Thursday, November 14, 2013

Don't pull!

It's not groundbreaking news that Guinness and I struggle with proper contact. Not only is he extremely picky and just beginning to gain confidence in my hands, but I am still learning the proper way to hold contact and communicate through it.

Dressage is an intricate language, ya'll. You can't even listen to pronunciation tapes to learn how to communicate more clearly, either. For the most part, it's trial-and-error learning.

One thing that is being beaten into my head as I work on collection is "NO PULLING!" Let's take a look at why this is so important, and a few tips and techniques I've been using to improve contact and eradicate pulling. 

The first thing to consider is that the use of contact in dressage is unique to the sport. The idea is not to stop the horse, but instead to lightly hold and package him so that his abdominal muscles are engaged, his back is rounded, his neck is stretching upward through his shoulders, and his hindquarters are bent and accepting more weight. The part that's most important here is the "neck is stretching part."

When we take contact, we want the horse to be stretching into it. We are all familiar with the idea that the energy for contact should come from behind, activated by our forward aids and driven by the horse's increased forward activity. Here's where we have a bit of a mind puzzle. We want to feel the pressure of the horse pushing into the contact. We do not want to pull against that pressure.

I'll say that again. We don't want to pull against the pressure, or to try to create the pressure. Instead, we want to hold the contact, and absorb and follow the horse's push. Any backwards pull should be actively discouraged.

Why? Well, think about that stretching neck. When the horse is pushing into your hands, his neck is stretching forward and upward. His spine is lengthening, and he's better able to step underneath himself and develop that "swing" we're all craving. The moment the rider pulls against that push, the horse's neck is shortened. Think about it. You pull the horse's head, his neck has to compress. Right? A compressed neck can't stretch out of the withers, and it doesn't allow the forehand to lighten.

So, how do we hold the contact and not pull? That's the extremely tough part, and what I'm working on. I'm finding the key is to have a solid seat and upper body, and to remember to have bend in the the elbows. Otherwise, you can't help but pull against the push. 
Still from the other day's video clip. See how I'm slightly leaning back? Bad me! It's easy to get into a pulling match when you're in a water-skiing position! (Also note the broken line through my wrist. Yay! New position issue!)
In my lesson last weekend, Nancy got after me pretty hard about pulling. The phrase she used to help me hold the contact, and not pull was to think about "touching the corners of the mouth with the bit." This helped me to raise my hands (they are chronically in my lap!), which caused my elbows to bend more. A bend in the elbow allows for an elastic connection, one that moves with the horse's pushing and the motion of his gait. It's a forgiving hold. Along with bending the elbow, the rider must have the shoulders back and down. The down is key.

All of this positioning must be maintained in a relaxed and balanced fashion. Tension in the arms or shoulder will stop the gentle following that the bend in the elbow allows, and cause pull. A loss of upper body balance (especially backwards, as in getting left behind the movement) will force pull as well.

This relaxed balance is still something I'm working really hard to get. Right now, I still pull a lot. I find myself pulling backwards to try to force the "following" feeling I would get from more elbow bend or relaxed shoulders. Or, I lose my balance and end up pulling backwards in an attempt to stay with my horse. None of these are good, but I do notice them happening less often and with less severity.

Contact is certainly a helluva delicate dance, and I get the feeling it's only going to get more difficult as I get better at it!

Now, the one thing that I haven't taken into consideration with this post is a horse that is heavy in the contact. This is mainly because Guinness is extremely light in the contact, and always has been (after all, it's been a fight to just get him to let me touch his mouth!). I know that some of you out there have horses that are heavy on your hands. How do you adapt your contact to deal with that? Chime in!

10 comments:

  1. I have both: one is heavy and one curls under to escape the contact. I think the heavy horse is easier to ride. With my heavy one, Sydney, I can just add leg and keep my hands steady, as soon as he lightens the contact, I can take my leg off. With Speedy, the one who curls under, adding leg just sends him rounder and rounder. What I am doing right now is keeping his head up with a very HEAVY contact. I can't let him stretch for a moment because the second he gets a longer neck, he curls down between his legs. I KNOW this sounds wrong, but my trainer is helping me condition him back up. Until he is willing to hold his own head up and actually use his hind end, I am helping him by keeping the rhythm really slow and not allowing his head to drop. It is beyond frustrating!!!!!

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    1. My baby is also super heavy! My Trainer just got back from a clinic with Buck Davidson and she is now making me do exactly what you described! It goes against everything my brain wants to do, but by goodness it work! Fiction is slowly becoming lighter and actually working his hind end!

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    2. Karen, when I bought Guinness he was a terrible curler. He would go around the ring with his chin happily bumping up against his chest. It was like riding a horse without a head! So frustrating! I wasn't focused on learning dressage at the time, so my fix might not work so well with you guys. Basically, I focused on getting Pig to raise his head and stick his nose out 100% of the time. That meant months of riding around on a loose rein, and bumping him forward every time he tried to duck back. It worked so beautifully that he never tries to evade like that any more. Now, it's nose in the air.

      ... maybe I should try to remember how awful the ducking behind was when he won't put his nose down and relax ;)

      The fix you're working on sounds like it will totally work. I'd just make sure you aren't holding his head up in the new position (sounds like you have that pretty covered!). Keep us posted!

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    3. It's really interesting how the heavy horse is easier, I'm totally intrigued by how similar the training techniques are!

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  3. My Standardbred's idea of contact is to curl slightly behind the bit and break over at his 4th vertebra, rather than breaking at his poll. So I've got similar problems to you with Guinness, trying to get hold of a firm contact. I like the idea of 'touching up the corners of his mouth'.

    bonita of A Riding Habit

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    1. I knew there had to be a horse out there with similar tendencies! Let me know how it works for you ...

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  4. Great post! "A delicate dance" is spot on! :) Couldn't have said it better myself. As far as contact, I try to think "carry the bit in the horse's mouth." That seems to help me, but I am not perfect either. I tend to hang on the left rein too much. argh.

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    1. That another great phrase! I'll have to remember it.

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  5. Super subject to post about! Riva is a heavy, lean on the bit puller. I just changed bits this week and we are getting some great moments and some awful moment. I know bits are not a magic trick just an aid and we will only get it consistantly right with correct position. Alexis tells me the key is adding more leg and giving at the right moments - not hard at all, right?!

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