Contact and Lightness.
Really good dressage depends very much on the quality of the contact. In an earlier post I talked about lightness and described it as a seam of gold that I am always looking for. How your horse connects with you, and you with it, is a very big part of creating lightness. It can be really tempting to disconnect from the horse because we are striving to ride lightly. This doesn’t usually create the best dressage our horse can give us. It is important to remember that true lightness comes from having contact in the first place, the connection has to be there and then through correct training it gets lighter. You should look out for it getting comparatively lighter within each session and lighter overall as you train the horse.
Contact with your horse is about a great deal more than the reins. You have a three point interface with your horse: your calf contact, your seat and your hands. Information flows both ways through these. One of the skills sets we develop over time is to simultaneously listen and talk to the horse through the calves, seat and hands. This is how we can skilfully mutate the gaits into increasing degrees of collection and extension, whilst regulating the degree of straightness and bend, through changes of direction. Doing these three things at once sounds complex but, taken one step at a time, it really isn’t. Establishing those three contacts well is the first step.
Rule out physical problems first and understand emotional factors.
One important thing is that issues with the contact can be caused by, among other things: the need for dentistry, the wrong bit or an ill fitting bit, musculo-skeletal issues, ill fitting saddles, etc. Another thing to be sure of is that your horse’s diet and prior training has equipped him or her to offer you the way of going you are wanting. If a horse is struggling physically, or tiring, it will usually express this in it’s mouth. It will also do so if it is distracted, excited, scared or stressed. A nervous or highly strung horse will relate very differently to the leg, seat and hand than a laid back horse will. The contacts will often feel different at a competition in comparison to everyday training at home. Training is the major factor determining quality of contact but, realistically, there are other factors.
Honestly assess how you are sitting.
If you feel that the connections between you and your horse are not as you would like them to be it is worthwhile investing in a few lessons with a seat and balance specialist. Not every coach, no matter how famous or successful, is good at or even enjoys this kind of work. It is worth asking around and doing some research to find a teacher who has this very specific skill set and frame of mind. I have one coach for seat and balance work who is superb and I have another coach who is the best for test preparation. If I tried to reverse their roles in my life it would be frustrating for all of us.
What should the contacts feel like?
The right degree of contact for one horse will be the wrong one for another. My advice, when you ride an unfamiliar horse, is to start at the lighter end of the scale and build things up if you have to. This is very true for the ‘hotter’ type of horse. However, it can be equally disastrous to let your contacts be inconsistent and ‘rattly’. Horses tend to dislike the extremes that our contacts can go to.
- Sit still at halt and feel the weight of your calf against the flank of the horse. Remember it is sitting on the rib cage. Just let the leg softly rest and hang down but it should cling gently but consistently and not disconnect.
- Your muscular seat is a large surface area which should be as relaxed and springy as possible; it your shock absorber and it ‘reads’ the movements of the horse under you. The seat bones form a triangle, on which your upper body balances. Keep your weight distributed over them as evenly as possible.
- As you pick up the rein contact just think of ‘applying’ the reins; that is taking the slack out of them and making a basic connection with the lips of the horse. It is worth taking a few moments to let the horse explore this connection at the halt.
Once these contact are in place at the halt, move away and keep the same qualities as much as possible in motion. This moment of focused calm is indispensable in competitive riding. Before you begin to warm up, and again before you ride into the test arena, just take a few seconds to take stock of the contacts. Then take a deep breath and smile!
Why is it so important to maintain the contacts throughout the training session?
First of all, the contacts are our communication channels with the horse. We use them to feel what the horse is doing from moment to moment. It is sometimes said that teaching feel is impossible; a rider either has this quality or does not. I don’t believe this. Feel comes more easily to some riders than to others but sitting well and having consistent contact allows for feel to develop in most riders.
The contacts are our aid delivery channels. If these are inconsistent it is like sending important information over a crackly telephone line. In addition to this, inconsistent contacts tend to irritate horses. As training progresses through the levels, and the work we expect of the horse is increasingly complex, it is very difficult to communicate exactly what we want if the channels are not clear. Stillness is equally important. If there is one pragmatic reason to ride with quiet hands, aside from that it is nicer for the horse, it is the fact that a horse will know the tiniest change in your finger tension is an aid, not an accident.
Contact also plays a role in the horse’s balance. Anyone who has race ridden or ridden fast across country will relate to the dangers of a horse coming off the bridle. When we train the horse to find it’s own balance, this is a progressive thing. The horse will need our support from time to time and this is a perfectly legitimate need. One common scenario is through extension. If the horse extends the gait more than it’s current state of balance and strength can handle it may well fall against the hand. When you feel the horse lose balance and ‘land in your hands’ it is advisable to apply a collecting, gathering up leg aid. Do not let the leg bounce or rattle through extensions because this will cause running and even more loss of balance. De- emphasise the driving seat aid and quietly support the horse through the reins whilst making a transition down. Depending on the horse’s capability we can transition back to collected trot or all the way to walk. Recover composure and establish balance, then try again. As you train the horse, no matter how good a rider you are, there will always be minor losses of balance. They never go away altogether, they just become less obvious.
Impulsion builds within contact.
This paragraph is more specifically about the rein contact. If you think about the relationship between balance and contact it is easy to see why horses need a degree of contact to engage well and commit to forward movement. There are, as always, extremes to avoid. Too little contact usually leads to very little engagement. Too strong a contact can lead to a horse that is running away from the pressure on its mouth. Of course the more it runs out of balance, the more pressure it exerts on the bars of mouth. Though riders often exploit this tendency in order to show off big gaits they do pay a price for it, aside from aching arms they often get a horse that moves ‘wide behind’ and gaits that become irregular.
In between these extremes there is a lot of middle ground to experiment with. No two horses are quite the same in terms of optimal contact for optimal impulsion. When the rein contact is acceptable to the horse it will activate the hind legs and move more powerfully. As the training makes the horse lighter this power grows rather than diminishes. The contacts may fade to almost nothing in the end but they remain in their most subtle and wonderful form; the draped leg and the weight of the rein alone.