Tuesday 7 August 2018

Connection Forest

This post is about my July lesson with Elaine, but also about some related revelations that I have had about connection.

If you remember, at my last show I found out from my low scores and from watching videos that I did not have proper connection with Kachina.

Let's start at the beginning, and some definitions (from the USDF Glossary):
(note: please don't feel patronized by this, I'm just taking you through the thought process I needed to go through, I literally looked up the definitions of these terms because I was getting way too hung up on the extremes of what I didn't want to do that I lost sight of what I was actually trying to achieve, I lost the forest for the trees)

The reins are stretched so that they form a straight line, not a loop. “Correct contact” or “acceptance of contact” is determined by the elasticity of the connection between horse and rider.

The reins do form a straight line, I knew to take the slack out, but I rode the edge of looseness.
The reins didn't have any weight/stretch/elasticity in them so it wasn't really contact or connection.

State in which there is no blockage, break, or slack in the circuit that joins horse and rider into a single, harmonious, elastic unit. A prerequisite for throughness.

Acceptance of contact (without resistance or evasion) with a stretched topline and with lateral and longitudinal flexion as required. The horse’s face line is, as a rule, slightly in front of the vertical.

State in which the rider’s aids/influences go freely through to all parts of the horse, from back to front and front to back (e.g. the rein aids go through to reach and influence the hind legs). Prerequisites for this state are good connection and positive mental/emotional state.

State in which the horse carries itself in balance without taking support or balancing on the rider’s hand.

Bottom line: in order to have contact or connection, I need tension on the reins. Period. That may sound super basic and it is, but I needed that clarification. I also need connection in order to achieve throughness. Previously I had to learn to stop pulling and that took a lot of work especially when Kachina and I used to carry a lot more tension. I have worked that a lot and I've now successfully eliminated pulling for the most part. However, having "no pulling" circulating in my head so much, combined with "self carriage", "don't force a horse into a false frame" and "you don't want your horse leaning on the bit" had me believing that I was aiming for some feather-light, barely-there feel on the reins. That in turn made me think that the feel of Kachina above the bit but steady, and my reins on the edge of looseness was correct. It was not.

Reviewing the Dressage Pyramid is also always a good idea

Let's go back to some of those terms that were circulating in my brain, the metaphorical trees that were distracting me from the forest...
- self carriage is something that you move onto after the basics of contact, so I shouldn't obsess about it now, leave this until later
- self carriage means the horse is not balancing on the rider's hand, doesn't mean there isn't tension in the reins.
- pulling is a backward movement, I can have tension on the reins while using a holding motion rather than a pulling one. Create weight in the reins by pushing Kachina into the contact instead of pulling back to take up the slack.
- yes, it is correct that you don't want a horse who leans on the reins or is heavy in the contact, but that has never ever been my problem with Kachina. She has ducked behind the bit, held herself above the bit, and tried to wiggle sideways out of contact, but she has never leaned her way through it. Therefore, it is insane for me to place such strong emphasis on avoiding leaning that I don't let/promote her reaching for the bit. Kachina is not a horse who leans so just delete this worry entirely for now.
False Frame:
- Another extreme that I was trying too hard to avoid. I know that it is incorrect to artificially force the horse's head to be in a frame without also working on the other basics, but somehow I warped that idea into thinking that the only way to achieve a true frame was to do it all from the back end, encouraging relaxation, impulsion etc. That's not how it works. The concept of "back to front" is worded that way for a reason, things have to come from the back but there must be some rein tension in the front to channel things and create a frame. A horse's head is never going to stay near that vertical position if there's slack on the reins (unless you train them by bumping them there with a curb bit like in some western events, but that's a whole different kettle of fish).

My lesson with Elaine started with some brief discussion on the above. Elaine is not one to go intensely into terminology and theory so it helped that I had already come to a lot of the above realizations on my own, but it helped me a lot to have her give quick confirmations that a) I need weight in the reins, b) heaviness is not a problem with this horse, and c) I need to develop the connection first before I get too concerned with improving impulsion, self carriage, or bend, those things are important too but we will come to those later.

We spent the rest of the lesson at the walk and trot having me hold contact. This was a new feeling for Kachina so she struggled at first to figure out what the correct answer was. First I had to convince her that she could move forward with weight in the reins. Then she tried to wiggle out of it by moving all parts of her body from side to side. I had to keep contact on both reins but use small adjustments in tension to encourage her to stay straight between the aids (think elastic side reins). She also tried going faster or slower. Despite the evasions, this lesson showed me that Kachina is ready for this type of work. She never once got freaked out by the contact or hid behind it, she just tried different things to find the right answer and the process got faster and faster to get to the correct response. It was a big mental task for me to not throw the contact away when she gave to it. I needed to reward her response by being quiet with my aids, not by releasing them. I still need to fine tune my understanding of this part. It was a mentally tough lesson for both of us but it was clear to me that getting this contact needs to be our priority and we can accomplish it if we are consistent.

The other thing I got Elaine to do in my lesson was to tell me when I had a moment where things were correct. I don't know if I've explained any of this well on paper, but ultimately this was about re-evaluating my feel and adjusting what type of feel I am aiming for. I think I achieved that. As long as I know what feel to aim for, I can do a lot of work on my own so that is always what I try and get out of a lesson (especially since my situation means lessons are at least a month apart). 

Note: I have to give Elaine credit, she tried to teach me this lesson before, by using terms like "don't throw away the contact", "give smaller releases" etc., but I just didn't fundamentally understand that that meant keeping some tension/weight in the reins at all times.

Finally, another thing I tried to avoid to extremes was the use of training tools. I have heard and read so many bad stories about the use and abuse of training aids, that I shied away from the idea pretty hard. However, the more I went over this lesson in my head, the more I realized that I needed to create the feel of side reins with my hands: elastic and always there, but gently allowing Kachina to find the easiest position to stay in. If I wanted to feel like side reins, wouldn't side reins be a useful tool to help Kachina learn the concept with taking my own imperfections out of the mix? I messaged Elaine a week after my lesson to ask about side reins and she agreed that this was a good application for them. I've done a few brief lunge sessions with them since and it really has helped propel both of our understandings about what we are looking for under saddle.

Have you ever had a major revelation about something that you feel you should have already known, or avoided an extreme to such an extent that you ended up at the other extreme? Have you ever gotten lost in the connection forest?


  1. Yes! I had really minimal problems with finding the appropriate energy connection most of my riding life, just by feel. And then I met Bridget! And something I thought I knew, well, I didn't know well enough when the horse isn't easy. I'm STILL not consistent finding the right balance with her, and it messed with my confidence..,it's only now riding other horses where I'm feeling like I know the way out of the forest again!

    1. Interesting! It would be good to ride another horse periodically to figure out what is me and what is Kachina. I'm glad Audrey is making you more confident in yourself as a rider again!

  2. There is a really great exercise to do on the ground to learn a feel for contact where the trainer holds the bit or the ends of the reins and you hold your reins normally and it takes a couple lessons to really ingrain the feel.

    1. We actually kind of did this for like 5 seconds to just help me figure out the amount of weight. I'm sure we could do more but when lessons only happen once every couple months its tough to make the best use of time.