What is Contact?

My thoughts for this blog first surfaced a couple of weeks ago when two Mum`s said two conflicting things.
One said “Of course, Jenny didn`t know anything about outline but the horse she rode just did it on his own. But I`m glad you haven`t taught her that.”

The other said “Wendy needs to improve her pony`s outline.”

So we`ll take a quick look at each case study and I`ll try to explain whether outline and contact should be taught to these girls. From personal experience I know that being taught outline without the knowledge about the hind legs, impulsion, engagement and other terminology leads to a “handy” rider who is obsessed by head carriage, which is something the dressage world is trying to eradicate.

Looking at Wendy first. I`ve not been teaching her long and have focused on improving her seat and making it more independent, so that her arms, which tend to be stiff, don`t fly around too much. She`s improving, but because she tends to have stiff arms and her pony tends to lean against any tension in the rein I`ve not brought her attention to bringing her horse into an outline, but rather generating a more correct way of going – rhythm and suppleness – to encourage the mare to step under with her hind legs and lift through her back naturally, so she puts herself onto a contact and into an outline. From my rider I want her to have still, relaxed arms so the pony wants to work with them, not against them. When I rode this pony I found that suppling her on circles and with travers unlocks her back much more than getting into a fight with her. Obviously as I am twice her usual rider`s size (maybe not that much!) I was more effective with my leg.

My aim with Wendy is to develop her seat and leg aids, whilst encouraging her to stay soft yet consistent with her hands so that she forms a nice rein connection to her pony`s mouth. It won`t take long, but I don`t think the focus should be on the neck with this pony, rather the suppleness of her, and as she and Wendy build the correct muscle and posture she will carry herself in a smart outline.

Moving onto case study two – Jenny. She rides a smart, if slightly overweight, Haflinger who has a well set-on neck. She has very soft, light hands as she is afraid of hurting er pony`s mouth. I`ve worked her hard over the last two years on sitting trot and having an independent seat with correct aids, but as her pony carries himself quite nicely I`ve focused on rhythm and balance. He tends to run away from the leg and can get quite strong when he runs, so we`ve also worked on acceptance of the aids. Which has led up towards lateral work. This has been interesting because, while she is perfectly capable of riding leg yield, her ignorance of the importance of rein contact has caused a stumbling block. She often creates the correct contact and balance unconsciously but as it is almost accidental, it can be inconsistent. So today I took a step back and asked her what she understood by the term “contact”.

Her first response was the hand position – thumbs on top, elbows by your side, carrying the hands … reins of equal length, hands level in all dimensions… Then we struck gold!
“Consistent feel down the reins” she said. I nodded; I tell my rider`s that they should be able to feel the pony`s mouth at the end of the reins, but not feel like they are pulling. It is a connection, and too slack a rein creates lots of “white noise” which means it is harder to communicate between horse and rider. Too tight a rein is restrictive and negative for the horse. Jenny is pretty good here, but I would say that her hand is fractionally too light which means she loses the connection minutely whilst riding. It also means that her pony trots round happily in his own little world, but not fully engaged and focused on her.

I explained to Jenny that she wants to think about riding more from leg to hand. So her rein contact is still light, but she needs to start feeling her pony take the contact forwards, and feel like her is leading a bit more. He`s not in control, but if they were walking down the street he`d be the man holding the woman`s hand (in Victorian times anyway) We started in walk, picking up the rein contact, and shortening her reins by about an inch, and then i encouraged her to apply more leg but not to let her pony jog, so she needed to try riding with the handbrake on fractionally. So she pushes her pony from her leg, into her hand, and then forwards. The forwards part is important as she is releasing him forwards in a controlled manner. It`s a bit like doing a hill start I guess. You have to feel the bite of the clutch before taking the handbrake off. It didn`t take long for my rider to begin to feel that change in her pony, so we moved onto trot.

It was really satisfying work; as soon as Jenny thought about her contact correctly her pony took the contact forward, lightened in his stride and lifted over his back more. At first it was inconsistent from both. After all, their muscles needed waking up! But as we progressed through the hour the moment became seconds, and Jenny began to feel the improvement. We worked on circles and she soon found that by having her pony between leg and hand she could affect the shape of the circle, and leg yield in and out successfully. Even the leg yield down the long side was better! I told her to push from her inside leg to her outside rein (which previously had been slightly slack) and then allow over. Before she pushed with her inside leg, but allowed him to run through her outside rein so they rushed to the track.

Even in the canter she was starting to balance him even more than usual (the rushing has already improved greatly) but when she engages her tummy muscles a bit more and sits on him as opposed to hovering he produces a much better canter anyway.

Basically today was just introducing Jenny to the purpose of her rein contact as a more advanced rider. She already unconsciously does it intermittently, but hopefully by focusing her on this aspect of riding their general work will go up a level and we can move onto more complicated exercises and movements. I still haven`t mentioned outline to her, but told her when her pony is working more correctly and engaging, so that she learns the correct feeling and how to create it correctly and not become fixated on the head carriage.

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