Achieving an acceptable contact depends on the previous scales (rhythm and suppleness) being relatively well developed.
Contact is the easiest of the scales to see and feel whether it is good or not, but is the most difficult to achieve. It is a complicated and divisive topic about which there is much disagreement: how strong/light should it be? What is a ‘correct’ contact?
Contact varies. It will be slightly different between different horses, at different ages, at different levels of balance and development, during different movements and even different moments within an aid. Contact is a vast topic, and you should always be seeking to expand your knowledge, and discover what works for you and your partner.
What IS contact
The FEI defines contact as: “the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and seek the contact with the rider’s hand, thus going into the contact.”
This sounds confusingly as though you need to be addressing impulsion (Scale #4) to achieve contact, but this is not true: an acceptable contact can be achieved without a great deal of impulsion provided the horse is reactive to the rider’s legs (i.e. thinking FORWARD, which is not the same thing as having impulsion or, indeed, speed).
In fact, contact is not just about the hand and the bit -aids are given by the seat, legs and hands – all three form contact points between horse and rider.
Suppleness is #2 on the training scale, and as such will always be one of the earliest focuses when training a horse. Even when #1 rhythm (see my previous article) is maintained, a horse’s movement cannot be considered to be correct unless he is also working through his back without tension.
Like everything else in the training scales, no single scale can be worked on in isolation from the others, and you will find that as you work on suppleness, your horse’s rhythm (#1) will continue to improve, and a reasonable contact (#3) becomes more possible.
Suppleness is a central theme throughout schooling which must never be neglected or taken for granted, but constantly checked and reinforced at all stages of training.
As discussed in my last post, the SCALES OF TRAINING form the guidelines by which you should decide which aspect of training to focus on at any given point in your horse’s training, both within a single training session, and during a training phase that may be ongoing for several sessions, or even months.
Unless you address the scales in order your training will be less than effective, because each scale underpins the ones above, as depicted in the diagram below.
Without establishing the most basic of the scales at the base of the pyramid – rhythm – anything else you do with your horse will be worthless, because a horse without a correct rhythm can never develop any of the further scales, nor will such a horse ever find ridden work relaxing and enjoyable.
I often term this first scale ‘rhythm and relaxation‘, because the one promotes the other.
First, we need to consider what (in equestrian terms) constitutes good rhythm.
First, I’m making the assumption that you have heard of the scales of training.
I’ve been astonished to discover how many people during even quite long careers in competition dressage, have managed to miss out on this aspect of their education.
SO in case you come into that category, or even if you know of the scales, but aren’t quite sure in which order they are arranged, here they are:
RHYTHM (and relaxation)
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I wrote a book called THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF TRAINING, so-called because it details how to build your horse’s training in a progressive, logical manner, explaining the order in which movements should be taught (as well as how to teach them).
Well the SCALES OF TRAINING are the underpinning guide to how your horse’s way of going should be built, and in which order to tackle any issues.
They are also the order of priorities used by dressage judges to determine what part of your horse’s training their comments will focus upon.
I use the word ‘underpinning’ not only to remain with the same building analogy, but also because this describes very clearly what I have demonstrated in the above picture: that each scale is dependent upon the ones beneath to hold it up.
And so we come to the final part in this series, introducing the basics of in hand work.
Half steps are the beginning of the more advanced work, leading to the ultimate goal: the development of piaffe in hand.
Why do we want to teach half steps/piaffe in hand?
Piaffe is the ultimate demand on a horse’s ability to carry weight on his hind legs (ignoring high school work such as levade, which is beyond the scope of the everyday horse and rider). It is possible to teach piaffe to any horse if you take sufficient time to build his strength and confidence.
Half steps are the starting point, asking for short but active hindleg steps which teach your horse to
close the hind leg forward, underneath himself
bend the hind leg joints more actively
lower the croup (weight carriage)
Doing this in hand as opposed to under saddle is far easier on the horse’s joints and muscular strength, as he is carrying only his own body weight, and not that of a rider as well.
As such, it can be used to not only strengthen him, but also to teach him what he may be doing under saddle at a later date.
Half steps and piaffe can be done in hand with a much younger, or less strong, horse than should be attempted under saddle.
Now you have become accustomed to moving your horse around in hand, it’s time to add a little precision. For the serious in hand trainer, this is where things start to move towards that final goal: piaffe in hand.
We aren’t going that far in this series, but all these techniques will give you the basics preparatory to taking that ultimate step, if that is your goal.
Reasons to teach squaring the halt
The first step here is to teach the horse to lift each leg individually to the light touch of the whip – this will enable you first to square up the halt, and later to activate each leg in turn to produce half steps (Part 7 of this series), and eventually, piaffe.
This work helps form the habit of halting square, helping to keep even loading (weight bearing) on both hind legs at halt, and also necessary for a good mark in ridden dressage.
Once under saddle, you can use the same technique to halt square, and to influence each leg individually to move forward with more activity – useful in all gaits as well as eventually in half steps, and then piaffe under saddle. This can be done at first with an unmounted helper with the ground work whip while you are in the saddle, and then transferring (with your ground help) the whip aid to your leg aids.
If a horse has a ‘lazy’ hind leg – one that he always leaves trailing because of a reluctance to weight bear on that limb – you can use this technique to correct this poor, and possibly damaging habit, and strengthen that leg until he is comfortable with keeping weight on it.
You do not need to be aiming to teach your horse piaffe to benefit from this work!
If you’ve achieved a measure of control of both ends of your horse while practicing leg yield in hand, you should find shoulder in fairly simple, as it is a logical progression for your horse.
Reasons to teach shoulder in
Where leg yield is largely about crossing the legs to stretch and mobilise the lower back, shoulder in is more about getting your horse to carry weight on his inside hind leg
One of the main benefits to shoulder in, is that you are only asking your horse to bear weight on one leg at a time
Because of the position your horse is going to be in when shoulder in is correctly achieved, his inside hind leg will be directly beneath his body weight. Provided you don’t let him rush, this will result in him bending the hind leg joints more acutely and lowering his croup as a result
Shoulder in is primarily a strengthening exercise
Further implications are that once you also achieve this movement under saddle (which is easier for him to understand ridden once you have introduced it in hand) it also becomes one of your major straightening tools
If you have been working on the previous steps, you should now be quite comfortable with starting, stopping, and moving your horse sideways and backwards, which means you’ve achieved a fair level of control. Most of these early steps involve little movement, but now it’s time to start testing your abilities on the move.
Whilst ‘leg’ yield isn’t quite the right term, as there is no leg aid involved in ground work, the movement we are asking the horse to perform is identical, so I shall continue to use the descriptor.
Reasons to teach Leg Yield
provided you achieve correct crossing of the legs, this is a great way to supple and mobilise your horse’s lower back
done slowly and correctly, crossing also achieves engagement of the core muscles, helping to develop strength
it will help you to gain greater control of both ends of your horse at the same time
also prepares your horse to learn this movement under saddle
What do you want to see in a good leg yield?
You want your horse to step forward and sideways at the same time
His shoulder should always be slightly in the lead
The legs should pass and cross over at every step, with the inside hind moving in front of the outside hind
The entire thing should be steady and controlled
Unlike the ridden competition version, if there is some neck bend, don’t worry, this is a suppling exercise and provided the legs are crossing, the job is being done!
If you’ve successfully followed Parts 1 & 2, you can now start, stop, and turn your horse in hand, in response to a clear set of aids in conjunction with your body language.
Your next step is to ask him to step backwards in clear, controlled steps.
As ever, ensure you have the correct equipment: sturdy boots (really important for this close-up work), gloves, and a bridle. You may also want to wear a safety helmet.
Reasons to teach Rein Back
One of the main benefits of in hand work is that you are teaching your horse how to use his body without having to contend with lifting or balancing a rider’s weight on his back. This is particularly beneficial for horses with
a weak or stiff back
weak core muscles
damaged back muscles, often caused by incorrect posture when ridden, or saddle issues
kissing spines and rehab from kissing spine treatments/surgery
young horses who have not yet had a chance to develop the strength in their core muscles necessary to carrying a rider
Donecorrectly, rein back in hand
is suppling to the horse’s back
teaches him how to lift and round his back without the pressure of a rider’s weight on his back
teaches him to engage his hindlegs further under his body, resulting in a lowered croup
engages and strengthens his core muscles
helps strengthen his entire postural muscle system, especially the weight carrying capacity of his haunches
reinforces obedience, although it must never be used as a puishment
prepares him to learn this important movement under saddle, and
with a ground handler in addition to a rider, takes out the confusion and stress that may occur when he is first introduced to ridden rein back aids
What, precisely, are you looking for in a good rein back?
Once you have your start and stop controls established, (see Part 1 here), you can then start with sideways controls.
The first movement to teach is turn on the forehand, much as this would be the first sideways step taught under saddle.
Reasons to teach turn on the forehand are:
your horse will gain a greater understanding of the response you want from his hind leg when you touch it with the whip (to lift and move forward)
you can start to gain the ability to influence his front end and hind end to do different things at the same time. Eventually this translates into the ability to both straighten him, and perform engaging lateral work
you can address stiffness in joints in the hind leg
you can address stiffness in his lower back
you can teach him to engage his core muscles and work on strengthening them
preparing a young or uneducated horse to learn this movement under saddle. A ground handler can apply the aids already learned, while the rider also applies the appropriate leg aid – a simple way to teach him to move sideways from the leg without stress or confusion
The equipment and basic techniques are the same as for start and stop, but now you will ask the front end to (almost) stop while asking the hind quarters to move.
ALWAYS REMEMBER: PATIENCE IS ESSENTIAL – rushing, or allowing anything to be rushed, will negate the learning experience.