Corners of the Mouth vs Tongue: Does it Make a Difference?


lift hands up not back if horse leans on bit
Lift hands up, not back, if horse leans on bit and as soon as the horse lightens, lower the hands.

By Jennifer Klitzke

Recently I’ve been studying Philippe Karl’s Classical versus Classique and Classical Dressage DVDs. On these DVDs he talks about why it is important to ride the horse by engaging the corners of the horses mouth versus the tongue, and he points out how each affect the horse. This philosophy is making me rethink the frame I ride my gaited horse in.

Over a decade of dressage lessons on trotting horses schooled me to ride with low hands (which engages the tongue) and drive my horse forward using my seat and legs into a vertical frame. Adding to this, I rode with a tight nose band in order to keep my horse’s mouth from opening which was considered unsightly. Looking back, this produced a locked jaw and poll, grinding teeth, compression of the tongue, and my horse tended to evade the discomfort by dipping behind the vertical with the vertebrae behind the poll rising up as the highest point.

Karl’s method is the stark opposite. He raises his hands to engage the corners of the horse’s mouth. He loosens the nose band so that the horse is free to open it’s mouth, lick, chew, and swallow thus creating a happy mouth and relaxed jaw and poll. Karl allows the horse’s nose to be slightly ahead of the vertical which allows the poll to be the highest point of the horse. The use of the leg and seat aids remain separated from the rein aids instead of combined which produce lightness and self carriage.

As I think about the head shaking gaited horse, I’ve experimented with both techniques. The former technique seems to produce tense, shorter, quick strides, where I work harder to make my horse move forward with each step and half halt to increase depth of stride. While Karl’s method seems easier and more pleasant and brings about more harmony, lightness, balance, deeper steps, and forwardness without me having to “make” my horse move forward with each step.

After only a few sessions of experimenting with Karl’s methods, I am convinced that the head shaking gaited horse needs to be ridden ahead of the vertical and from the corners of the mouth so as not to compress the tongue, keep the horse comfortable in the mouth and relaxed in the jaw and poll, allow the horse to move in self carriage and balance, and allow the head shaking gaited horse the full range of motion.

Not all dressage philosophies are the same, but Karl says, “If the dressage is good, it will work on any horse” [even the gaited ones].