Touch n GO Farm

Whitesburg Georgia

Giving to Achieve the Right Contact PDF Print E-mail

As appeared in August 2008 Dressage Today
by Gigi Nutter

In dressage we strive to achieve contact - the connection between the bit and the rider's hands via two pieces of leather, the reins. On a deeper level, contact connects the entire horse from the hind legs to bit and everything in between. Correct contact allows us to feel and receive in our hands the energies that come from the horse's hind legs. The question is, who creates the contact, the rider or the horse?

Does the rider simply shorten the reins until he feels the resistance? Remember the adage, "It is better to give than to receive." I wish I'd known then" that if you give, you will receive-the ultimate proof of a horse trusting a rider's hands.

It took a long time to understand how giving and receiving are related. The word "give" was used frequently during lessons early in my riding life.  Several instructors instilled in me the concept that a rider must give the reins to a horse so they can properly use their neck. Interestingly, the trainers were all world-class jumper riders-Carl Bessette, Frank Chapot and Bernie Traurig.  In the Hunter/Jumper ring, it is important to use a "following hand" during an automatic release so the horse can develop a bascule over the jump. These horsemen knew that "give" is necessary to allow a horse to develop trust with a rider's hands.

When I started training with dressage instructors, however, I never heard that the rider was supposed to "give." More often, I was told to "push the horse into the bridle." This seemed like the opposite of giving. I also learned to ask a horse to "yield" to a contact while being ridden forward into a pretty strong hand.  Often, I would dismount and wonder who was carrying whom? When watching clinics with German Olympian rider Reiner Klimke, I made an interesting observance that brought me closer to understanding the concept of contact.  He would say, "Reach down and pet zee horse's neck with your rein in hand." When the rider reached forward, the rein would move three inches forward as he stroked the neck.   Suddenly the horse's expression changed.  His eye became softer and the neck noticeably relaxed.  Back then, I thought the affectionate touch on the neck changed the horse's appearance. 

Vinny stretching at 2008 Regional FinalsWhen beginning a wonderful working relationship with Spanish Riding School Oberbereiter Karl Mikolka, I suddenly began to understand the significant difference between a horse that only yields to a contact and a one that will actively seek the contact. He was the first dressage instructor to tell me to "give."  He would say, "give, squeeze, give" or "flex more, now give." Timing was as important as the aids. The "giving" allowed the horse to relax into the contact resulting in more throughness and a better connection to the hind legs. Later, I worked with Walter Zettl who uses the word "give" often with great results.

A good way of telling the quality of your contact is the "stretchy circle." As the movement begins, many horses simply drop their heads due to gravity. Some riders play with the bit so much that the horse puts his head down to get away from the fussing.  A true stretch, however, occurs when you allow your arm to move forward towards the horse's mouth ("giving"). One should be able to soften the contact, move their arm forward a few inches and expect the horse to lower his head in an effort to re-establish the previous contact. I cringe when a rider yields the contact and the horse immediately puts his head up and stiffens his neck.  This reaction is evidence of a horse not seeking contact nor trusting the rider's hands.

One well-known dressage instructor says, "If you control the neck, you control the horse."  This sounds overly simplistic but there is a lot of truth in the statement.  I am not referring to Rolkur.  I am referring to a desired level of adjustability. A rider should be able to ride the horse's neck anywhere he needs to. Establishing a two-way communication through a trusted and willing contact makes this possible. This level of control is not limited to upper-level movements. I ride some young, hot horses.  At a show, one may spook and, in an instant, I have his ears in my face. If I have done my homework, the horse will know to look for the lost contact and my trusted hands. By "giving," I will ask the horse to put his neck down, seek the bit, and turn his attention back to me. I now consider this concept to be a basic part of early training.

A green horse must first learn to yield to bit pressure. Once he has this idea, it is up to me to maintain that response. As soon as possible, I train that any reduction in bit pressure should be met with the horse's response of seeking to restore the contact. That is "giving." For me, this is a true contact.

Riders reveal a lack of true contact in several ways: Strong use of the forearms, stiff elbows and wrists of stone show the constant strength needed to "take" rather than to give. Horses' tight necks can be an indicator of continuous tension. Teaching a horse to "follow the give" can diminish or eliminate the tightness and rid the horse of the habit. An elastic contact yields an elastic horse.

When Klimke instructed a rider to "pet zee neck", it was not the touch or praise that developed the overall softness (I do believe the horse appreciates the praise, though).  It was the resulting "give" in the rein that made the real difference. He was simply using a teaching technique that created a positive change in both horse and rider.

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