By Jennifer Klitzke
Work in hand? If you’re like me, I just like to get on and ride. Recently, I experienced the purpose work in hand has to build communication with my horse that translates to our saddle time and makes our training move along quicker in lightness and balance.
Before I set out to Seattle, WA to visit family for a week, I learned that Philippe Karl has been teaching School of Légèreté certification clinics in three USA locations—one of which is Cadbury Farm, not far from where I would be staying.
Ecstatic with the opportunity to get first-hand teaching in this classical French dressage method, I contacted Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm for lessons while I was in Seattle.
Nichole asked about my experience with Karl’s philosophy and the training with my horses. I explained that I had been studying Philippe Karl’s DVDs Classical versus Classique and Classical Dressage 1-4.
Learning via DVDs are great for teaching concepts, but nothing beats one-on-one instruction for applying these concepts in real time.
When Nichole urged me to begin with understanding lightness from the ground, I sighed, because I just wanted to get to the fun part of riding. Philippe Karl’s DVD series covers work in hand, but I had just glossed over that portion thinking that it wasn’t important. WRONG!
Nichole said that Karl believes educating the mouth from the ground is so important that he won’t teach his students how to ride until the student knows how to teach the horse how to establish balance (how to open its poll and lift its head and neck to shift its balance from the forehand to the hindquarters); taste the bit and swallow; relax the jaw; flex 45 to 90 degrees to the right and left in order to stretch the outside neck muscles; and accept and follow an even contact of the snaffle bit and extend the neck down and out to stretch the top line.
These concepts then translate to the rider’s hands while in the saddle which make it easier for the horse and rider to progress more quickly in their training.
Work-in-hand at a halt to teach the horse how to be light with the bit and follow a light contact:
1) Face the horse and align my spine to the horse’s spine;
2) Raise the horse’s head and neck and open the poll (the angle between the neck and the lower jaw) by applying equal contact on the corners of the horse’s mouth. This helps the horse shift its balance from the shoulders onto the hindquarters. (Notice the horse square up its fore legs and straighten its chest). This is a terrific exercise for breaking the habit of horses that lean on the bit;
3) Activate the horse’s tongue so that it begins to taste the bit and swallow;
4) If the horse stops tasting the bit, unlock the tension in the jaw. One hand remains neutral and holds the snaffle ring and the other hand directs the snaffle toward the bridge of the nose. As soon as the horse begins to taste the bit, release to reward;
5) Then, while holding one ring of the snaffle while the horse is in a balanced stance, collect the rein of the opposite snaffle ring so that there is EVEN contact with the snaffle ring and the opposite rein;
6) Gently lead the horse’s head and neck to one side with even contact. This stretches the outside neck muscles. (Notice the inside neck muscles concave and the outside muscles convex) ;
7)Then direct the horse to follow the contact down and out to the side to stretch while keeping its ears level. This stretches the outside neck muscles and prevents the horse from contracting the neck muscles and hollowing the underside muscles. It also builds the top line muscles. Karl’s book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage goes into detail why this is so important.
My lessons began with a horse that knew these exercises well so that I could experience how it feels when it goes right. Then I worked with a horse that was just starting these exercises so that I could experience what it is like when things go wrong and how to correct it. This would help me at home when I began teaching my horses.
Nichole guaranteed that if I spent ten to fifteen minutes in hand teaching each horse balance, tasting the bit, swallowing, flexing to each side, and following an even contact before riding, my horses will progress quicker in their training and become lighter on the bridle.
After the lessons with Nichole, I returned home and began to apply these exercises with my horses. Now I see why Karl feels so strongly about educating the horse’s mouth while in hand. I’m astounded with how soft, light, and balanced all of the horses are becoming when I begin every riding session with these exercises.
I have never given work-in-hand its proper respect until now. If you are a visual learner like me, I’d encourage you to purchase Philippe Karl’s Classical Dressage DVD Volume 1 which covers the work-in-hand exercises plus much more. Karl’s book Twisted Truths of Modern Dressage is also a great study aid with lots of pictures and detailed explanation.
For those who have studied German dressage like I have and wonder what the differences are between it and French dressage, Karl’s DVD Classic versus Classique is an amazing contrast with riding lessons from Philippe Karl and FEI German Trainer Christoph Hess.
Special thanks to Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm who taught me the “Educating the Mouth” exercises that she learned first hand from Philippe Karl and his School of Légèreté.
Video: Educating the Mouth