"You take a hold of the reins and push him into the contact," she answered. "He'll fight for a bit because he's green--but when he gives he'll find his relief. You can hold on to the saddle if he tries to pull the reins out of your hands."
Ten minutes later, he 'gave' to the bit.
"I didn't know that contact felt so... heavy," were my exact words.
This belief is one of my biggest gripes with most BackYard Dressage--the hold and push method. The 'dressage' trainers I had met and worked with for a while followed this principle, and I was no fan of it immediately. The horses were heavy on the reins, and they weren't supple at all until you were 30, 40 minutes into the ride. My arms ached, the would try to pop their head up and off of the vertical and steal the reins, and it was ALWAYS a fight for ten minutes, every time I would take one out and ride.
When I would come home and hop on Key, I couldn't imagine my way being wrong. I bent the rein softly with my wrist, and he'd bend. Every time, no matter if I was riding for 1 minute or 50. There was no fight there. But my horse was 'on the forehand' and theirs were 'collected and beautiful'.
Here were dressage trainers telling me to hold and push. It'd compress the horse (by allowing his back to drop and his croup to get higher), his head would be on the vertical (Or behind), he'd be 'on the bit' (by leaning on it), and his poll was the highest point (if you meant the 3rd vertebrae, then yes). These were the same people that told me a half halt consisted of pulling the outside rein backwards. And with hot horses, it became a ride of half-halts. I positively hated micromanaging every single stride--couldn't they teach him to calm down?
But being hot was 'good'.
Then I suppose being 'nervous' was good for them, too.
They kept telling me that this was correct contact; this was what it was supposed to feel like. It was how I'd seen top dressage riders ride (with death grips on the reins), so I supposed they had SOME validity. I'd only ridden western pleasure horses and OTTBs--so how would I know?
With a post on long and low, I decided I absolutely could not leave out a post about contact as well. In understanding one, it helps improve the other--and vice versa.
Dressage riders today are riding with either too much, or quite incorrect contact. Usually, they fall under the use of 'too much' and 'pulling back.'
Look here at this example. The horse isn't horribly behind the vertical or anything like that, but take a look at the curb bit. Seeing that when it is inactive it is lying almost parallel with the mouth... He's got it pulled back to a pretty high degree. The horse doesn't seem angry but worried, and you can see the tension arising in his gait--the back left leg is hitting the ground far ahead of the front right. Sport horse breeders and dressage riders call this positive 'diagonal advanced placement' (DAP), thinking it's something that denotes collection. The trot is essentially becoming a 4-beat gait. Why is that something we should encourage, or look for? Unresolved tension in the horse's body manifests itself this way too often, and often times you can hear the impurity.
And look here at Anky's curb bit--unnecessary contact. You can google her name and see 8,000 other photos of the curb bits pulled far beyond ideal; she rides entire tests this way. And the horse's response? Broken at 3rd (probably from being ridden 'deep and low'), disunited back end, high croup, sagging midsection, behind the vertical. You can see how she sits behind the vertical to 'push' the horse into the very restricting hands--inventing her own horsemanship in order to ride the horses she has. (Kind of like Linda Parelli's equitation, but that's a whole other topic!)
I can't fathom how people can be completely oblivious to the very hard, very real problem of this kind of contact in the dressage rings. This is a double bridle. There are two bits in that horse's mouth, one of them being a curb. If I rode my western pleasure horse like that, I'd be slammed on boards for using that much contact in a curb. But a dressage rider? Well, then it's perfectly fine.
Problem is, this isn't true contact--this is the face of contact when a horse is pulled into it.
Contact is not something you just take up on a young horse. You must work to it--just like a 'frame' is due to correct work, so is true contact. It is also not something you just expect every day--if contact is as dynamic and amazing as people expect it to be, then you can not expect your horse to pick up the contact as soon as you hop on. It becomes part of your warm up, therefor giving it purpose--to warm, stretch, and prepare, mentally and physically.
When gaining contact, your legs and seat ask for it by sending the horse forward. The ultimate goal is for the horse to reach forward with it's neck into the contact, for the legs and seat ask, and the hands allow it to happen. They don't pull back, they don't take out slack--the horse does that. The horse creates the contact, not the hands! When the horse begins to seek the offered hand, then your contact is true.
But how does one get a horse to even begin to think about that?
Other trainers have different methods, but I enjoy using long and low. It comes by other names, such as forward and out, forward down and out, etc., but it is essentially the same thing. It has many uses, and I can't even begin to understate it's importance.
First of all, what's it look like?
True long and low has a horse arching his neck forward and into the bit, with his legs tracking up and his back raised. This helps lift the back directly behind the withers, and eventually strengthens the hips to rotate in (rather then rotate out and leave the back end 'trailing' behind). In correct long and low, you must have some semblance of contact. If it's a green horse then you are asking him to give it; if it is a more advanced horse, then you'll have it. The horse is always in front of the vertical. You want the horse to think forward and move forward, not only with his legs but with his head and neck. In keeping his head in front of the vertical, he is searching and creating his own contact--if he is behind the vertical, then you're holding him there or he is not stretching correctly.
Example one. Behind the vertical and NO contact. As you can see, there is no 'lifting' work really going on, and the hind feet seem disconnected from the front. Not the way you want it to look!
Look at this cutey! This is Mouse from Arrow Equestrian, a training dressage barn somewhere... in Europe. You can see clearly how he's engaging, not just moving his head down or pulling himself around on the forehand. The rider has perfect contact, and she's moved her hands forward and down to follow the head (rather then just lengthen the reins, which is incorrect). You can see the correct muscles bending, rather then the incorrect ones in the previous picture.
Here's my photo up for critique, from last summer when I was still with the 'dressage' trainer:
He is tracking nicely and stretching nicely, considering I threw away all contact. He is green so I don't like tight contact (teaches them to lean!), but I surely should not have the reins as loose as they are. Otherwise, I'm pretty pleased with the look and since then corrected the floppy reins. Woo!
We've talked about looks, now onto reasons why. My favorite reason is that it teaches a horse to search for the bit when you are giving driving aids. He lengthens, reaches, and finds the bit due to the aids, which then can later be applied when his head gets higher.
Long and low really encourages a horse to swing through his back and allow the energy to transfer from the hind end to the front--which is what we are striving for, to connect the hind end to the hands. It allows the horse to relax with his head lower, and really gives the topline a good stretch after working in a more contracted state. If the horse is worked with a higher head set for a length of time, I allow him to stretch long and low or free walk on a loose rein to stretch the muscles and give them a break immediately after. My work is a constant change between 'collected' work and long and low, allowing the horse to stretch and find relief in a break. The more conditioned the horse is, the longer I can keep him in a 'frame' before allowing him to break.
Long and low is especially good for checking the quality of the contact. If the horse is seeking the bit, when you push your hands forward he should follow it (it might take newbs a second to realize what to do!) to keep the contact. All horses should be able to do this at all gaits!
A bigger question than 'what should it look like' and 'what does it do' is how do I do it.
Putting the horse into a long and low frame should be like pushing him down, with the two reins acting like 'sticks', as Erik Herbermann describes them as. You push your reins forward and downward, whilst keeping your driving aids on--a soft, asking leg and a moving seat. You don't want him to just take his head down, you want him to arch and to be pushed forward into it. Green horses won't have the contact a more advanced on will, but eventually the horse will reach out and initiate contact--searching for the bit on his own!
Some horses are difficult to get into this position, and have issues with 'finding the ground'. I find that some uphill horses feel nervous when putting their head that low, because they've never learned to balance their bodies that way (especially with a rider). So, we have to show them.
First thing that I've found to work tremendously is bend my horse like I mentioned a few posts ago (too much detail for me to repeat myself!) for greenies. As I found out, bending a horse's neck from side to side helps enable him to relax and let it down (I love figuring out why things work--thank you, Philippe Karl!). Why's this? Because a horse can't really flex his neck to the side AND bring it up. When the stretch done correctly, the horse bends his neck, stretches both sides with a pretty low headset, and then is much more comfortable to relax and drop the head when offered rein.
If the horse does not, at that point, then I take my inside rein, tighten my hand to create tension in the rein and a slight pull on the bit, then I release and put my hands forward. Eventually the horse usually drops his head and then is 'rewarded' because I no longer squeeze on the rein. You teach him where to go, when the contact is 'gone'. Once the horse gets it at the walk, I use the exercise mainly at the trot.
I don't know if you can tell but I absolutely adore long and low, and use it a lot on my greenies.
Here's the challenge! Try some long and low work, get a picture of it, and send it in! If your horse is a beginner we'll talk about how to improve it, and if you're an old-time Dressage queen with a gorgeous shot, I love those too. I'll post up the pictures with comments if you'd like, but if you want it to be anonymous then there's no issue there either. :)
In other news, I trotted Clyde in hand today on the soft sod we have by the house. No visible limp now, but he's still on rest for two weeks so I know it's completely healed. As you can see, the bugger is pretty hyper from the stall rest! Do ignore me patting him after his little episode--I can't understand punishing a horse for having extra energy for being in the stall. He calmed and stopped himself without any help from me as if going, 'well, that was pretty stupid' and no more episodes. :)
And yes, he is absolutely wearing a chain on his nose. And we use it correctly--no yanking or jerking at all, and just soft movements from my wrist so he listens. I like using a chain rather then hanging all over his face, especially when he's super hyper. Actually, I'm surprised he was so good today--the day before he would just buck in place!
Do let me know if you see anything suspicious with his movement, but for right now I'm pretty pleased with his progress.
(Barnum the goat provides some entertainment whilst I fidget with the chain hehe)
Trotting Clydeo in hand from Kelly Mayfield on Vimeo.