Learning to ride can be likened to solving a puzzle. As can training a horse. With time, dedication, and some serious study and instruction, the rider's position improves, the horse's way of going improves, and then the unattainable perfection slips away as new things which need to be addressed come into focus . I do not view this as a hopeless cycle, because I love the process and I have learned to find satisfaction in each stepping stone.
There are so many training challenges which my horse and I have overcome and continue to improve upon, but the latest is raising the base of his neck. More specifically, my horse needs to relax the muscles in front of his withers so that he can lift the base of his neck and his shoulders. My wonderful trainer taught me some bodywork exercises to help my horse increase his awareness and I am trying to bring the same concept to the saddle.
I decided to approach the ride like a body awareness session. When my horse tightened the muscles in front of his withers I would make him aware of this by gently taking his neck to the side with one rein. My goal was to tell him "you are tight" and encourage him to let those muscles go. He can tighten these muscles very quickly and for various reasons. For example, if I get behind the motion by allowing my shoulders to fall behind the vertical, he will instantly tighten to try to keep his balance. He will also tighten if he is anticipating our next move or if he is trying to rebalance himself by raising his neck.
Asking him to release the muscles at the base of the neck allowed him to relax his entire neck and back. Since I was not fighting him or pulling back, he started to take the opening rein as a cue to relax the muscles at the base of his neck. With repetition, all I had to do was begin to move the rein and he would release those muscles. He tightened with less and less frequency. When he wanted to release those muscles more, I moved both of my hands slightly forward, toward the bit.
I experimented with transitions and changes of direction, always looking and feeling for the muscles in front of the withers to be soft. Sometimes I opened the rein quite dramatically to prevent myself from pulling back as much as to encourage him to let the muscles go. I was focusing on the withers, but the effect was on his self carriage. I could feel him stepping evenly with both hind legs and becoming lighter in front. I was concerned that cantering would introduce too much excitement and spoil the magic, but he actually carried the feel into the canter. He bounded in front of me, lifting his shoulders with each stride. The best was the last transition. We went from canter to a nice trot and then I asked him to walk. He lifted his withers, making a place for his hind legs, and I felt him step deeply underneath our weight as he shifted gears. This is so difficult for my horse, and he could not have done this if I had pulled on the reins. He would have instantly tightened, sacrificing his balance and at my fault.