Over the years, I have seen a lot of impulsion without a good understanding of contact. This type of movement is often nothing more than nervous energy from the horse, and all it does is create a potential runaway situation. In this article, we will look at these two fundamentals, and learn how to establish contact, resulting in balanced, controlled impulsion.
We talked about calmness and rhythm in the last article. Following these essentials, contact is the next step, and is necessary in order for the rider to communicate with the horse’s nose (or mouth, if bitted). When the horse understands contact, we can regulate his impulsion, help him re-balance (as when we use the half halt), steer him and, later, help him understand lateral work and collection.
If my horse doesn’t understand contact, there is no point in asking for more impulsion, because then, the only way to control him is to have a hard rein, and to pull on it. I don’t ever want to have to pull on my horse. If pulling hard is required to stop or slow down the horse, then we need to go back and help our horses understand contact. It is our responsibility to ensure they understand…not theirs.
Generally speaking, a horse that never understood contact, or that has been asked to use his body incorrectly when carrying a rider, wants to snatch the reins and pull the rider over his neck the minute he feels the slightest contact on his nose (or mouth). This reaction is the result of the rider having pulled on the horse first. A horse that pulls on the reins has been trained to do so. In the same fashion, a horse that has been trained with light, consistent contact develops a soft feel on the reins when asked to move in all directions.
Establishing contact is like having a conversation on the phone with someone. You have to get feedback in order to have the conversation – it’s no different with a horse. Having contact does not mean holding onto the horse’s head where the reins become like poles; rather they should be soft and giving lines of communication. Otherwise, it’s just a one-way conversation. You communicate with the horse, and when he gives you the desired response, you must give a little so he understands his response was correct. In the give, he is rewarded for his correct choice.
Thinking Time Tip
One of the common mistakes I see, when the rider first gets on, is instead of getting the horse to relax and walk freely, the rider pulls back on the reins trying to get the horse to start working in a frame. This robs the horse of the freedom to move and destroys the two things we are trying to establish here – proper contact and impulsion.
Holding the reins tightly can cause the horse to avoid the contact by going behind or above it, and, as a result, instead of softening at the poll, he breaks at the weakest part of his neck, the crest. When I start to school contact, I will ask the horse to drop his nose and wait to see the response I get. If it’s not the response I was looking for, I keep on asking, maintaining the same feel on my reins until he lowers his nose, even as little as an inch or less. I do not increase the pressure, I simply hold it there.
If your contact is too strong, the horse will react – not respond – with, for example, head tossing, pulling on the reins, breaking gait, or hollowing his back. There is no focus or calmness in that situation, just a lot of screaming without words. In that situation, the horse will not be listening to you at all.
On the other hand, if you ride on the buckle all day long without contact, you will never be able to establish that connection between his head and your hands and, therefore, his hindquarters. If you ride a young horse like this, without soft contact, the horse is left on his own to use his body as he sees fit – and that can easily result in him becoming an unbalanced runaway if he suddenly spooks. Once we progress in our training, we should be able to ride our horses on the buckle at all gaits.
Contact has a direct effect on the horse’s ability to balance. Take my paint mare for example – she naturally carries her head high, running around all day long with a hollow back. If I was to ride her the same way, without establishing contact, her under saddle career would be very short, filled with lots of back problems and a long underline rather than a well-developed top line. The only way to make a horse like that sound and able to carry a rider correctly is to ensure that she understands contact. When she does, I can ask her to come under herself a little more, carrying more weight by rounding her spine rather than being hollow and with hind legs strung out.
Once the horse understands contact on the ground, I transfer that knowledge to under saddle work. As I’ve said before, all my groundwork has a purpose under saddle. That’s why I don’t play games on the ground or do exercises that I cannot use under saddle later on.
Application: The Rein-Back
The rein-back is an exercise used to ask a horse to back up. A correct rein-back is a two-beat, diagonal stepping, backward movement, in which the diagonal pairs lift and plant at the same time (see diagram).
When I first teach a horse the rein-back, on the ground, I want him to follow my feel to back up, using his hindquarters. When I ask the horse to back up, I will take a step or two forward then move backwards, giving him the opportunity to follow the feel of my feet.
If the horse doesn’t get it, I turn to face him. Then, holding the lead low and towards the middle of the chest (for straightness), I lightly touch the horse on the shoulder with the free hand and use a light on-off pressure (like squeezing a sponge) on the lead to ask him to move his feet backwards. There is no pulling, shaking or jerking – that only causes the horse to raise his head and back up stiff and hollow. I want the horse to follow the feel of the pressure and give in the direction it is moving without altering his natural cadence.
Application: Lateral Flexion
I also use lateral flexion on the ground to get the horse to understand giving to contact. I want him to understand that all I am asking him to do is flex his nose around to the side without leaning, pulling or snatching the rope from my hands. This exercise also translates directly to work under saddle.
Thinking Time Tip
If you don’t get it right on the ground you won’t get it right under saddle.
Lateral flexion is essential for getting the horse more supple, and controlling his direction. I will not get on a horse unless I am able to flex him laterally, as that is what allows me to disengage his hindquarters, which are the horse’s ‘engine.’
To encourage lateral flexion, I stand next to the horse and put my closest hand gently on his shoulder. With my other hand, I bring the rein slightly towards me, using a light on-off pressure to encourage his head to the side.
Never use a steady pressure on the rein, or you will make the horse feel trapped and don’t pull the rein straight back towards his withers or he will back up or spin around. Remember, these exercises serve a purpose under saddle, so think carefully about your rein position.
Under saddle, if the horse doesn’t understand contact well, I start with lateral flexion at the standstill, without the horse moving his feet. If I start on the left, I will pick up the left rein and ask the horse to bring his head around as much as he can. Physically, some horses are stiffer than others, so bring the head around softly until you run into that stiffness (or pressure). Wait there; don’t use your legs at all. If the horse spins around, do not give the rein back yet. When he softens (or “gives”), you give. By ‘give’ I mean he finds the release himself by getting soft on that rein and reaching towards your leg. Then repeat the exercise on the right. You will easily find which side is stiff and which is hollow. Again, I try to get the horse to understand that through that contact all I am asking is for him to flex his nose around to the side without leaning, pulling or snatching the rope from my hands.
Application: Using One Rein for Softness and Control
By “one rein,” I mean using one rein at a time as in a half halt. In fact, I alternate so that the horse does not become soft on one side and stiff on the other. I want the horse to be even on both sides, with minimum effort from my reins.
In an emergency, you can use one rein for control in order to disengage the hindquarters – termed a “one rein stop” by many. In this situation, I use the rein to bend the horse’s head low and around to one side, but it is the simultaneous use of my inside leg that causes his inside hind leg to cross under and in front of the outside hind leg and, therefore, disengage.
Contact Under Saddle
I start training contact at the standstill, then on the back up, which gets the horse to start thinking about moving his balance to the rear and using his hindquarters. If he doesn’t understand that contact, the only way he is going to back up is through the nose and mouth instead of through the hindquarters, which can cause hollowing, back soreness, rearing – all undesirable behaviours, and then we blame the horse for it. In reality, we are the cause of it, not the horse. The horse never does anything wrong, he only does what he interprets we want him to do. Most people also don’t intentionally do wrong, they simply do the wrong things someone may have told them to do.
In a good under saddle exercise to develop a soft back up (backing with the horse’s hindquarters and not his face), I teach my horse to be responsive to my seat and leg aids. First I cue the rein-back by setting my hands with light contact, and I wait for the horse to find the release by dropping his nose slightly, at which point, I release the reins slightly. Then, I introduce a seat and leg cue and wait for his haunches to engage and back up with them. I want the horse to back up with his back end and not his head. I then take that soft contact again, wait for the horse to drop his nose, rotate my pelvis slightly forward to get off the horse’s loins and ask for the rein-back, releasing at even the slightest rock back and building from there.
Once the horse has given me a step or two backwards, I ask him to move forward from the rein-back off my leg – and by that I mean if I apply a squeeze with my lower leg at the girth, I want my horse to be responsive and move forward straight away (forward off the leg) rather than being late to my leg cue (behind the leg). If the horse doesn’t move forward, I may create energy as I have described before, by clucking or smooching or creating energy with my split rein as I don’t want him to become desensitised to my leg.
The next thing the horse has to understand under saddle is vertical flexion. By that I mean not pulling backwards on the reins. I want to be able to take the slack out of my reins and get the horse to gently lower his nose without leaning on my hands or snatching the reins out of my hands. I want to provide just enough contact for the horse to feel it on his nose (or mouth, if bitted) and wait patiently. If the horse walks backwards, I maintain that soft contact until he works it out and stops backing and lowers his nose. I immediately release it and walk him forward. Then I repeat the exercise a couple of times.
Once you establish contact, which helps make the connection between the hindquarters and your hands, we can look at impulsion. By impulsion I mean good engagement from behind. You want your horse to be responsive to your seat and leg aids, not just going forward fuelled by nervous energy.
Take the classic case of a horse who must be encouraged to go forward. I don’t want the horse to move forward because he’s scared. I know there are some instructors who say put your legs out as far as you can and thump the horse as hard as you can until he reacts to your leg and moves forward. I feel, however, that there is a big difference between the horse fearing your leg and respecting and understanding your leg cue.
As I mentioned, the big Irish Sport Horse I worked with recently in Ireland, for just an hour, is a good example of a horse that didn’t understand contact or leg cues. I often hear people say, “You can’t put leg on my horse,” which may be because the horse has been spurred and kicked previously.
Besides using my legs to create energy, I like working with my mecate rein or split reins because I can use them to create energy just behind my leg, or, with a young horse, in front of my leg near the shoulder (flicking my own leg lightly side to side). In this way, I can increase the energy and look for the response of a little more engagement from behind.
Take Home Message
If the horse leans and pulls on the reins, many people think the answer is a bigger bit and pulling back harder. If the horse is not forward enough, they think the answer is a bigger kick, a harder whip or a sharper spur. But that sort of ‘yelling’ at the horse will not get you the result you want – a soft, responsive horse. The simple answer is to ask the horse in a way he can understand and give him the time to work it out for himself.