How do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?
How do you find a word that means Maria?
A flibbertigibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!
Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her
Many a thing she ought to understand
But how do you make her stay
And listen to all you say
How do you keep a wave upon the sand?
Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria?
How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?
How do you explain contact: something so elusive, that varies from horse to horse and from moment to moment?
The Western Dressage Horse Goals and Objectives describes the following; Lightness and harmony are the hallmarks of the Western Dressage horse; he willingly accepts a light contact on the bit without tension or resistance. The goal is a light contact, but what does that look like? What does that mean?
There is no definition of contact in the Western Dressage Glossary provided by the Western Dressage Association of America.
I decided to Google it.
The word contact can be a used as a noun, and is defined as the state or condition of physical touching, or a meeting, communication, or relationship with someone. The word contact can be used as a verb, as in to communicate with (someone), typically in order to give or receive specific information.
Contact, in equine terms, is the way you give, or receive information to and from your horse; it is the communication you have through the reins and to the bit. The contact should be soft, steady, and elastic. Contact should never be achieved by pulling back on the reins, rather the horse should be ridden from back to front and sent forward with the seat and legs into a supporting connection. The position of the hands will vary depending on the style of rein and bit used, but there should always be a straight line from a supple elbow, carried close to the body, through the hand and to the horse's mouth. The rider should not be dependent on the hands for balance; this is achieved through a deep centered independent seat.
This cannot be stressed enough! Before you work on contact, you must work on your seat! If you cannot maintain your balance independent of your hands, than you cannot achieve clear lines of communication through the reins. There will be constant static and interference. Three words come to mind....lunge line lessons, and lots of them. Learn to unlock your hips and use your core. The seat can do three things, it can initiate or drive the movement, it can be passive, non-interfering and follow the movement, or it can interrupt, brace against, or restrict the movement. Each requires a great deal of balance and finesse. Only when you can smoothly absorb the movement of the horse with your core muscles can you begin to think about taking up contact with the reins!
Contact is not the same as a head set. Anyone can see-saw on the reins and have a horse yield in the jaw and break at the poll. Although the neck may arch, the frame is false. Contact is a result of the driving aids of the seat and legs into the hand, not the hands in isolation. The best way to train your horse to wag his head with distracting frequency on straight lines and on circles is to see saw. Once learned, it's a very hard habit to break.
What does a horse ridden on light contact look like? He we will be moving confidently forward into the rider's hand, not hiding from or avoiding it. His nose will be slightly in front of the vertical with his poll the highest point. Ridden from back to front into a steady soft hand, his back will eventually round and his top line stretch and elongate. At Introductory or Basic Level, we are only looking for acceptance of the contact. The horse should be allowed more freedom so he moves willingly forward and a level frame is acceptable and encouraged. As he progresses in his training, the horse will develop the musculature and strength to carry more weight on the hindquarters, thereby lifting the forehand. He will become more engaged and uphill.
What does light contact feel like? Have you ever gone fishing? Do you know the feeling of the hook and lure gently drifting through the water? There is weight in your hands, vibration and a sensation of movement and motion. There is slack in the line but not looseness. At any moment you can reel in, or allow more line to stretch out, maintaining an even tension. You don't have to look at the line to know what is happening, you can close your eyes and still be alerted immediately to the bite of a fish.
Or, think of what is feels like to hold hands with a partner or friend, the warmth and comfort of touching, the soothing closeness that supports and encourages. It is not restrictive or binding. You can communicate with just a slight closing of the fingers, a soft squeeze and release. You react to the changes in pressure without being conscious of the pressure itself. So, too, should it be for your horse.
How light is too light? Lightness is not nothingness. Lightness is a result of self carriage, not achieved by artificial means and devices. A horse finding his balance may be heavier at times in your hand. That is to be expected; it takes time to develop the muscles in the hindquarters that allow your horse to carry more weight behind. However, the contact should be supportive, not restrictive. If you give with your hand, does your horse stretch his neck into the contact? The forward downward stretch in the free jog, as the reins are gradually lengthened, is a test of the contact and connection. You should be able to stretch the neck forward and down, and bring it back up again. Frame should be a multiple choice selection, with the rider able to vary the head and neck position at will. If the horse is backed off the bit and unwilling to seek the contact, he will be rigidly locked into position and not easily varied.
How loose is too loose? Too long of reins delays the time it takes for communication to reach your horse. With a snaffle, the line between bit and hand might be almost straight. We don't want the reins to go loopy, tight, loopy, tight. We want even tension in the reins, albeit a very light tension. Think again of the fishing line, if you let out too much line it becomes tangled and communication is lost with the hook and lure. You need to find the sweet spot that allows communication to remain clear and open. So to with rein length, it should be appropriate to the level in which you riding and enable you to communicate with soft aids, a closing of the fist, a bracing of the back. Your hands should remain in front of the saddle horn, so you can ride forward to the hand. With a curb bit, there will be less tension and more slack in the reins because of the escalation of volume the shanks provide. Your rein aids are magnified in proportion to the length of the shanks, for this reason, I do not recommend curb bits for inexperienced hands.
How do you know if the contact is too strong? The reins should allow the energy to be recycled, not restricted. A bracing under neck, a hollow back, grinding teeth, and/or open mouth are all indications of a taking hand that never gives. A deterioration of the rhythm of the gait or 'rein lameness' may result, a lateral walk, a four beat lope, an irregular jog. If the quality of the gait is diminished, this is a clear indication that the horse needs to be allowed to move more freely forward in relaxation and the contact is too restrictive.
One of the most important qualities a rider can possess is patience. It takes time to condition and develop a horse so that he can be ridden with a light contact, almost entirely off the seat. This can be done correctly, through gymnastic exercises and transitions, using classical dressage principles. However, through ignorance or impatience, this process is often rushed. Stronger bits, draw reins, and mechanical devises are employed to give the illusion of lightness. This does not create a willing partner happy to do his job. In fact, a short cut is often the quickest way to lose what you have already accomplished! Take the time to enjoy the journey. Hold out your hand and invite your horse to come dance with you. He should grasp it willingly and follow along.
The goal of Western Dressage is to develop a partnership between a happy equine athlete working in harmony with his rider. A system of progressive training produces a horse that is physically strong, balanced, supple, and flexible; this equine athlete also demonstrates a calm, confident, attentive attitude and is happy to do his job.