As you probably already know, just when you think you know something, you realize that there is so much more left to be learned. Recently, this epiphany happened to me (yet again) and this time, it was about developing a better contact. Somehow, just when I finally felt that my contact was becoming soft and supple and kind, I discovered yet another deeper level of contact that blew away what I thought I knew.
Of course, it was just a momentary tease. When these new, exhilarating feels saunter into your world, they rarely stay around long enough for you to be able to really get a good sense of what just happened. You're lucky if you can even just recognize (and maybe memorize) the feel before it flits along on its way.
And so it was that as I thought I was teaching Roya something, she ended up teaching me something right back. Please bear with me as I use these "fluffy" words to try to describe feels and visuals.
Next time you have a chance, watch some horses as they're ridden in the ring. Look at their necks as they go around. Are they "filled up" - topline muscles supple and bouncy in the rhythm of the movement? Or are they flat and almost cardboard-like, not responsive to the movement, braced and stiff and still?
Bubbleneck is a term I came up with to describe what the neck looks like when energy is flowing over the topline as the horse moves. The muscles at the top of the neck bulge and ripple under the skin, working in tandem with the rhythm of the legs.
In contrast, the braced neck shows the exact opposite - the top of the neck is thin and unmovable (and the horse likely moves stiffly left and right) and the "underneck" bulges. Over time, the muscles under the neck might overdevelop. Or, your horse might be naturally predisposed to developing an underneck, due to conformational reasons.
The key to developing a nice bubbleneck is to get the horse to lift the base of his neck. This lift allows the horse to move more freely through the shoulders and remain in better balance in the front end. Although the feel is initiated from the hind end, it's what you do with the energy in the front end that either drops the base of the neck or lifts it.
Now, some horses might have incredibly good conformation and front-end strength. They can almost always move with a bubbleneck no matter what you're doing. But many others, and especially those with a downhill conformation, will have more of a tendency to just brace, drop the base of the neck and move along on their forehand. In this case, what you do affects the horse either positively or negatively, depending on the result of your aids.
So while I was working on getting my horse to lift the base of the neck while moving in a steady, rhythmical and energetic trot, she suddenly took the bit and softened in every aspect. My fairly steady, fairly light contact morphed into something that I can only describe as "marshmallow."
It was soft, fluffy, malleable and yet springy like a marshmallow. It was also as crushable - so if my (always closed!) fist tightened just past the "too strong" threshold, the contact would squeeze away just like a marshmallow would collapse into itself with too much strength. And so Roya and I floated along during those precious few strides, with this marshmallow-y feeling, in balance and somehow NOT on the hands but seamlessly moving together in tandem, with much less emphasis on the hands for direction.
And then it all fell apart!
Of course, now I'm looking for both bubbleneck and marshmallow contact in all my riding, through all the movements including walk and transitions. I can find that feel much of the time, if not all of the time. But as I get better at asking for bubbleneck and allowing for marshmallow contact, Roya is having an easier time allowing it to happen.
How to Bubbleneck
Bubbleneck must come first. Because without the lifted base of the neck, the horse's balance is already affected negatively. Then "contact" can never get past a push/pull level. Here's a breakdown of what I think I'm doing.
Squeeze with the lower legs, encouraging a higher level of impulsion and energy, and a lifting of the horse's back.
Follow With the Seat
Immediately allow the energy "through" with your seat. Encourage the horse's initiative to move forward. You might need to allow more movement than you're used to in your core and lower back to allow the horse to swing through his back.
I know it always comes back to the half-halt! But you must half-halt at the end of the energy surge, or the horse will simply have too much energy and fall to the forehand.
Too little (or no) half-halt will just send the energy forward and down, putting the horse even more on the forehand and necessitating more bracing through the front end. Too much half-halt will stunt the energy and not allow it to "go through" enough, thereby stopping the hind legs from stepping under. So you have to fiddle long enough to find the just right amount of half-halt (all horses are different).
Find the Bubbleneck
Now you have to pay close attention to your feeling receptors. You can also probably see the topline muscles of the neck as they start to "bubble" (or not). Figure out what it takes for the bubbleneck to appear, and why it goes away.
As you can establish a longer bubbleneck, you should be able to feel the change in the level of your contact. Finding marshmallow contact isn't about taking more or less pressure on the reins. It's more about creating and maintaining an ideal balance. Make sure you keep a steady contact and wait for the horse's change of balance to allow for the better contact.
Have you experienced something like this? How would you describe it? Let us know if you tried this and what the result was in the comments below.
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Demystifying "Contact" in Horseback Riding: Sometimes it feels like the word “contact” has other-wordly connotations.
14 Ways to Communicate With Your Horse: We need to learn a language that relies on physical movement and feel – something very alien to people who don’t have to interact with a 1200 pound partner.
Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions: Technically, it’s not something done by the hand.
On Slobber, Snorts and Sheath Sounds: It doesn’t matter the discipline – a good back means good movement and long-term health of the horse.
Finding the Magic of the Inside Rein: Well, I have to confess that it isn’t really magic at all. But when you “find” that feel the first few times, it really does feel like magic.