Well, that Weekly Post thing didn't work out quite as well as I has intended. Ah well. Here is what you get. Call it #3 in May or #1 in June. I don't really know. :)
#3 - Connection
DISCLAIMER: I am not a trainer. These are things that I've learned from lessons, books that I've read, and personal experience.
You've got the hang of reducing resistance, and you understand what elastic contact feels like. Now it's time to take advantage of your horse's obedience and your ability to make contact and connect the back and front ends of the horse.
This is not easy. But it is all connected. (HA! See what I did there!?) What I mean is that connection continually relies on eliminating resistance and maintaining elastic contact.
By this point you should have developed some feel. You should be able to feel when your horse is becoming tight in the neck, or about to break the contact. Or even when he is behind the contact. All of these things disconnect the horse. Tightness in the neck stops the energy from the back end from flowing through the shoulders. The horse breaking the contact (mainly by raising the head) stops the energy at the back as the horse's back drops out from under the rider. Being behind the bit and having no contact usually dumps the horse on the forehand, stopping any pushing power that could be generated from the hind end.
The goal is for the horse to be relaxed in the neck and the back (thus not resisting), have a connection with the rider's hand, and be able to use the hind end to generate thrust, thus transferring energy through the soft back, carrying the rider up and forward, and elevating the front end.
So, how to put it all together? It's different with every horse, and even every ride on the same horse. It really depends on the situation. Here are some common ones.
1) My horse is making too strong of a contact. His head is too low and he's pulling on me and it feels like his mouth is full of bricks! This sounds like a horse that has figured out that he cannot resist, make a connection, but not connect. Most likely this horse is what I'd call "behind the leg". Meaning that he's not carrying the rider forward, and most likely the rider feels the needs to constantly kick or cluck to the horse to keep him going. No resistance, established contact, but not exactly what we're looking for.
In this case you need to get the horse more responsive to the leg. For that to happen, you must take your leg OFF the horse. I know that sounds really weird, and I'm not saying "Don't use your leg". What I'm saying is your horse should carry on at whatever gait you've requested without you having to boot him in the gut every 30 seconds to keep him jogging along. If you have a death grip on your horse all the time to begin with, will he feel it if you apply a teeny bit more leg? He won't.
So begin to trot, and take your leg off, and see what happens. If he stops, kick him forward, and then take the leg off again. If he stops again, repeat, but kick HARDER. Use your whip if you have to (use it only if you really don't get a response from the leg - I'll address the whip later). Repeat until he gets the message that leg ON means GO, but leg off does NOT mean stop. Once he gets this message, make sure you LET GO with your leg so that it actually means something when you apply it. Squeezing all the time creates an environment of static, and your horse can't hear your soft aids through it.
Getting back to the problem above, this horse needs to be kicked forward. He's behind the leg and not pushing with the hind end. Get him responsive to the leg, and then when he leans on you, kick him up and off the connection. Yes, this sounds counterproductive, as it will also create resistance and tension where there was none before. It's okay if he gets fast, or pops his head up. You already know how to deal with that. When you have resolved the resistance you've created and made the neck soft again, establish the contact YOU want, and keep him there. If he gets too low again, or starts pulling on you, kick him up and off of your hand. The only way he will realize where you want him is if you show him. When you get good and proper contact, praise him, pat him, make a fuss out of him. Then he will know when he's got it right.
2) This horse is curling away from the bit and I don't have any connection when he puts his head down. He's got impulsion but I've got nothing in my hand. This horse is also, in a weird way, behind the leg. I know it sounds super weird, but a horse that is all curled up behind the bit is not effectively driving from behind. Because if he has no contact, what is he driving to? Usually these horses are very on the forehand and are driving themselves down in the front. So the solution, as scary as it sounds to be riding a horse that is okay with going forward (sometimes TOO much), is to push them more forward to get them up and off the bit, rather than behind it. Once you have the head up, even if the neck is tight and in the air, just start all over with dealing with the resistance. But try and be tactful so that the horse will not over-react to your hand. Don't release too much, and make a contact. This takes some finesse and timing, but it can be done.
3) My horse makes contact but he's running his legs off! I feel like I'm always pulling on him and I can't slow him down! This sounds like the horse is not confirmed in it's half-halts. It's hard to get connection without being able to give a good half-halt that the horse is obedient to. There are chapters and chapters in books dedicated to the art of the half-halt. I'm not going to go into that much detail here, but your horse has to be able to respond to a half-halt.
How do you teach a horse to half-halt? Well, it's complicated, and there is more than one way of doing it. Some suggestions of things that have worked for me -
- Give and take rhythmically at the trot, as in take a firmer hold for two strides, and give a slight release for two strides. This will help slow the horse down without you feeling like you're constantly hanging on the horse's mouth. If you keep the rhythm, the horse may eventually catch on and begin to slow just a bit when you take a tighter hold. Praise the horse then, and keep it up. When you feel like you're making progress, hold for two strides and release for three, then four. Try to make your release times longer, but keep your hold to two strides. When you hold, try to also stop the motion of your seat, and hug with your legs (remember your legs are not gripping, right? so it's easy to just give a little hug - not really a squeeze). This is like a "half-halt lite" and will give you practice in timing if your half-halts aren't that great either.
This give and take also works at the canter, but it can be a little scary on a horse that likes to be speedy. Sometimes you'll get a downward transition during your hold phase, and that's okay! It just means it's working. What needs to happen next is you give your "half-halt lite" but use a bit more leg to keep the horse in the canter, but slowed a bit.
- Do lots of walk-trot-walk transitions. Let the horse anticipate the downward transition and use the "half-halt lite" above when you ask for the walk. Or trot across the diagonal and ask for the walk as you approach the wall. When the horse begins to anticipate the walk, start your "half-halt lite" sooner, and when he slows down, give a bit more leg to keep him trotting and praise him for slowing down. This is another thing that works at the canter.
- If you feel really secure in your seat and half-halt, you can do the BIG "I mean it" half-halt. But you need to really mean it, and get your whole body involved. Really use your seat deep down in the saddle, lean back really far, and a firm pull on the reins. Take the horse all the way to the halt with these, and allow him to stand for a minute and think about what just happened. Then back up into the trot (or canter) like nothing happened, and repeat one more time. Use your voice too - actually say a low, but firm "Whoooooa". After a few of these your horse will start to respond when you start the big half-halt. Any time you feel he's blowing you off after that you can go back a do a few of these as a reminder that the half-halt actually does mean something, and you expect a response.
Once you can keep and maintain proper contact, you can ask the horse to connect. This is being able to push the horse forward and into your hand in a way that he does not run from your leg, but uses his energy to drive a bit more and begin to carry you with his back. It's just a matter of fixing the roadblocks that your horse, or your own riding, may throw in your way.
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.
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