Those of you who have subscribed to this blog know that one of the first questions I ask you is “What are you struggling with?” The most frequent answer to this question is something that is absolutely fundamental to the success of your Dressage journey and that is ‘Contact’.
So, having already written a number of posts on the subject I thought I would attempt to help you to dispel those myths that are hindering you in your progress towards understanding the real meaning of what it is to have a contact and as such engage in ‘conversation’ with your horse.
#1 – I can put my horse on the bit
Unfortunately, on the bit is a much used and abused term. The phrase is somewhat misunderstood and many riders are confused as to the correct meaning.
A better terminology is ‘on the aids’, because what we are describing is a horse that is listening, willingly going forward, using the energy being created from your forward thrusting aid from the hind quarters; submitting to these aids and comfortable in the mouth and as such is accepting of the bit.
The rider does not put the horse on the bit. The horse is said to be on the bit – a term that so inadequately describes what you are really putting your effort into training towards – when he seeks and accepts the contact with the bit as offered by you, the rider.
#2 – My horse should feel light in the hand when he’s ‘on the bit’
Riders often mistakenly look for lightness at the beginning of their training. Whilst it is, strictly speaking, very true that we are looking for lightness unfortunately, not all lightness is good, there is such a thing as ‘false’ lightness.
At the training levels, what I have described as ‘false’ lightness should actually be described as a ‘lack of connection’. At the beginning of your training you must ensure that you can feel some weight in your hands, you need to be able to feel the connection of the hind legs. Think about it … You can have total lightness if you ride around with loops in the reins. But there’s no connection from back to front.
Only really when you start collection does true lightness begin. International Dressage Rider from the USA, Jane Savoie said … “Your horse has to be correctly heavy above before he can be correctly light or in other words your horse has to be connected before he can be collected”.
So how do you know if you have made the connection?
- You will really feel like you and your horse are one unit.
- He will be ‘in front of the leg’ (so will not need continual reminders from you to keep going).
- His back will be up and swinging.
- You will feel the power as the horse takes you forward, carrying weight on his hindquarters.
- You will feel like you can work your horse through transitions, smoothly and promptly.
- There will be no resistance in the mouth and the horse’s entire body
- will be submissive.
- The head will be steady without pulling or leaning.
- The mouth will be moist and frothy.How many of you are allowing the energy your horse is creating to seep out of the ‘front door’ by giving too much with your hand and body?
#3 – My hands are the most important aid when it comes to rein contact
No – your legs and seat are the most important aids when it comes to rein contact.
Your horse must be forward, we all know this, yes? So it follows that if you only use your hands when trying to make a connection you are simply getting the head down and creating an artificial head-set and this is because you are riding from ‘front to back’ – see “a back to front problem”
Your focus should NOT be on the front end of the horse but it should be on ensuring that he is forward thinking and ‘hot off the leg’.
You should always use your driving aids before you use your reins, you are looking to capture the energy of the forward thrust and recycle that power back to the hind legs. If you use your hands before your horse is moving forward you have nothing to work with. If your horse is slow to react or reacts half-heartedly to your legs, you need to work hard to get him to give you the right reaction to your subtle aids. A horse can feel a fly on his side so it’s logical that he can feel a light aid. So it is the connecting leg aids that you need to work on and they need to be light.
The point is to get a clearly forward, clean off the leg answer to your requests. Your only goal when you start this process is to get some kind of enthusiastic answer that shows your horse is paying attention to you.
Only then can you give the rein aids to begin recycling the created energy.
#4 – When we talk of outline we are referring to the shape made by the head and neck of the horse
Physically, outline is a round silhouette that occurs when you ride your horse from behind, over his back, through his neck, and into your hands. And at that point the energy can be recycled back to the hind legs.
So a ‘round outline’ is the frame that is seen from hocks to nose. It is the flexion of the hind limbs that has a direct effect upon the horse’s ability to flex his jaw and lower his nose. It is the stepping further forward with the hind legs and thus the transference of weight from the forehand to the quarters that ‘lightens’ the forehand.
It is worth noting that the novice or untrained horse (whatever the age) needs time to develop strength and flexibility to execute the desired ‘roundness’.
#5 – My hands should be ‘still’
This is what is known as a paradox (a statement that apparently contradicts itself and yet might be true!). Quiet or still hands are something every rider aspires to. However, it is impossible to attain without a good, independent seat. The problem is that riders often worry that their hands are not steady enough so they stiffen their arms an effort to keep their hands still. For a horse to have complete acceptance of the bit he must have total trust and be relaxed with the rider’s hands (via the reins) in the mouth.
So, what does ‘still hands’ really mean? Still hands start at the shoulders. The shoulders should be ‘back and down’. Elbows should rest against the torso. Now is the time for you to make a conscious recognition that your horse is moving! Therefore, if you are in harmony with your horse, you will be moving too.
The horse moves his head forward and back in walk. In trot the head and neck move up and down and in canter the head moves up and down as well as forward and back. In all of these paces it is best if the rider ‘allows’ this movement with the hands. It takes time and practice to synchronise one’s hands to the movement of the horse, but once mastered it is a technique which becomes second nature.
All parts of your body that are in contact with your horse should move. So if your seat and hands are not flexible, supple, and mobile enough to move with your horse, his movement will have to leak out some place. Usually the movement comes out in your extremities, resulting in unsteady hands or nodding head or rocking body at every stride. Any of that type of motion usually indicates that your lower back is stiff or your hips are not loose and following enough to absorb the movement. So rather than forcing yourself to keep your hands steady, focus on absorbing the movement through your seat and hips. The more your seat and hips absorb the movement of your horse, the less your extremities will bounce.
The paradox is that for your hands to be still you need to employ a ‘following’ hand, which essentially is a hand that moves. But it is not the hand that moves it is the elbows, which should open and close in the same rhythm and to the same degree as the hips in order for the rider’s hand to follow the horse’s motion and remain steady. If you use your hands to keep your balance you are essentially tightening your elbow joints. Tension here makes it impossible for you to follow your horse’s motion correctly.
Your first port of call when trying to correct your hands is your seat!
#6 – My horse should be in ‘self carriage’
Just a small point here … Yes, ultimately, the horse should be able to move in self-carriage with minimal touch from the rider’s hands, however, this takes a long time to achieve. Don’t beat yourself up about it whilst you are on the journey to Dressage success. Those of us lesser mortals who are training young horses or working at the training levels up to advanced must be practical and give the horse the support he needs. This means making adjustments when necessary, giving, softening when as well as firmness and sufficient weight in the hand to make a connection.
The only NEVER rule is DO NOT PULL BACKWARDS.
Ok, I hear you cry, myths dispelled, Thanks! … How do I actually get my horse connected? There are three key ingredients to this particular recipe.
- Firstly, your driving aids … seat and legs
- Secondly, your bending aids … inside leg on girth, outside leg behind the girth, seat bone weight to the inside.
- Third and final ingredient, your outside rein … the rein that controls the speed; the rein that controls the bend; the rein that stops ‘too much’ happening.
Employ these three ingredients and you have the ‘connecting aids’. Clearly, given that a key ingredient is the bending aids, the best place to begin the connecting aids is on a circle.
Give it all a go, and chill out about all the myths!
Patricia – The Dressage Tipster