Establishing a contact can be viewed as a progressive process:

Riding with a contact between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth without flexion at the poll, for example with young horses when first sitting in the saddle (for safety reasons).
Riding on long reins; the longest, lightest contact between the rider’ hands and the horse’s mouth where the horse flexes through the poll. This is important in medium walk and also at the beginning o the ridden session if the horse has over-developed muscles on the underside of the neck or problems in the poll.
Riding on the bit (where the reins are shorter by 7-8 cm than when riding on long reins), which alters the outline of the neck to that required when riding collected walk, trot and canter. (The horse must be able to do this in a snaffle before being introduced to a double bridle later in his training.)

Riding with loose reins, that is, riding on the buckle at the beginning and end of a riding session, relinquishes the contact and allows the horse to stretch.
The question of how we ride the horse on the bit cannot be answered fully in a couple of sentences. It is not simply a matter of shortening the reins and keeping a contact with the horse’s mouth. The horse must understand what his correct reaction to the reins being taken up should be: he simply remains in the required outline without resistance; without grabbing the bit or throwing his head about. To achieve this, the rein aids can only be used in co-ordination with bracing the lower back (weight aids) and leg aids (half-halts).

Up to now the horse has been ridden with giving hands to encourage the suppleness of his neck when stretching forwards and down, but there comes the point in the first stage of training when the rider can feel the horse take a contact. With driving aids the horse is asked to take fluent steps in trot. The rider’s hands contain the impulsion. The contact in the hand should be just sufficient to allow the horse to work from his hindquarters, with a supple back, fluid impulsion and flexion through the poll.

This requires a lot of ‘feel’ on behalf of the rider. From the beginning the rider must be aware of working the horse too strongly into a contact as this would cause tension. Instead, a contact must be maintained that is as light as possible with the horse’s mouth, with soft, feeling hands. Flexible elbows and shoulders are absolutely essential to having correctly still hands.

The required outline is produced by using half-halts and by working into a contact so that the horse steps confidently to the bit, flexing at the poll. The development of the carrying power of the haunches is influenced by how the neck is set on, and its conformation. The horse should carry his neck forwards (that is, it should not be contracted); this will give the rider the feeling of having ‘more horse in front’. The carrying power of the horse has to be developed further with appropriate work. For example, medium trot on the long sides is prepared for by riding three or four steps in the corner in shorter strides in order to take more weight onto the hind legs first. At the next corner, this exercise is repeated with more engagement.

In this way the strength of the horse is developed and movement is channelled forwards through a swinging back, requiring the full concentration of the rider to ride the horse ‘from back to front’ and not the other way around. Necks that are pulled in inhibit the building of the back muscles and hinder the natural movement of the horse. The exact opposite of this is only achievable by a correctly trained rider. We would remind you, while on this subject, that softness is required for successful training. If a horse’s neck is forced into an outline too soon, the rider is already on the wrong track and can cause injury. ‘Tight in the neck’, ‘behind the vertical’, ‘mouth problems’, ‘tight in the back’, ‘tense movement’, ‘problems with rhythm’, ‘shortening of the strides’ and ‘changes in temperament’ are all defects unfortunately caused by trying to force improvements in neck carriage, which may include the unnecessary use of draw-reins.

In the first stage of training we try to ensure that the horse is obedient to the forward-driving and lateral aids of the rider. Thus the horse learns to obey the aids and it is up to the rider to influence and develop the gaits, straightness, and bending.

The development of the aids is part of the rider’s training. The rider should learn this on an older, experienced horse. Without sufficient experience on the rider’s part, there is a great risk of problems occurring throughout the horse’s training. Every single exercise must be learned and it must be understood how it teaches the driving and collecting aids.

A rider with limited experience who wants to buy a young horse should at least buy one who has already been ridden and on whom time and money has already been spent. With luck, the rider should have the opportunity to ride a variety of other horses, which helps in learning the application of the aids. In this way, many rider problems can be avoided and training can begin with a solid foundation.

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