A Meeting of the Minds Often, people describe ‘connection’ with the horse as the “ultimate feel”--the complete blend of rhythm, timing, and ‘give and take’ to keep the horse in perfect balance. I strive to learn how to better my own hands, my own balance, and my own heart to help a horse understand the deep meaning behind why they would trust my hands enough to step into them, and allow the feel of perfect weight to guide the horse in the endeavor. It sounds a little unattainable, doesn’t it?
Much to my dissatisfaction over the years, I, too, have struggled with this technique only to come up short; my horse left pulling, or completely off the contact or the bit in general. So how do you reach that perfect blend, and help your horse to understand just what contact is all about?
I like to think of true connection, as a meeting of the minds. We both feel, think, balance, understand, and become accustomed to the trust that develops between our two hands, our two seat bones, our two legs, and our overall posture, and tone of the core in general. All of our riding aids co-existing and meshing together to show our horse the basics. It’s like a ladder we begin the climb rung, by rung. Each step builds upon the previous one, until, suddenly, you have reached a higher level.
Trust is at the top of that ladder, however, not only to trust each another with the bond that has been created or the partnership at hand, but the horse learning to trust the imaginary pressure that is ahead of the movement generated by its feet.
‘Feel’ is elusive for most riders. After years of riding many different horses you begin to master that invisible self carriage that a horse can display. It happens at all levels, but we often fail to realize it is there in very small doses. We feel like we are doing too much correcting and are being overly assertive. This results in the rider backing off too much. The horse will then take advantage of the fact that they can pull the rider where they wish and use the rider as a kickstand. Sometimes, the opposite happens. We allow bad behaviors to creep into our training regimen. We are too soft with our feel, and leave the connection loopy- the reins hanging before the horse has the chance to understand what the connection is all about. We set them free too early, and they are left on their own, to find the way blindly.
The secret lies in the perfect blend of the two. Learn to give a correction, and leave the sentence with an exclamation point rather than a question mark. This leads, later, to ending all sentences with a period.
Let me explain further… You are riding your horse and begin to feel things start to slowly unravel. You are not sure how to handle the situation so you feel as though it is better to ignore it rather than to add madness to the mayhem. A few days go by and the little hiccup in your training has now turned into a full blown issue. You are left with a choice; Do you correct the horse, or do you leave the issue alone for the time being and concentrate on something else? The answer is it’s usually best when the issue is addressed.
If your horse decides that they are going to disagree with a training exercise it’s not necessarily the exercise they are disagreeing with, it is usually something very simple that has been overlooked. A horse can only guess 6 directions- up, down, left, right, forward, and back. They can choose to pull, or lean, but those are varying degrees of directional control. So, how can you narrow down the bad behavior to something this small? That is your homework. And where the correction begins.
The correction is one of the most important aspects in your training system. If you perform the correction honestly, it will only be a few repetitions before your horse understands, and moves on quickly. The rider must be able to meet the horse halfway. By this I mean you must find the horse on the contact, go to the rein and gather it until you feel the horse’s mouth-not only the mouth, but feel the bit and the tongue. This is where the meeting of the minds begins.
Be honest to your horse. They need to be able to trust your hands-no jerking, no jamming, no see-sawing or excessively pulling. You will ruin your horses thoughts about trusting your hands. You can, now, match the pressure that your horse exerts on you. If you meet the horse and you feel 2 pounds of pressure, then you add 2 pounds of pressure, don’t up the ante by adding 5 or 6 pounds just because you feel you need to be assertive. The horse will always win a pulling match. What makes a horse light is the fact that they feel as though they can’t move you. Or they feel your connection with the bit is so light they feel no need to pull that contact forward at all. You are a fixed object that does not pull back, but yet offers a gentle persuasion to keep things honest.
It is important that once you feel that you have met your horse and matched the pressure, then melt it away. I don’t mean drop the horse or leave the reins go limp or loopy, I mean allowing a very slow settling, and softening of the rein pressure. Like you are setting the horse down as if they were fragile. The horse will learn to follow that contact, and become more and more connected. It is constant however, and the feel must not go away. It needs to remain with the horse, and the rider must feel it in the hands at all times.
The movement and the energy ripple will flow through the body of the horse, and then, through the rider to be recycled so it can flow over and over again. I, often, tell my students to envision a water hose that stretches from the tail, over the spine, under the saddle, along the mane, over the poll, and down the forehead to where the water will run out.
The hose must not be kinked anywhere along the topline of the horse or the result will be no water flow out to wet the path of travel ahead for the horse. This is a key to allowing the horse to use the back. If we pull too much on our reins then the hose will kink, and the back will drop down. This will cause the horse to raise the head and neck above the height of the withers in order to use the neck for better balance. The result in our hands is a horse that is now pulling, leaning, or has become much stronger against our hands. Pulling the head back down, or lowering our hands is not the answer either, as this is only a temporary fix, and the horse will brace against that feel.
The rider must think of the reins as a solid line on both sides at all times. The line will be challenged and broken and will often resemble a dotted line with loops or spaces between the connection of the bit following the line of the rein to our hands. Strive to always keep the dotted line a solid line. Do this by shortening the reins, not pulling the excess slack back towards your body. This is a pull, and the horse will be inclined to lean against that pressure.
Think differently, and meet the horse softly; keep the line of the reins a solid line all the way to the bit, and be sure that the reins are not touching the horse’s neck. Allowing the reins to touch the neck will result in its leaning against the pressure causing a bulge in the neck muscle. Don’t allow the rein to be the horse’s kickstand/support. Make them balance between the rein aids, and keep an honest feel with your hands.
While a meeting of both minds is not always easy, it is, in fact, what takes place in order to establish a true connection. Our horses do not choose to fight with us, or pull on us, or make things difficult. In fact, they are looking for answers to feel comfortable. Keep that comfort truly honest for them. You are the start of that connection. If you want to embark on a pulling match then you will feel a tug of war in which you will always lose. Do not make that an option, and strive to better your body balance, your hands, and the feel.
When the two minds meet in the middle, horse and rider in sync, that is what a true connection is all about.