Beginning Lessons in Légèreté: The Mouth and Jaw

By Jennifer Klitzke

What does the mouth and jaw have to do with the naturally gaited horse and its effect on gait quality?

philippe-karl-dvds-video-cameraIf you’ve been following NaturallyGaited, you know that I’ve been studying the work of classical French dressage school master Philippe Karl through his books and videos. A few months ago I traveled to Seattle, WA to visit family. Before I left, I learned that Philippe Karl has been conducting School of Légèreté certification clinics in three USA locations—one of which is Cadbury Farm, not far from where I would be staying.

This is the third blog post following lessons I took with Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm who has now completed the first leg of the instructor’s certification program with Philippe Karl in his School of Légèreté.

Previous blog posts:
Beginning Lessons in Légèreté: Working in Hand where I cover the importance of educating the horse’s mouth from the ground.

Beginning Lessons in Légèreté: Following Hands  where I cover the importance of following the head and neck motion of the horse with my hands and an even contact with the snaffle bit, and how this translates to the flat walk, running walk, and fox trot for naturally gaited head nodding breeds.

Video: Educating the Mouth


Nicole encouraged me to purchase Philippe Karl’s book, Twisted Truths in Modern Dressage (a must read). Karl covers hundreds of humane dressage training takeaways, including the physical benefits to the horse when tasting the bit and swallowing and the impact unlocking the jaw has on the rest of the body. This book is packed with details that have helped me in my understanding and application to produce more lightness, balance, and harmony with my horses.

Nichole explained a couple equipment details that make a difference in helping the horse become relaxed in the mouth and jaw. First of all is a loose nose band (or none at all) so that the horse is able to open its mouth to taste the bit and swallow.

For so much of my dressage riding years (especially competition dressage),  I’ve been taught to ride with a snug fitting nose band in order to keep the horse’s mouth quiet. I was also taught that it is desirable if the horse produces a foamy mouth, because it indicates that the horse is flexed at the poll.

Nichole pointed out that while some salivation around the lips is good, excessive foam dripping from the mouth can indicate that the horse is not swallowing. A tight fitting nose band, like a crank nose band or a snug fitting flash nose band encourages the horse to grind their teeth which leads to tension in the jaw. That’s why it is important to ride with a loose fitting nose band (or none at all). The horse needs to open its mouth in order to activate its tongue and swallow.

For me, I’ve just noticed that all of the horses I ride are lighter, softer, and more relaxed when I ride these exercises without a nose band. When I show english dressage, I ride with a loose fitting nose band.

fulmer-full-cheek-snaffleIn addition to the nose band is the bit. Nichole’s horses are all ridden in the bit Philippe Karl begins his horses training: a single-joint Fulmer snaffle bit. I had been riding in a full cheek snaffle, and it isn’t the same thing. The Fulmer snaffle looks similar to the full cheek snaffle, but the rings are independent from the long piece. I found my Fulmer snaffle on for under $20. I’ve noticed that the Fulmer bit makes a difference in softness, and I like this bit because it makes a clanking noise when the horse is tasting the bit. As soon as the bit becomes silent, it lets me know to cue my horse to taste the bit again.

Having the proper equipment makes tasting the bit, swallowing, and unlocking the jaw more comfortable for the horse.

After Nichole had spent a few hours teaching me how to educate the horse’s mouth from the ground, we practiced these exercises from the saddle at a walk and trot.

As soon as I grasped the concept of following the head and neck motion of the horse at a walk with my hands, and the horse began to seek my even contact with the bit, we proceeded to the next step: Enouraging the horse to taste the bit, swallow, and unlock the jaw while in the saddle.

1.) Rebalancing: The horse learns to carry its own head and neck and not to lean on the bit. I begin at a slow walk, follow the head and neck motion of the horse, and take up the slack in the reins so that I feel a light contact equally with both sides of the bit. If the horse leans on the bit, I raise my hands up (not pulling back) while massaging the reins. Then I lower the reins into the neutral position as soon as the horse stops leaning. I keep my arms at my sides.

2) Unlocking the Jaw: The horse discovers relaxation when it unlocks the jaw, tastes the bit, and swallows. From the saddle, my hands continue to follow the head and neck motion of the horse with even contact with both reins. If the horse isn’t tasting the bit, my outside following hand squeezes the rein and my inside following hand, palm side up massages and raises from the elbow, keeping my arm at my side. The horse will flex to the inside and begin to taste the bit. Lower the inside hand to the neutral position and collect the slack of the inside rein so that there is even contact. The outside rein will be longer than the inside rein in order for the horse to remain in the flexed position.  Remember to follow the motion of the head and neck.

3) Horse follows an equal contact of the reins as the handler turns the horse’s head and neck to the side while continuing to taste the bit. The horse stretches the outside neck muscles while the inside neck muscles concave. This prevents the horse from contracting the neck muscles.

4) Horse follows an equal contact of the reins as the handler lengthens the reins and the horse discovers its range of motion.

Following the Head and Neck Motion

  1. I place my outside hand at the wither while following the head and neck motion of the walk
  2. Then I raise my inside following hand, palm side up while vibrating the rein. This encourages the horse to taste the bit, unlock the tension in the jaw, and flex to the inside so that I can see its inside eye. This tasting the bit and unlocking the jaw brings relaxation and softness to the horse.
  3. As soon as the horse flexes to the inside and begin to taste the bit, I lower the inside following hand to the wither and gather the slack of the inside rein so that I have an even contact with the outside rein. Then I encourage the horse to seek this flexed position with my following hands and even contact with a longer outside rein than inside rein.

At first the concept of riding with a shorter inside rein felt awkward until I realized that I was riding with an even contact because the horse was in a flexed position. Then I experienced the difference it made in the horse’s softness, lightness, and balance.

While the horse is flexed, it stretches the outside neck muscles and the inside neck muscles become concave while preventing the horse from using the underside pulling neck muscles. When the horse tastes the bit and flexes it is lighter, softer, more relaxed, and balanced.

I began to think about this concept for the naturally gaited horse. How often do we ride on straight lines? I thought about how straight line riding must compress the neck muscles and encourage the development of a ewe neck. How many of our horses are heavy on the bridle? How many of us resort to pulling matches or buying a curb bit or gadget to make the horse stop pulling?

Video: Aids to Lightness for the Gaited Horse

Special thanks to Nichole Walters, the owner and instructor of Cadbury Farm who taught me the “Educating the Mouth” and “Aids to Lightness” exercises that she learned first hand from Philippe Karl and his School of Légèreté.