The Quality of the Contact
By Lesley Stevenson
What should you feel in your hands when your horse is going correctly on the flat? I think many riders are unsure of what they should be looking for.
What a rider feels in their hands is a direct correlation to the state of the horse's back and hindquarters. When a horse is straight, and carrying itself correctly - with forward energy flowing through a relaxed, swinging back into the connection of the bit – the rider feels an even, consistent, solid, and elastic connection. What do I mean by solid? I certainly don't mean heavy. But if the connection is true, the rider will get the feeling that the horse is up into their hand and seeking the connection.
I like to use a fishing analogy to help riders understand what degree of connection is appropriate. Imagine that you are fishing, and have just caught a huge, heavy fish. The pull that you feel on the line is quite strong. That would equate to a horse leaning or pulling on the rider's hands. I think most everyone would agree that would not be what we want.
Now imagine that you are fishing, but you haven't yet caught a fish. You feel nothing on the line. This would equate to emptiness in the riders hands, and that is not what we want either. This one is confusing to many riders, as in looking for that elusive "lightness," some mistakenly think that they have found it when the reins are empty.
The feeling a rider will have when the horse is balanced and moving forward with energy into the connection, is that of a small to medium sized fish on the end of their line. Not dragging them, but rather leading them. The more collected the horse is, the smaller the fish should be.
What dictates the amount of weight in the rider’s hands is the relative amount of engagement and activity of the hindquarters, and the state of "throughness" in the back. When a horse is heavy in the hand, the horse is either lacking in engagement behind (meaning that it is not actively carrying enough weight over the hind legs) or it is rigid and bracing in its back.
Although the rider feels the problem in the mouth, the problem is not in the mouth. It's in the back and hind end. Many riders wrongly try to address the problem at the front end, by attempting to "fix" the heaviness in some way. Whether by "working" or jiggling on the bit, or adding some leverage with draw reins, any attempts to "fix" the problem by fixing the symptom instead of fixing the cause of the problem will not work in the long run. True lightness can only happen if the horse is taught to shift its weight back and carry more weight on the haunches.
The evenness of the contact reveals the straightness of the horse. If contact is uneven when the horse is traveling in a straight line, the horse is crooked. Use of bend and basic lateral work to put the horse more into whichever rein is too "empty," will also lighten the heavier rein, rendering the reins more even.
The reins are not necessarily even when performing figures other than straight lines. When bending on circles and turns, and performing lateral work, the horse should be between the inside leg and the outside rein, which will cause the horse to "fill up" the outside rein a bit more, and consequently lighten the inside rein. If a rider can change the bend and the direction easily, the horse is most likely straight. If change of bend or direction one way proves difficult, that is usually pointing out a straightness issue.
The elastic quality of the contact is the rider’s responsibility. The rider must remain elastic, supple, and following in the wrists and elbows at all times, and must not block in the wrists by letting the hand position deviate from the correct position. This is easier said than done! Especially when the horse is not going perfectly. But it is required for the horse to feel confident to seek the connection.
Developing a good contact and connection with your horse can take quite a lot of practice. But it's magic when you have it!
Lesley Stevenson is an Advanced 3 star three-day event rider/trainer/coach. She is a graduate of Jimmy Wofford's training program. She also has an upper level dressage background with Spanish Riding School theories. Lesley was USET long listed in the years 2002-2004, during which she completed the Radnor** and the Fair Hill International***. She has also competed successfully through Fourth Level Dressage, with scores to 75%. Lesley is available for lessons and clinics, and is also available for online coaching at www.MyVirtualEventingCoach.com.
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Main Article Photo: Robin Duncan Photography