickly relate his relaxation against the pressure with the very release of the pressure.
Note, we are NOT here seeking the “poll flexion” at this point, but rather the relaxation of the jaw against the direct, even pressure at both corners of his mouth. This is a subtle but critical point. In fact, it would be quite possible for him to flex his poll – bringing his chin toward his chest – without relaxing his jaw at all, and, depending upon the individual horse and his prior training, he may well do this; but, again, let me underscore: this is not our object; rather, it is an evasion of our object. Were we to accept this as the right answer at this point, we would inadvertently teach him to evade the pressure of the bit (which would itself develop into a destructive future resistance we would have to correct), versus relaxing his jaw to the pressure of the bit. We will come to the poll flexion, but if we do not come to it in a particular manner – subsequent to obtaining relaxation of the jaw – it will only lead to a ‘false’ headset; one which may look correct from the shoulders forward, but is actually the very seed of many future problems.
The Direct Poll Flexion
In obtaining the direct poll flexion, we will be using the same pressure which is the source of subsequent problems for so many riders, so I want you to pay particular attention to how we obtain it, when we use it, why we use it, and, most of all, when we don’t use it.
The pressure to which I’m referring is the one which applies directly against the bars of the jaw – instead of obliquely against the corners of the mouth as described in the direct jaw flexions above. It is the use of the bit with which you are already well familiar if you are an experienced riders. It’s what happens by default when you pull back on the reins.
You may have noticed that the lower jaw is actually incredibly strong. If the horse decides to brace against you with his lower jaw, he can fairly easily take reins from your hands or pull you from the saddle, though he may be slightly weaker in the fight when pulled only to one side – and the the logic of the “one rein stop” prevalent in Natural, Vaquero, and most other schools of thought. However, though he is slightly weaker to the left or to the right, if committed, he can still jerk most mortals right out of the saddle should he commit himself to doing so – and thus the inherent danger in relying upon this as a routine emergency brake.
By obtaining the relaxation of the jaw in advance, however, he will never have the opportunity to use his jaw in this manner. We will simply never engage in a battle with him over the power of bars. The young or new horse, when frustrated, will naturally try to the disagreement here – to a place he can have an easy victory. As soon as he does however, we will simply adjust the angle of our hands so the bit acts against the corners of the mouth (a la the jaw flexions), and not against the bars. He now has nothing set himself against, and will reflexively relax his jaw, giving to the bit instead. His head may be in the air with face more or less horizontal (as seeks a force to push against), however he will only exercise and quickly tire the very muscles we want him to develop for his future ramener. This rebellious, early position may look unattractive, yet he will remain technically quite in hand – as well as straight – and quickly cede to the bit.
When his jaw begins reflexively relaxing against the bit, we may begin to ask for the poll flexion by slightly changing the angle to “back” against his bars, instead of “up”. If he resists, we go “up” – lifting instead of pulling, and invoking relaxation. By repeating this cycle, coming directly back with the reins will begin to provoke the same relaxation response obtained by lifting them. Alas, we are on our way to a light horse. This said, we will carefully avoid over-doing the direct poll flexion in motion for the first few weeks of training, because our focus will be upon lifting the neck and developing the musculature of the withers and poll – NOT in obtaining a vertical face initially. Why? Because without the the proper gymnastic development, this position is uncomfortable and potentially quite painful. Discomfort and pain will provoke resistance and contraction. Instead, we will focusing on the lifting action, which will encourage proper carriage of the neck – the face coming more or less vertical on its own as the muscles develop to accommodate an inherently more collected, more mobile posture.