There are many subtle nuances within a well developed horse and rider partnership. I can recognize when time and patience has been of value when the reins maintain a soft, light connection between horse and rider. Every rider takes responsibility for holding onto this “line of communication”, but how do they know if they are holding too much or too little? How does the most subtle influence transfer down to the horse’s end and become a lively interaction?
When you were a kid, did you ever play with a paper cup phone? I recently made one of these childhood toys to experiment. Try it if you want to have a good laugh with your riding friends! http://bit.ly/1kbELnO
The paper cup phone is one of the ways I like to introduce a student to the concept of connection vs contact with the horse’s mouth/head (bit or bitless). I tend to avoid the word “contact” because it’s very natural for people to gather up their reins and create a tense or pulling rein aid when they think of contact.
Using the paper cup phone as our example; when you ride – your cup is your hand, the string is the rein, and the friend’s cup is your horse’s mouth (or nose band if you ride bitless). There are subtle vibrations in your reins that act similarly to the cup phone concept.
If you do try the paper cup phone, try experimenting with a few extra communication challenges that some horses are expected to figure out. Most additional equipment involving the mouth and reins can create confusion and tension because it interrupts the clear line of communication.
Staying on the line
While learning about soft connection, horses sometimes tend to avoid contact, or drop the call. Riders drop the call without noticing too. It is the rider’s responsibility to teach him to stretch forward and seek the soft connection in the rein. We must keep in mind that if the horse hangs up on us, we need to ask ourselves “Why” instead of just picking up all the slack ourselves which creates tension.
What does this have to do with dressage?
When the rider pulls the slack out of the rein, the horse has less responsibility to maintain a soft connection AND the energy is going backwards instead of the desired forward movement through the topline. When the rider teaches the horse how to seek the connection and “stay on the phone” then both partners are sharing their responsibility and the horse moves forward to stay connected…. This elastic “contact” is full of energy and a lively feel.
Whatever the exercise or game plan, I continually try to maintain a soft connection with my horse. Keeping this in mind will allow my horse to relax and respond with accuracy. When she trusts my hands she is less likely to be tense or spooky and more likely to be a supple, happy partner.