A short while ago I wrote about the scales of training, and briefly described the key points covered by the scales and discussed what they mean.
It is appropriate however to go back to these points and look at them in more detail, as they effect every rider, whether you ride infrequently for fun, or compete regularly, and regardless of the discipline you take part in.
The correct and ideal contact with the horse’s mouth is something that we all strive for, and is a difficult to achieve because every horse is different, and every rider is different. The policy I like to employ is ‘Light as possible, firm as necessary’. Let me explain that a little. Of course we all feel that the contact we have with the horse’s mouth should be light and elastic, but the concept of light is very subjective, what is light to one person seems heavy to another, and indeed what is light to a horse is not necessarily light to a person, so I think it might be more useful to describe the weight on the reins as ‘comfortable’ instead of ‘light’. Basically, if it’s uncomfortable it can’t be right, and making things comfortable for both horse and rider should of course be a priority. Light is also sometimes confused with vacant, or empty, or loose, and as much as we should not be reliant on our contact for the balance of horse or rider, nor should we strive for an absence of contact altogether, because, certainly in dressage terms, we are training for acceptance of the bridle, which means acceptance of the contact, not getting rid of it altogether.
We should regularly test our ability to be independent of the reins by using exercises such as give and retake, where the reins are pushed forwards to break the contact for a few moments and smoothly retaken, hopefully with no negative consequences on the horse or rider’s balance. Another exercise which I feel is essential for the health of the horse’s muscles and also for his confidence and understanding of contact is stretching the horse on a long rein, whereby the horse is required and allowed to take his head and neck down into a long and low position, without becoming hollow, or changing his rhythm or balance. He should however, remain on some contact during the stretch, and be happy to follow the contact down when the opportunity to lower his head and neck is given. When the horse is confident and balanced with the stretch, he should be able to achieve it in walk trot and canter, although, one cannot expect the horse to lower the neck to the same extent at canter as he does at walk, and most of us would find it rather disconcerting if he did!
Lets now explain the ‘firm as necessary’ part of the equation. This basically means that we should not be making any movements or corrections on the reins which do not mean anything, or do not have a desired effect on the horse. For this to be the case, we have to make sure that aids given through the reins are firm enough to be effective, if they are not, then such aids are not understood by the horse, and they therefore have no effect and have to be repeated over and over again, turning into nagging not aiding, and eventually into a sort of ‘white noise’ on the reins. An aid given on the reins should be just firm enough and long enough for the horse to respond, and, when used correctly, the horse learns to respond to a brief and light aid, meaning that ‘firm as necessary’ develops as you train the horse, and what is necessary becomes more and more minimal. So if we adhere to the principles of ‘light as possible, firm as necessary’ we realise that being as firm as necessary eventually helps us to be as light as possible.
A useful exercise for the development of the horse’s response to pressure on the reins is, standing still, ask your horse to bend his head and neck round to the side using just one rein and without moving his bottom to the opposite side, releasing the pressure when he bends round for you. If the horse finds it impossible to understand how to move his head but not his bottom, you can try standing him next to the arena fence or wall and bending him away from the fence. Once you can do this, then try asking the horse to bend round to the side a little less than before but still without moving his bottom, and this time keeping a little contact on the other rein, which should encourage the horse to stay rounder during the stretch to the side, again releasing the pressure on the rein that asks for the bend when he responds. Then, keeping an elastic contact on both reins, try asking the horse to bend so the side very minimally, mainly at the top of his neck near his head. If you achieve this, it may be possible to see the horse’s crest ‘click’ from one side to the other when the bend is slowly changed. The visual impact of this depends a little on the horse’s conformation, and unfortunately, on a horse with no crest at all, it may be impossible to really see anything. The point of these yielding exercises is that if the horse yields to the contact, then by quiet repetition, the response should be more and more prompt, providing that the pressure is released quickly enough to allow the horse to understand that the response he made was correct. The reason we are talking about doing these exercises standing still at first is that when we do them at walk trot or canter, we have the added issues of balance in motion to deal with, and if you try these things too quickly at faster paces without fully understanding the process, you might find yourself spinning round in a small circle in the middle of the school! Not really useful for anyone!
So take it one stage at a time, and talk to your instructor about how your contact should feel and do exercises to improve your balance so that your hands are reliable and consistent and reduce the chances of random movements on the reins which your horse will not understand or enjoy. If we are considerate and appropriate with the reins then we have more chance of our horse following instructions and allowing us to keep that ideal contact we all seek.