BY JENNY ROLFE
Contact is the way a rider converses with a horse; a good contact, therefore, is when the rider is having a conversation with the horse during which neither becomes dominant. A horse has to be willing to take up an elastic contact with his rider’s hands without forging ahead and pulling. When a rider rebalances himself and takes a deeper inward breath, the horse should steady his gait to absorb the altered balance of the rider and thus lighten the contact. The rider then uses the lightened contact to allow the horse to work in self-carriage.
The head connection
When a horse is moving freely, the first part of his body to make a move forward is his head. If, however, a rider restricts this forward movement with heavy hands, this restriction will act like a brake, physically and mentally, and will only serve to discourage the horse from enjoying the forward movement. Confusion will ensue if a rider uses his seat and legs to ask for forward movement and then creates a barrier against it with the hands; the result will be an anxious and frustrated horse.
Restriction of the head and neck is the enemy of forward movement.
It is essential that our hands allow the unrestricted motion of the horse’s head and neck and do not impede the movement. The topline of the neck should arch and lengthen and not become ‘compressed’ and tight, which causes the back to become hollow. The focus of the rider in this early training should be on:
• balance, breathing and lightness of communications together with building up the horse’s trust and security
• encouragement together with discipline.
A trusting, calm horse, working with good energy, will submit more effectively to a contact; whereas an anxious horse’s natural fear instinct will cause stiffness and tension, the enemy of harmony in training. A more relaxed and attentive horse should feel willing to cooperate with a contact from a ‘listening’ hand.
It will be impossible to achieve correct contact without sufficient energy. Contact is a way of containing the energy given by the horse in the ‘sensitive’ hands of the rider. If there is no energy or desire to move forward, there will be nothing to contain, only an artificial flexion of the neck.
If the horse is a little lazy, encourage him to work with vitality and become responsive to your aids for forward movement. So many riders focus on ‘contact,’ using their hands to pull a horse into an outline but a horse can never progress in training without energy.
Many problems with head and neck carriage stem from a lack of engagement of the hind limbs, which prevent a horse from working with sufficient energy to propel his weight forward, thus making it difficult to maintain balance and cadence. When the powerful hindquarters create a flow of energy throughout the spine, the horse can then become efficient in his movement.
A horse may lose the desire to work forward if held in a fixed, uncomfortable position. How many human athletes are restricted by someone tying down and compressing their head and neck? Movement is important and horses must be allowed to move.
If each movement made by the horse impacts directly on the movement of his head, there can be no true relaxation through the spine, neck and poll. This type of restriction will prevent the horse physically and mentally from producing any work of value and destroy the opportunity for harmony; any movement there is will lose its regular relaxed rhythm. Anyone can intimidate and suppress a child or an animal with their training, but what is gained; a broken spirit perhaps? It takes two independent spirits, coming together as one, to dance. A trainer or rider must, like a male dancer, lead, guide and direct his partner with tact, feel and empathy.
Thoughts for the Rider
Focus on the lateral breathing which helps develop self-carriage, balance and release of energy flow for the rider. Half close your eyes – tune into your sense of ‘feel.’ Sit in your own natural self carriage – totally balanced, allowing your seat to ‘melt’ with the movement of the horse.
When you have a feeling of harmony between yourself and the movement of the horse, slowly take up the contact with the reins. Do not allow your focus or balance to be drawn towards your hands. Instead, sit with natural poise and posture.
The power of the horse underneath you should create the feeling of energy and elevation in front of you. It is activity with a feel of movement ‘up hill’. Allow your body, from your waist and stomach, to advance with the movement. The energy is ‘contained’ and ‘absorbed’ by the hands.
Maintain core stability with correct breathing, allowing your hands to become receivers of energy. Use your fingers lightly to communicate with the mouth of the horse. Your thumbs maintain the contact. Fingers caress gently, maintaining a ‘conversation’ with the horse.
The horse has to learn to work energetically, and through a rounding of his back he will relax the neck with flexion at the poll. We can then help him to find his natural position within self carriage.
When he has understood, we can offer his lightness back to him. We ask, then as we receive his submission, we can offer him back lightness.
If the rider needs to re-balance the horse or develop more collection, the fingers may be momentarily tightened, whilst the rider re-balances with the deeper inward breath. This deeper breath widens and elevates the upper torso of the rider which the horse can immediately feel. We are asking the horse to come back under his rider, so that as the rider lightens and expands the rib cage, the horse can also re-balance his movement and frame. When the horse has responded, the rider can relax the contact with the fingers and breathe in a gentle rhythm with the stride. The haunches can then take more weight with a lightening and elevation of the forehand.
In this way both the horse and rider can progress, both learning to listen and respond together. This is the path for true horse kinship.
READ MORE ABOUT AUTHOR JENNY ROLFE