Posted by Irina Yastrebova on Saturday, October 18, 2014 03:38 PM
I am working with Regala, my 4-year-old mare and teaching her the concepts of contact and being on the bit. Also, I have been working on contact with my students and I have noticed several common tendencies I would like to discuss.
Young horses
I start introducing young horses to contact when they are 2 years old. I start working them in hand after initial time to get them accustomed to the feel of a bit in their mouth. By the time they are 3 and ready to be backed they not only know what contact is, they also introduced to rein aids and the concept "on the bit" through halts, circles and lateral work like shoulder in and leg yields. When horses start going under saddle initially I offer them passive but constant connection that simply follows their heads never disappearing then I introduce rein aids. Because horses already learned aids from the work in hand which I continue even when they are working under saddle they progress fairly quickly and start responding correctly to steering aids and half halts. At first in walk and then trot and canter I keep encouraging them to seek the contact without leaning on it. Downward transitions are done over several strides because I do not want to spook a horse and give her a precedent to back off the contact or run through it. Horses are more willing to stay connected and working through their backs when the transitions are gradual at first.
Even with a young horse I ask for upward transitions with elastic contact and encourage them to use their hind legs to push into trot, sometimes a tap with a whip is necessary :) For canter transitions I use leg aid and voice command the horse learned from lunging work. I "drill" the voice command into them so well they pick up canter just from the word. Under saddle I simply say - Canter - and they go. This way I can avoid any unnecessary running, kicking, spooking, etc. I try to keep the contact elastic and it follows the horse's head into canter without disappearing or restricting.
The same progress must be followed by a beginner rider. They first must learn to passively follow horse's mouth without ever disconnecting from it. Phillipe Karl called that connection "sticky like a gum". Ellen Bonje said in her seminar " be on the mouth at all times". When riders have accomplished that they can learn to influence their horse without ever loosing the contact. Why is it so important to stay connected at all times? First of all, this gives the horse a sense of predictability. Your rein aids do not surprise or frighten him. The contact increases or decreases smoothly, no jerks or hits on the mouth. Second, when riders are not diligent about contact horse's learn to "shake" it off. I have been working with three horse/rider combinations these days who are bright examples of such phenomena. Riders were so willing to give up the contact thinking they are being "light" that horses learned to move and shake their heads to disconnect themselves from the reins. Over the years the horses got amazingly good at this skill. The better riders became at "sticking" to their horses mouths and influencing it without disconnecting the quieter and more willing their horses became. The change to the better was happening within one lesson. It was actually quite amazing to observe!
Another example of a horse disconnecting effectively from the bit is behind the vertical dropping the connection. Riders mistakenly soften when this happens hoping that their horse relaxes and stretches. Most of the time it doesn't work. The horse learned to avoid contact by going behind the bit. To change horse's perspective on that a rider must "stick" to the mouth even when the horse tries to go behind the bit and fix it by asking the horse to go more forward and using lifting rein aids to encourage it to lift the head. The moment the horse offer a stretch into the bit the rider softens to "explain" to the horse the concept - relieve will come from the stretch not from going behind the bit.
The important factor regarding contact and rein aids in general (that is actually written in every book but not necessarily explained in full details) is rein aids are independent of the rider's body or balance. Most of the time we think of a beginner rider grabbing the reins for his/her support. However, it is more complicated than that. Even experienced riders have these mistakes:
  • When a rider uses rein aids his/her upper body leans forward
  • An arm is not independent from the shoulder. The rider moves the shoulder to move the hand instead of bending or unbending the elbow
  • When outside rein half halt is applied it compromises rider's balance by pulling the rider to that side
  • Riders often lean into opposite direction when using inside rein
  • Hanging more on one rein than another to support the weak side of the body, complaining that horse is stiff on that side! :)
Happy riding...
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