As in, we should be riding with better "connection."
This is not just about contact. It's quite a lot more than just what you feel through the reins (although that is a part of it).
Since I started the blog in 2011, I've ended each year with an article about something that I feel is a common problem for most riders. In the past, I've discussed the leg aids, pulling on the reins, the outside rein and more. I've zeroed in on bits and pieces that make up riding, but this year, I've been thinking a lot about the "whole" of it.
I often feel it's necessary to break riding skills down into small, concrete chunks. Because without the pieces, we can't possibly put it all together. On the other hand, if we never consider "the whole," then we won't be successful in the application of the skills. Plus, we effectively cheat our horses out of what we should really be doing, which is to make everything seamless, smooth, balanced, and not interfering.
So we need to begin somewhere. Because really, if we always ride our horses in bits and pieces, we will always ride the horse into lack of connection.
What is connection?
This is a difficult concept to clearly describe, because like contact, it is based on feel. Let's look at it from this perspective:
What happens if you apply pressure with both legs?
Will your horse move straight forward, round through the body, reach farther underneath with the hind legs, lighten the forehand and stay in balance, swing through the back, swing through the shoulders and reach for the bit?
Will you have this wonderful lightness of contact that feels at once super powerful and yet incredibly sensitive, as if your hands are out of the discussion and the slightest shift through your body (lower back, seat, legs) will be all that is needed to communicate with the horse?
Will you feel at one with the horse, literally dancing with imperceptible whispering aids, together "as one?"
That is connection.
And unfortunately, most of us ride outside of connection most of the time.
How do you know you are missing connection?
There are many hints to tell you when the horse isn't "connected." You might experience one or more of the following:
- you can't stop your horse from spooking
- the horse speeds up faster and faster in a gait when you ask for a transition
- the head swings upward while the back hollows when you use your leg aigs
- your rein contact is on/off/on/off, long-short-long reins no matter what you try
- you feel you're often out of balance - either on the forehand or the horse drifts through the shoulders
- your horse's neck is bent inward going one direction and outward going the other way
- the horse's footfalls are very heavy (more than you think they should be)
- your upper body reacts forward or backward with either sharp stops (or downward transitions) or lurching take-offs (or upward transitions)
- your transitions don't happen where you want them to
- you have difficulty maintaining straight lines
- your circle size changes, or you tend to have large circles going one way, and really small ones the other
- you feel that your horse is very heavy on the bit
- you have trouble walking from canter
- you have trouble cantering from walk
- you feel like there is absolutely no pressure on the bit
There have to be many more. In general, the symptoms of lack of connection show up in the horse as imbalance, inability to respond accurately or quickly, and/or stiffness through the body. The horse might also have little confidence in the rider.
How can you improve connection?
There really is no one magic pill to developing connection. Unfortunately, it takes time and practice for you to be able to influence your horse well enough to make a difference in your horse's way of going. You will likely need an instructor's input to first identify the many skills you will need, teach them to you, give you feedback as you try and make mistakes, and finally confirm when you make progress.
There is something you can try on your own, and get enough feedback from your horse to help direct you on your path toward connection.
1. Squeeze both legs.
2. Go with the horse.
3. Give with the reins (a little).
4. Maintain the same tempo throughout.
So this sounds very simple and it can be, if you know what you're looking for. First, you have to create energy, then ride that energy.
1. Start with a soft but steady contact. Then apply leg pressure to ask the horse to move ahead. Keep steady rein contact throughout.
2. When the horse does go, you go with him! Don't get left behind.
3. Give the horse a little space to step into - even while you maintain a light contact. You can do this by extending your elbows just a little, or letting the reins out - not more than an inch. Make sure you don't suddenly let go of everything and "drop" the horse on his forehand. It's just a little give, but it's enough to let the horse move more freely forward.
4. Maintain the tempo in the interest of balance. If the leg speed changes, the horse will likely lose balance and the whole disconnected thing will start all over again!
Do it on a circle and stay on that circle as you play with the aids. You can start with walk and trot at first, as you will have your best balance in those gaits. Initially, you're looking for what I described above:
- your horse moves straight forward,
- rounds through the body,
- reaches farther underneath with the hind legs,
- lightens the forehand and stays in balance,
- swings through the back,
- swings through the shoulders,
- reaches for the bit.
Any of these responses are a step in the right direction.
Don't be too disappointed if nothing much happens when you first start this exercise. If you and/or your horse are used to riding without connection, it will take time and coordination for you both to learn how to let the energy flow and reach forward (rather than pull backward) to achieve movement. But practice, and one day, all the bits and pieces will fall together as one!
Good luck, and happy Horse Listening in 2018!
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If you enjoyed this article, here are some related topics:
What Is Contact? This is a three-part article about the phases of development that riders go through as they learn about \"contact.\" This is part one.
The Difference Between Rhythm And Tempo: Confused about which is which? Do you use it interchangeably sometimes?
What To Do When Your Horse Loses Balance: If you can identify why your horse is stumbling, you can begin to address the cause with one or more of these five tips. They will give you a good idea of how you can influence the horse’s balance.
7 Errors To Avoid After You Ask For More Energy - And Solutions: The quicker you can recognize these miscommunications, the sooner you can address them. In fact, it would be best if you could correct these mistakes as they happen, before the horse loses more balance and then has to completely regroup.
Not Fast. Not Slow. So What IS Impulsion? The thing is, we often think that energy is all about a surge of forward-moving legs. Use two legs, squeeze either from the calf or from the lower leg. Follow with your seat to allow the increase in movement and energy from the horse. Then invariably, this happens: the horse runs faster.