Improving The Contact

I’ve been working on establishing a stable and secure rein contact with a client and her pony recently. They’re making good progress, but it’s an interesting journey.

When I first met them there was no contact. The pony was short and tight in the neck, truly behind the bridle, and spent his whole time chewing on the bit and moving his head, seeking a contact. His rider had reins that were slightly too long and hands that were a bit too mobile as she sought to find a contact.

Although the contact is the third stage of training in the German scales, I felt that in order to improve the suppleness and rhythm of the pony he needed to have some sort of contact to guide him and support his frame. So we focused on this initially.

In their first lesson I worked on shortening the rein, so my rider began to be able to feel the bit in the pony’s mouth. As she shortened the reins, we discussed them staying even in length and weight and the importance of her using her leg and seat to push (or drive, if you like) her pony towards the contact so that he reached out towards it instead of waving his head around looking for security.

I wasn’t too concerned about the position of the pony’s head initially, he tends to be behind the vertical. After all, once he is travelling forwards and seeking the bit into a more stable contact we can begin to encourage him to stretch and use his topline correctly.

I also did a bit of nagging to my rider to remind her to stabilise her hands. We discussed how the ideal contact is still and stable, and in order to teach her pony to be still to the contact she needed to provide a stable contact, a still hand, and wait for the pony to find it and learn that it is going to stay consistent.

They’ve been working really hard on this concept, and my rider is keeping her hands far stiller and her pony is having more and more moments “on the contact” so to speak.

Now that the contact is beginning to come, we moved on to looking at the rhythm and suppleness. The pony is a little bit backward thinking so we worked on transitions and getting the balance between the leg and seat encouraging forward motion, and there being a contact that isn’t restricting the forwardness yet is stable enough for the pony. I think this is where the lack of contact developed: in her focus to get her pony going forwards, my rider threw away the contact. However, I think the lack of contact knocked the confidence of the pony so he was less inclined to go off the leg, thus creating a circle.

The pony soon started going from the leg into the contact and covered the ground a bit more because his stride started to lengthen.

In terms of suppleness, we worked on the reins staying more even on turns and circles – so the inside hand doesn’t come back and the outside hand going forward – and then we were encouraging the pony to bend through his body, not just his neck. With the stability of the contact the pony will learn to use himself correctly and step under with his inside hind leg and take the weight of his body on it instead of falling out through the outside shoulder.

As the suppleness starts to improve, we began to address straightness. On the left rein, my rider is more supple and as she turns her body, her right hand shoots forward, thus losing the outside rein. Then the pony jack-knifes and drifts round the turns. Returning to the feeling of an even contact, and ensuring she provides stability in the rein for her pony to seek support from, they began to ride better left turns and stayed in balance.

The straightness will come in time, but just by supporting the outside shoulder a bit more, my rider’s steady rein contact encouraged the pony to use himself more correctly and by ensuring he works evenly on both reins his muscles will develop evenly and then the crookedness will start to dissipate.

In their latest lesson, I could see that things were coming together. The reins are a better length, the rhythm is improving and the stride lengthening with the pony thinking in a more forwards way. The two reins are beginning to look more even as the suppleness and straightness improves. Towards the end of the lesson I decided to introduce the next step.

The pony, whilst he is starting to use himself more correctly, he is still short and tight in the neck. This means that his brachiocephalic muscle is engaged, and he’s not “through” over his back. This means that energy doesn’t flow forwards from his hindquarters through his body and his abdominals and back muscles are switched off.

Encouraging the pony to stretch his neck out and down, will mean that he has to utilise his abdominals and back muscles to keep his balance. Then, he will start to lighten in his way of going and feel lighter, and feel more effortless. Once the trot felt forwards, and the contact still, I got my rider to lengthen her arms – not her reins – whilst closing the leg to push the pony towards this contact, which is slowly creeping out in front of him. A bit like a carrot on a stick! It’s important that my rider didn’t lose the contact though, so her arms had to lengthen by micro millimetres because if the pony lost the contact he would slow down and start fussing in his mouth.

It’s a very delicate balance, but one which needs introducing sooner rather than later, and only when they’ve established a steady contact in their schooling session. If the pony stops reaching for the contact then the elbows need to be bent to shorten the arms and recreate the steady contact within the pony’s comfort zone.

We had moments when the pony began to stretch his neck out, and then his frame softened and my rider could feel more movement under the saddle as well as a lighter, longer stride.

Over the next few weeks I’m aiming for the rein contact to become completely consistent, and for the rhythm, suppleness, balance, straightness to come together. Then as the pony gets stronger and more confident in his way of going we can increase the length of his neck and improve his topline more.

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