Are you confused between energy and power (impulsion)? Don’t be. Energy is the fizz you get when you shake a bottle of coke. Power is the pressure of that fizz as it pushes against the lid before you open the bottle. In riding terms, your legs create the fizz and your rein contact (the lid) gives it something to push against. Trouble arises when your contact is too tight and puts a backward pressure on your horse’s mouth – it’s like driving with the hand brake on. Look at it another way –
Imagine you have to push a parked car up the road. It’s stationary so you put your weight behind it. If the brake is off, the car will move forward. If you keep pushing it will keep moving until you pull back on it to stop it. You’ve created power because you have something to push against that is mobile. If the brake is on no matter how hard you push it’s going to stay solid and resistant. Eventually, you’ll have to admit defeat and stop trying. If that happens every time you try to move it you’re going to stop trying before you start, aren’t you?
Now imagine what would happen if the pressure disappeared because someone drove that car away as you were pushing? You’d fall flat on your face – right? Funny it maybe but it’s exactly what happens to your horse every time you lose your contact.
There’s a fine line between a steady contact and tight one. To keep it consistent and the same length you need to clamp your reins between your thumb and first finger. If your fingers grip the reins they’ll will feel solid and tense to your horse. Move your 2nd and 3rd fingers as if you were texting someone and you’ll create enough movement on the rein to create a soft but firm feeling in his mouth.
Any tension in your body will directly affect your contact. To your horse, it will feel as if the brake is always on. It won’t matter how much leg you use. If he’s pushing into a dead, solid contact in the end he’ll stop trying.
Keep your arm soft by pointing your thumb towards the bit. You need a straight line from your elbow through your wrist, down the rein to the bit. Often you’ll find it’s tipping up towards your horse’s ear. In that case, you create a break in the line and a backwards feeling on his mouth. Any form of backward pressure will create tension.
There’s a stage in riding when riders feel the urge to squeeze on their reins to get their horse on the bit. It’s unnecessary. When a horse is ridden forward to a steady, soft contact his back will round as his hips are pushed towards his shoulders. If you’re pulling back on one rein and throwing away the contact on the other … well you’re not exactly making it easy for him, are you?
It’s much easier to focus on your hand and thumb position in trot as your horse’s head and neck stay still. In walk and canter, there is an obvious head nod. Do you move your arm forward with him or back against him? Next time you ride, check that out.
Your horse may need to relearn to relax and walk forward into your contact. If he’s become used to you pulling back on the bit every time he nods forward he’ll have learnt to keep his head and neck still. Do you often moan that he sets his neck?
Many riders unwittingly squeeze back on their horse as he nods away from their hand. What they should be doing is moving their whole arm forward with him and coming back to maintain the contact. Walk large and focus on your arms. Think of your reins as two flexible poles that your horse pulls forward and pushes back.
Go large in walk on a long rein and push on. Watch your horse nod forward and back as he walks. Ride at least three circuits on each rein so he really starts to relax. Then keep up the pressure from your legs and take up your contact. Don’t dither when you do this. Lean forward and take up your outside rein, hold both reins in your outside hand and take up your inside rein to match. ‘Shimmying’ your fingers up the reins is irritating and unnecessary.
Once you’re in medium walk focus on the pressure in your hand. Move your 2nd and 3rd fingers to keep your contact soft, point your thumb towards the bit so your arm stays relaxed and concentrate on following your horse’s head and neck forward and back. Initially, you may find you push forward too far or that he comes back quicker than you expected but relax your arm – shut your eyes if you need to – and stop trying so hard. Let him take your hand forward and concentrate on keeping the weight in your rein as he comes back. Practise out hacking too when you’ll be more relaxed.
Work on your canter in the same way – you may find it easier than walk. The head nod is far more obvious as your horse will be naturally more forward. Even if he feels as if he’s pulling or going to take off remember you’re not giving him the reins you’re just following his head. He’ll only pull if he’s uptight. If you pull he’ll get uptight.
It’s hard work changing things that have become a habit but in this case, it will make all the difference. You expect your horse to accept your contact, right? Make sure you make it acceptable.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
In Loving Memory of Lorraine Jennings from School Your Horse