It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, grants it. Trying to impose a contact, and through it a placing of the head, only leads to a horse breaking at the third or fourth vertebra, which then becomes the highest point instead of the poll. If the horse is made to accept the contact he may try to comply by putting his head where the rider thinks the horse is ‘on the bit’ but he will most likely have to drop his back and trail his hind legs in compensation.

Ww’ve all read the books and we all know what ought to be. I start with what iand work from there. Horses live in the present. Unlike us, they don’t spend time dwelling on the past, worrying about the future and thinking what if? It will help you too, to ride in the present. Ride what you have now, not what you would like there to be. I was taught to get on a horse and see what he  will give today. I don’t start with a preconceived plan of what a horse (or rider) will learn that day.

Walk around at the start of your ride on a long rein. Keeping your elbows softly ‘attached’ at your sides (do not reach up the horse’s neck as you take up the slack), slowly begin to pick up and shorten the reins making sure that you ask the horse to walk up into his bridle (see Activating the Hind Legs). Stop shortening the reins before you reach the point (and eyes on the ground are helpful to spot this initially as you may feel that the reins are waaay too long) where the horse is no longer comfortably reaching into his bridle, but is starting to retract his neck, drop his back and trail his hind legs if you try and get him into a ‘frame’. Unfortunately, for some riders this is their ultimate and only objective.

Throughout this contact establishing phase you must be aware of indeed ‘having a contact’—a feel of the bit. Loose, disconnected reins only succeed in putting a horse on his forehand. The classical description of Contact is that it should be: Steady, Light and Even.

Steady means still relative to the horse not the ground. Once a horse is past the early backing and customisation phase on No Account should the hands row back and forth with the horse’s neck movement. A horse who ‘bobs’ his head up and down is using his neck as a lever to drag himself along on his forehand. This excess movement ceases and ‘ripples’ can be seen in the horse’s neck muscles when he thrusts and carries from behind into an elastic contact.

Light means supple, feeling hands, fingers holding the reins softly around the reins at their base. A horse will actively seek Contact with your hands when he knows he can trust them. The reins take on that much talked about ‘elastic’ quality when you allow the joints in your arms (wrists / elbows / shoulders) to ‘breathe’ with the horse’s movement. I believe that until a rider truly understands this forward giving attitude of the hand (even in the downward transitions), the horse will protect himself by retaining tension in the jaw, poll or somewhere in the neck to avoid the rider unwittingly jabbing him in the mouth. Instead of transferring weight onto the hindquarters and flexing the joints in his hind legs, in the downward transitions, he will also use the rider’s hand a prop and a brake. As he is also using the rider’s hand a fifth leg and bracing into it, the oscillations in the neck will not be apparent.

Even means that the feeling in each hand should be the same—a result of the horse pushing equally off both hind legs as he becomes straight.

During the early part of this work—or indeed at any time—don’t become fixated about where your horse’s head is. At this stage it is normal for it to be carried quiet low with the mouth about level with the chest bone. This allows him to relax and stretch his neck and back muscles longitudinally. As he develops and strengthens with correct gymnastising he will be able to lift out of his withers and carry his head higher on a rounded neck.

The contact in the hand should never be more than the energy coming from the horse’s hind legs: The hand receives what the leg puts into it. It should feel alive, never dead and dull, having the same qualities, as say, a small fish on the end of a fishing line or a kite on the end of a string. This, though, is the result of much strengthening and gymastic; the goal we strive every ride to get a little closer to.

In the meantime, bear in mind that you may have to contend with the fact that:

“When we are correcting horses that have been incorrectly trained, the rein contact can initially be heavier than we would like. In that case we have to try to lead the horse into self carriage by many repeated half halts. As soon as the horse has found his balance, the rein contact will become light. I have also found that when you correct a horse you almost have to start out riding him a little bit the way he is used to being ridden. In other words, if the previous rider rode with a heavy contact and the horse knows nothing else, you may not be able to ride him with a light contact right away, but you have to convert him gradually over time, because the horse has come to think that the rider wants a heavy contact. So, now you have to re-educate him and tell him that the rules have changed. That’s a major adjustment in the horse’s world view and it can take a few months to accomplish, depending on how deeply rooted the problem is, and of course the horse’s conformation and personality play a role in it as well”.

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Classical Dressage Notebook


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