#2 - Contact
DISCLAIMER: I am not a trainer. These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read, and personal experience.
Contact and connection are not necessarily the same thing. Contact is the physical feeling of the reins in your hand, where the horse is taking the bit from you as much as you are taking the bit from the horse. Connection is the horse truly moving forward into your hand and demonstrating energy flowing from behind, through the back and neck, into your hand. You can have contact and not connection, but no connection without proper contact.
But we'll talk about contact today. Once you have a handle on the resistance (which really never goes away, by the way - all horses, even super trained Kaswyn at 21 years old, will exhibit resistance due to fatigue, laziness, or the perception that it's "too hard!" or "I don't wanna!") it's time to establish proper contact.
I like to think about contact by imagining the reins are bungee chords. You want your reins to have pressure on them, but not so much that the bungee chord is stretched to it's maximum. You also don't want the bungee chord to get slack in it either. It's all about give and take. You and your horse should be working TOGETHER to form the connection. He's taking as much as you are. That connection can be very light or very firm, just as long as it's the same from both sides.
When you're working to dispel any resistance, it's hard to think about contact. But that is goal #2 for you both to achieve. So when you feel like you have a handle on the resistance, pay close attention to how much you are giving, and what the horse does when you give.
Some common issues -
1) You give too much, your reins get slack, and you have to take again, so the horse resists again immediately. In this case you're just giving too much. At the beginning (like, the very beginning of the resistance work) this is fine, but now you must refine your reactions. Give less, just be careful not to go too slowly. Be quick to respond, just don’t give as much. And begin to finesse your contact. Immediately after the horse gives in and stops resisting, try and establish a light contact and just ride that way, changing nothing, for a long as you can. Praise and love your horse during this, with your voice, to show that this is what you want. Just try and maintain that contact for as long as possible. And when he resists again, or breaks the contact, you fix it again. The longer you can go without fixing something the fast your can move on to something else. Like true connection.
2) You don't give enough, or fast enough, and your horse gets tense, and you get tense. I feel a fight coming on! If you get frustrated, go back to the walk and regroup yourself mentally and physically. Don't fight. It doesn't help. Just continue to calmly ask for what you want.
3) Your reins are too long, and you're pulling, but you run out of room and you can't take up your reins and you're losing control .. UGH!! It can be really hard, when working with resistance and contact to find the proper length of rein. When it's short enough to have a nice contact, then the horse resists and shortens the neck and you have to pull back and establish connection, your reins are too long. You feel like you're constantly taking up on and releasing your reins. Instead of doing this, when your reins seem too long for just a moment, you can take your hands directly out to the side and away from your horse. Just bring them straight out to the side. This will increase the angle from your hand to the bit and make the reins seem shorter. I know this is scary to take your hands far away from your horse (and the saddle, and anything you might need to grab onto in an "Oh sh*t!" moment), but it's quicker and easier than trying to scramble and take up on your reins.
A note here on hand position. Your hands, and the contact need not be static, and actually should not be. The contact should be fluid, a flow and ebb between your horse's mouth and your hand, like waves on the shore. If he takes a big step and comes down on your hand, your hands and arms should be elastic enough to go with him and not have him come down hard on your hand. Conversely, if he loses his balance and loses connection with your hand, you should be able to move your hands out to the side and re-establish connection without too much of a fuss. It's ok to come out of position in these cases, just strive to return to proper position once you have done what you need to do.
Lastly, remember that your horse's mouth is sensitive. Sure, he may jerk the reins out of your hands, but that's a choice he is making with a known price. Like something he's doing to himself. If you jerk on his mouth constantly it's just not nice, since it's something you're doing to him. Dressage is about harmony, which means working together. Respect his mouth and you'll earn his respect.
So, work on elastic contact, remember it's ok to come out of position, and be kind to your horse's mouth.
Shoot me a comment (or slam me, if you feel the need) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have questions or something you wish to say privately.