Sunday, May 1, 2011

Contact VS Lightness in the mouth - it is really one or the other?

I've sort of gotten off track on the terminology thread. Let's address one of the big differences between western and dressage interpretations. Contact. This one is so difficult if one hasn't ridden a fully trained western horse or a fully trained dressage horse. The first thing I hear from dressage people is that it isn't possible to get a horse to collect or more accurately, work through the topline, without contact. When you ask the average western trainer about contact, they talk about how dressage horses lean on the reins.

So what is contact? How does it affect the way the horse performs, and what happens if the horse never is trained to accept it?

For the dressage rider, contact is the connection between the horse's mouth and the rider's hand. Through contact, the rider holds a continuous conversation. What makes it work is the relaxation of the horse's jaw. When the jaw is relaxed, the horse can feel the slightest movement of the rider's hand and accept half halts softly, allowing leg to change body position which changes the feel in the mouth which causes the horse to give in the rib cage and allows the hind legs to swing under more which changes body position  in a circle of  reactions that allows the rider to shift weight to the rear, determine where the feet land on the ground, and ask for relaxation and suppleness throughout the horse's body.

With contact, the rider can create a horse that can lengthen and shorten through the topline and use the abdominal muscles to lift the back.  For the western rider, translate the entire horse becomes soft and responsive to the rider and the horse will stretch out or collect without resistance.

I've always wished I had had a video of a student riding Commander. She wanted dressage lessons,but she was very concerned about having to hold the horse in with all that heavy contact. After her first lesson I had her go on a circle. We started on loose rein, took up a light contact, and stage by stage shortened the reins, asking the horse to come under more and more behind until he was doing a collected trot. While she was collected, I asked her "do you feel anymore pressure now that you did when you first took up contact?"  The answer of course, was no. The feel of the mouth was the same.

What happens when the horse is worked from day one to not take contact but to stay behind the bit or bend the neck at the third vertebrae to avoid it? What I'm seeing are horses that don't work through the topline and are what my reining trainer calls "hard." They bend in the neck, they do lateral work all day long, but the circle of energy is blocked. There is no impression of willingness to round and lift the back combined with swing of the hindquarters.  Often they don't really collect but just shorten the stride. They may do piaffe and canter backwards, but they lack the quality the very top reining horses show of ability to lengthen and shorten, bend through the body and yet stay loose.

Now here's the part that is so hard to explain. I've ridden western horses that where trained to "carry the bit." and work on "no contact" that were soft, supple and through. These horses shared one characteristic. When I took up my regular feel of the mouth, they quickly accepted it and worked to it just like my dressage horses.  OTOH I've ridden horses that were scared to take contact and it was almost impossible to supple these horse because there was no way to "shape" the body. So contact isn't about how much pressure is felt through the reins. It's about having enough feel so the horse reacts to the changes of pressure in it's mouth. Acceptance of the bit means that when it feels changes in pressure, it doesn't brace or just react in the neck, but follows the guidance of the pressure to change the stride and reshape the entire body. The trainer can get there by insisting on balance and light feel from day one, or by asking for energy and engagement to create balance change over time, but the end result is a "light"  AND "soft" horse.


  1. The never-ending discussion. While I'm against the thought of "the more you engage the hindquarters, the more you have to take up in front", which is still regularly taught in German riding schools, I do think the horse needs to respect the bit even though it trusts the hand. Insisting on lightness and self-carriage from the very start has been my method and it has been frustrating at times, because it's just soo easy to revert to gimmicks or introduce a curb bit or simply "pull the dang head down"! At this moment especially, having a green-broke, long- necked, high carrying Morgan who will naturally want to break at the 3rd vertebrae. Nope, back to basics: soft hands, refusing to feel more than his tongue, transitions and easy bending.
    One of my teachers, Neindorff, aleays said that "as long as they are in front of the vertical and their hindquarters are engaged, they can eat sand".
    If you look at some of the horses ridden by the baroque masters, you'll see the snaffle having the contact, but the curb being used only with the weight of the reins, with no direct contact. It's only there to remind the horse...In even later schooling the snaffle reins are laid down and the horse is ridden on the curb alone, the ideal being the weight of the reins being sufficient. And that's the point where I wonder about the famous outside rein turning into light neck-reining and I see "Classical" vs. "Western"- dressage becoming the same thing.

  2. Great post Barbara, I think the one term that does not get used enough when we talk about our horses is "ACCEPTANCE"

    When I first start my horses I first aim at getting them to accept my tools that I am going to use to cue them. This is also the first thing I teach students.
    The horse has to accept our hands and legs, until the horse accepts the tools we use for delivering cues we can not use those tools to train them to respond to our cues in any manner.

    As trainers I think we are constantly building and maintaining our horses acceptance of our cues as we develop the amount of body control our horses will perform to our requests.

    One of the first references to acceptance I heard that did not talk about soft or light was a friend who passed away a few years had a saying that the horse had to "take the pull" if you were going to get them trained.

    Another term I have started using since we started our discussions about the different terminology is efficient.

    I use this when talking about frame here is an example:
    As trainers we want our horses to accept our cues so that we can teach them the body control response we want to establish the most efficient frame for them to accomplish the task that we are asking them to do.

    There are maneuvers that trainers develop in their horses that require an elevated frame, some require a round frame and others yet are performed better with a level frame.

    (A discussion about frame is also fun to have as that term frame is often understood differently.)

    When you discuss frame with any trainer they all talk about shifting weight to the hind quarters, but that is where the agreement ends. LOL

    Personally I want a "level forward" and a "round forward" frame for the events I do. But my events do not benefit from suspension of stride or elevated shoulders.

    AW! Again an another term that is used in with different understandings:o) "Elevated shoulders"

    If a horse elevates its shoulders it can not round its back accept at the loins and what I want form my western horses is a round frame with the back rounding up under my seat and the loins / hips and shoulder / whithers loose and supple so that stride is free and forward and the ability to move laterally is improved and not impeded by the need to go up and over as they need to with an elevated shoulder.

    Keep up the discussion I am looking forward to your opinion on frame.

  3. I can relate to all the above. I find it hard to explain straight western riders some classical dressage maneuvres, terms, use and importance of... So this blog might help me translate :-) I use Dutch and German terms and then try to translate. I often get funny looks or just get stared at. I'm always better at showing it to them ;-)

    I'm also all for a snaffle at all times, even though I ride my horse Jay with both, a snaffle or a curb, simply because she has been through all the steps and is ready for it. If you are trained to use both (the snaffle because of my dressage background and the curb bit because of my western/reining background), you learn the importance of both at the right moment, but also the importance of being able to switch bits on a regular basis. They both have their place in WD, in the correct hands that is of course. Every bit is as harch as the riders hands!

    I also want to say something about the 'schwung' (swing) of the horses movements and gaits. A lot of western breeds are bred to be 'flat' and have almost no schwung (especially pleasure and halter lines). Often even emphasized by the rider/trainer. My experience is that it can be improved by using classical dressage exersizes but we will always have to keep in mind the way they were bred and what they were bred for. I hope the dressage judges acknowledge that WD should be for all breeds, also the ones with less natural suspension and schwung.

    Peggy Riley