Have you ever been given any tips on how to ‘measure’ your contact? The best one I’ve been told is to imagine that you have a small bird in each hand. I strive for that daily, but if I’m honest I rarely achieve that unless we are slopping along with the reins on the buckle.
The obvious reason for trying to get this lightness is that it means the rider is not leaning on the horse’s mouth and the horse is not leaning on the rider’s hands. In this situation the horse has full self carriage.
There is a chain of position and activity throughout the body in order to achieve a truly light contact from the rider, and it might seem odd but you need to start at the bottom and work up. Think of your feet and legs as anchors; you need equal and symmetrical weight through your legs, which will then mean your seat has a good chance of being symmetrical in the saddle. From there you need to have a mobile but strong lumbar spine (see the previous post) which will give you a platform for the upper body. The upper body then also needs to be symmetrical in both joint position – ie level shoulders – and strength, so that both arms can move with the horse as well as hold the weight of the arms.
Another way to think of yourself is as a tree – your legs are roots, your seat is the base, your trunk is the tree trunk and your arms are branches. Each part is stable but able to move, and the end point of the branches are the delicate leaves which are soft and mobile.
Once you have secured your ‘roots’, then you can focus on exactly what you do with your arms and hands. I have written before about the importance of the shoulder girdle when it comes to supporting and stabilising the arms, but to summarise, strong muscles around the shoulder blade will allow your arms – and therefore hands – to be light yet stable, and to move with the horse’s head.
That is not the end of the matter, because you want symmetry; if you are stronger on 1 side with 1 hand, that hand will (obviously!) give a stronger contact to the horse’s mouth. This then leads to an imbalance in the horse, blocks the hind limb activity on that side, and causes a difference in performance on each rein.
I often notice when I’m teaching Pilates that people hold 1 arm/hand higher than the other. Whilst this may not have quite the same effect on the horse as being stronger on 1 side, it will still create an uneven contact for the horse, which is at best confusing.
Another habit which inflicts most of us is having 1 hand that is more mobile than the oher. This doesn’t necessarily mean that one hand is stronger, but once again the horse is getting different signals from each hand.
There are lots of exercises that a good for improving symmetry through your arms and hands on and off the horse, but it is a good idea to start with ones where you can see both hands and observe the symmetry until you reach a point where you can test yourself without looking. Resistance Bands and Ova balls are 2 good peices of equipment you can use off the horse, and on the horse you can hold a whip level or use markers on your reins. I think the methods for on-horse work are a bit more ‘clunky’, so it is probably better to spend more time on your own working in this and then transferring your improvements to the horse.
There will be lots of exercises on the YouTube channel which is on its way too….