How many of you have had the comment “needs a more consistent contact” from the judges?
The dictionary definition of connect is to join, link or fasten together, to unite or to establish a sympathetic harmonious relationship. In these days of social media we think of connecting as adding friends, or linking profiles, networking, whichever way you look at it making a connection with someone or something is about you putting in some effort so that you can come together. When that something is a horse and you are thinking about Dressage riding, developing a clear, non-verbal language with your horse means making a connection and is where your dressage journey begins.
Those of you who subscribe to the 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’. Without a useful and consistent contact you will be unable to communicate with your horse; you will be unable to ‘engage in any type of conversation’ or convey any message effectively. It’s a really widespread problem.
Establishing the contact, maintaining the contact, making a connection, being above the bit, getting behind the bit, head tilting, head wobbling/shaking, strong contact, soft contact; there are a myriad of issues, so for those of you that need help let’s explore a little further and see if we can get you on track.
Unfortunately, expecting something to be difficult to achieve can often become a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, in order for you to begin the process of achieving a ‘usable contact’ with your horse you must decide for yourself that it can be done. That is, decide that yes, you may face obstacles that will be challenging for you, you may have to sort out a few issues, most likely with your riding but sometimes with the horse (teeth, back), sometimes tack issues (saddle, bit), but get your mindset right and choose to believe that you and your horse are not only willing but more than capable (once all issues have been investigated and dealt with) of working in an outline; with a contact; on the aids; on the bit, on the vertical, call it what you will.
Why do you ride your horse ‘on the bit’?
This fundamental question, which all aspiring dressage riders should at least consider, is often overlooked and misunderstood. Why? Well, physically, outline is a round silhouette; a ‘round outline’ is the frame that is seen from hocks to nose and comes about when you ride your horse forward into a good contact. 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. The flexed limbs create the energy which travels from behind, over the back, through the neck, and into your hands at which point it is required to be recycled back to the hind legs, but this will only occur if you have a ‘useable contact’, if you have no contact the energy will seep out through the front and not be recycled, creating balance and rhythm issues. With the hind limbs stepping further forward the transference of weight will take place from the forehand to the quarters thus the forehand will ‘lighten’.
The horse that is ‘round’ and on the bit is adjusted to take the riders weight easily to comfortably carry you and use his body effortlessly. When we climb aboard a horse he has to brace his back muscles, so it is important that we make it as easy as we can for him and build the muscles he needs correctly. A horse which is not able to carry the rider properly will become tense and uncomfortable and likely to be evasive and disobedient. It follows then that to carry you comfortably your horse needs your help. Why would you not want to do this for your horse?
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. In my view 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; 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. You become connected.
How do I know I have a connection?
It helps to know when you have successfully connected and have a good contact and it is relatively easy to recognise. When you and your horse are connected through the contact he becomes a lot more comfortable to sit on because his back is relaxed; the trot and canter gaits feel more bouncy because your horse’s back is swinging; you feel in control and feel like you can work though transitions, smoothly and promptly; your horse will be ‘in front of the leg’ (so will not need continual reminders from you to keep going); he will feel light and obedient, this is because he is ‘on the aids’, willing, submissive and ready for your instructions without resistance in the mouth or body. Believe me, once you have felt what it feels like to have your horse connected a) you know about it and b) you will not want to ride him any other way.
There are things that you do when you ride that have become automatic to you, like asking your horse to walk on from a standstill and putting your foot in the stirrup to mount, with practice and repetition everything you do can become second nature. Dressage is not some sort of magical, mystical jiggery-pokery, the simpler you keep things the more straightforward it all becomes. However, there is good lightness and bad lightness. Bad lightness is when you feel lightness in the rein but actually what you have is no contact, either a looped rein or worse a ‘wishy-washy’ rein that will constantly prod your horse and may even be causing him discomfort in the mouth and certainly will be creating inconsistencies in your communication.
Good lightness is the stable ‘feel’ in your hands, no pulling, not strong or downward deadness but still a good feel in the hands. Just one more point about false lightness. If you use a severe bit which the horse does not wish to touch, he will not be ‘on the bit’ he will be afraid to touch it and you will have a false lightness. Either way, you will get a reaction that you do not wish for.
Where do I start?
To initiate contact with your horse, you must shorten the reins (no pulling). Many riders believe that shortened reins means pulling reins, nothing could be further from the truth. You should aim to achieve a ‘useful rein length’ that allows a secure feel of the bit in the horse’s mouth, it should be steady, which is where it gets tricky; take up the rein contact, and keep it steady, but you must allow and follow the horses head movement. All too often I see riders who worry that their hands are not steady enough so they stiffen their arms in an effort to keep their hands still thinking that a steady contact is keeping everything still, it is not, you must ‘allow’ or your rein will actually be on-off, on-off or loop/straight, loop/straight with the movement of the horses head.
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, like mounting.
When you first get on and walk on a loose rein it is reasonable for your horse to be allowed to do whatever he wants with his body, however, when you pick up the contact you need to give a number of aids to help him become round. He can be relatively long and low, but he should always be round when working. You should begin by adjusting your seat. Place the legs in the correct position, and align your pelvis, shoulders and bones.
There are the three key ingredients to begin making a good connection with your horse.
- First of all your horse needs to be forward so send him forward with your seat and legs. Remember you are creating energy and recycling it so it is the energy creation that comes first – leg before rein. It is essential that your horse goes forward immediately when you close your legs. Without the forward thrust your horse will arch his neck and make a shape as a result of your hand actions but he won’t be connected. So, first check that your horse is in front of your leg by asking for a really forward trot.
- Next, use the bend to encourage the flex of the hind legs. Inside leg on girth, outside leg behind the girth, seat bone weight to the inside.
- Third and final ingredient is your outside rein. This is the rein that controls the speed; the rein that controls the bend; the rein that stops ‘too much’ happening. You ask your horse to flex “in” at the jaw, by moving the bit in his mouth. Be sure you only use one rein (the outside rein) to move the bit. Fiddling with the bit and/or seesawing on your horse’s mouth with your hands will pull the jaw ‘in’ but without the forward trust, there’s no true connection from back to front, it will give you a false head set and the horse will hollow over his back. Once you learn how to get a true connection, you won’t feel the need to fiddle with the bit.
A Word of Caution
It is worth noting that the novice or untrained horse (whatever the age) needs time to develop strength and flexibility to accomplish the desired ‘roundness’, it’s important then that every time you take a walk break, you should give a loose rein and let your horse adopt any frame he wants so that he can relax his muscles. The length of time you ask your horse to work ‘on the bit’ totally depends on the individual horse. Always consider his age, fitness, and temperament. Clearly, if you do too much and make your horse sore because he’s using his muscles differently, you’re not only going to have a sore horse, but also a horse that becomes quirky and resistant. So the trick with anything you do with a horse is to bring him up to the limit, and then take the pressure off. As soon as your horse feels like he’s getting resistant because he’s either physically or mentally tired, then back off. Build up day by day.
Maintaining A Consistent Contact
Using the connecting aids will set up the right conditions for him to accept the contact and make a connection. Likewise you will use the same aids to maintain a consistent contact and correct any balance issues.
Sit up tall and utilise your lower back and abdominals to keep your torso upright. If you go limp or collapse your midsection, you will find that your horse starts leaning on your hand, because he loses self carriage in his efforts to rebalance where you have put him out of balance, especially if you collapse forward. If you align your shoulders, seat bones, and heels in a vertical line, you will feel that the horse will regain his balance and therefore, his self carriage.
The main obstruction to connection with your horse is stiffness. Your horse must be free of all stiffness in his body in order for the energy to flow and not leak out anywhere. Your riding position has a mammoth impact on his ability to bend and flex without any energy blockages. In fact, many riders don’t realize that they have trouble sitting the trot because they have not made a correct contact. No matter how good a rider you are, it’s nearly impossible to sit on a back that’s stiff and hollow. The key to making both you and your horse more comfortable in sitting trot is to ensure that you have made contact and are engaging in conversation with your horse through your reins.
There you have it, my take on getting and keeping a consistent contact. Do you have anything to add?
Patricia – The Dressage Tipster
This article was first published in “In The Stirrups” magazine – January 2015.
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