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Contact Illustrated

Published: 7/15/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

Here are some illustrations and ideas for considering the idea of contact.
Read Part I here.

The first ride:  My friend on the big black horse has contact with her horse a s well as my little black horse.  She is feeling of her horse and mine, and I am feeling of my horse, as my horse feels back to me and my fellow rider and her horse simultaneously.  

Over time, the young horse learns to give to the bit for right turns, left turns, slowing, and stopping.  This is done with patience on the riders' part, providing a release for each.  

When the horse understands the feel to go, stop, turn, speed up, and slow down, then the rider can start asking for changes in posture while doing all these things.  Many call this “soft feel” and it has different meanings at different times, but when the rider asks the horse to tuck his chin a bit while taking weight off his shoulders and loading his hips, he takes up contact with both reins and engages his seat.  

When this shift happens in the horse, the horse is provided with a release.  As the horse becomes more educated, these releases become smaller and less visible but remain always there.  
The more educated horse is prepared for riding on a shorter rein, but the difference is that he can maintain rhythm, turn, slow, and go all from the rider's seat.  The rider interested in creating a light horse is always checking to see if these things are available to him by dropping his reins from time to time to see if the horse is relying on the rider's hands for guidance or can rely on cues from his seat and legs.  

Here I have contact with my seat and legs. SweetPea understands this feel means 'go straight,' because my seat and eyes are pointed straight ahead.
 
I have contact with Blue through my seat and leg, as well as reins.  I am asking him to take that energy up over his back over his topline and engage his hind end a little more.  We are in a “soft feel.” My seat and eyes still direct him.

Blue keeps the slack in the reins even though my reins are short because he has an education based on release.  He carries no tension in his mouth because he has an understanding of what the bit means, and how to release to it.  I release to him when he releases his body to me, and therefore we can stay soft in our connection to each other.

My point in this article is that contact is meaningless without intention and without release. 

If I taught my students to ride in correct alignment by strapping a broom handle to their backs so they sat up straight, and tying their arms behind their backs so they kept their shoulders back, they would be in a position that might look correct, but they would be harboring tons of tension in their bodies, unable to ride with fluidity.
Furthermore, they have no understanding of how to get this position on their own, and why it's important.  

People train their horses this way all the time, however, by strapping them to gadgets to teach them to carry their heads low, or high, or lift their legs, or whatever it is they are hoping to accomplish.  They teach their horses to be dull and heavy by maintaining constant rein contact with no feel behind it. So, in the horse's mind, why should pull mean anything but just a daily part of life?  
Why should pull mean slow, or stop, or turn, or anything other than to just keep plugging along?  
In order to teach a horse to stay relaxed, to use his body correctly without the rider using constant pressure, and to be light to the aids, the rider’s contact needs to be measured according to the stage he is in, and what is needed for that moment. 

Less can be so much more, and if a light forehand and a relaxed mind is what you are after, consider releasing those reins.  There is no end to the lightness that a horse can offer, until you are practically of the same body.  

You don't have to pull on your own legs to make them walk, and you don't have to haul yourself into a stop, your body follows your mind.  The same can be done with a horse – some day it is possible to think it, and have it done.  But to get there, you have to release.

Read Part I.



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7/18/2015 Rob Rowbottom
Great article Amy. Feel for me has taken a lot of time to develope and progressed in small increments but what a feeling of accomplishment. I keep rethinking and adjusting how I approach feel and your articles have helped me.Rob

   
"There are no problem horses, only problem riders" - Mary Twelveponies