What is Connection & Riding with Feel?

Riding with feel… Anyone who has ever felt a horse with completely optimized thoroughness in his back will never forget it. I refer to it as floating, doing nothing and just enjoying the rides’ subsequent carriage. However you choose to describe it, this is a feeling you’ll forever seek to return to in all your future rides yet, in all its glory, is something challenging to explain to students as you have to experience it.

More often than not, riders try to make a connection through force. They try to create a fictional rhythm and relaxation by putting weight in the reins with their hands and body and driving the horse into that weight with their legs and seat. This is hard work. Riding should not be hard. Riding should be easy. True connection is impossible to achieve with force as horses are significantly stronger than riders and therefore attempting to create connection with pure physical strength is, at best, futile. Fictional connection is the results of driving the horse into your hands creating the appearance of a horse that is “on the bit” but in actuality is a horse that is stiff in the back, heavy in the hand and not pleasurable to ride.

By working in a systematic training style that focuses on finesse over force and resistance instead of restriction, riders’ true feel is achieved and the results of connection comes naturally. Feel is defined by how well you listen and how quickly you react with your timing. I focus on the systematic use of basic aids to develop the riders’ awareness and feel. With feel, the rider will not only excel leaps and bounds closer to that often-misunderstood word connection but also simultaneously advance in their personal strategies, competition skills creating a willing and unblocked horse. The end result of communication by a question and answer method is an unblocked horse. With the question and answer method you apply tactful mental and gymnastic exercises to entice the horse to become looser, in turn creating more physical strength and likewise, allows you to win his trust to work with you. Whether feel comes natural or is learned by the rider, it’s the main ingredient that leads to an unblocked, open, free moving, relaxing on the bit connected horse.

I am often asked how to get their horses on the bit. With a question like “on the bit” and discussions of connection, it’s best to step outside the sandbox and take a look at the training pyramid. When all the precursors to this mystical “on the bit” are defined and understood is when a true connection through feel and harmony, not opposition or fake connection, can be achieved.

Rhythm (Speed Control)
The training pyramid starts with Rhythm, as without a decent tempo in life or in the sandbox, one goes nowhere. Rhythm is defined as with energy and tempo but I prefer to call it speed control. You need to be able to set your horse on cruise control with the proper amount of RPMs to create rhythm. Easy, right? Well, most people translate energy and tempo (and all too often the word forward) as running. This could be furthest from the truth. By using the word speed control we step outside the preconceived notions of energy and tempo and learn that the rider sets the speed and not the horse.

Speed control exercise: Try riding to a metronome or gate matching music. Keeping with the beats of the metronome you’ll likely find yourself riding to the tempo. Don’t worry about where your horses’ head is at this point just work on asking him move in a steady beat matching pace. Next try riding over properly placed ground poles and note how your horse must pick up his feet, hopefully in an active manner, to step over the poles. This is an extremely basic way to explain energy without making one think energy means running or fast but instead focusing on the RPMs and activity.

When proper speed control is understood, you’ll have the basics of tempo and energy and be riding with Rhythm.

Relaxation (Advanced Speed Control)
Next is relaxation. After you grasp the basics of speed control work on relaxation or advance speed control. Relaxation is defined as elasticity and suppleness. Most riders think bending is the only avenue to a supple horse. A bent horse is not necessarily a relaxed horse so I try to not focus on asking for a bend or flexing but rather talk about seeking relaxation in the swinging of the horses back. If you turn that metronome you rode to find your rhythm upside down it resembles a pendulum and when your horses tail swings like that pendulum naturally right and left with a soft poll then you’ll find you’re riding in relaxation naturally.

Advance speed control exercise: A tap of both legs applies the gas and a squeeze on both reins equally is the brakes. We do not apply the brakes and gas simultaneously. I work with escalation of force principles or action, pressure, reaction, reward. Essentially you tap, never push, with your legs for the gas, if you receive a reaction from the horse you enjoy the ride and do nothing. If you do not receive a reaction from your horse you apply escalation of force or pressure in the form of an increased aid (in this example more firm tap with both legs), if you receive a reaction from the pressure you enjoy the ride and do nothing. Escalation of force with no reaction using this as an example would then become a tap of the spurs and lastly a tap with the whip until the horse moves effectively off the gas pedal. The horse receives your action, reacts and is rewarded by you doing nothing and simply enjoying the ride. Your action is the question and his reaction is the answer. When the question and answer method has been successfully applied your horse will relax and open himself to you.

Connection (An Unblocked Horse)
Stepping up the pyramid we move on to connection. Connection is defined as acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids. This is an open horse. You’ll feel when your horse is moving in rhythm with energy and a quality tempo (speed control) and relaxed with a swinging back (advanced speed control) that he’ll reach to the contact of your reins. This rein contact is often misconstrued as front to back, originating from the bit to the hands with everything else falling into place thus the whole “getting on the bit” misconception. True contact originates from that swinging tail and thrust of the hind leg created from relaxation. Hence, “getting on the bit” is never achieved by pulling on the reins but rather the horse coming equally and gently into both reins from the hind end.

Unblocked horse exercise: Practicing the question and answer method and starting with the basics of speed control your horse will naturally soften off your legs and in your hands. Building on your speed control exercises gradually lengthen and shorten the reins. Your horse should continue to reach for that contact and stay open and unblocked to you. This is not to say the horse reaches down or up but stays with you open to hearing where you’re going with the connection. If your horse begins to hang in your hands or get sticky in his pace, soften your aids immediately and tap with both legs to get your horse to move forward until you feel him carrying himself again. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat until your horse remains unblocked and until the speed you have set can be maintained throughout all gates, transitions and connection positions.

It’s often easier said than done but with the question and answer method it truly is simple. By utilizing proper speed control to develop an unblocked horse the next steps in the pyramid; impulsion, straightness and collection will naturally happen. A good dressage horse is only a pleasure to ride when he has nothing blocking him and only on an unblocked horse will you ever feel true connection and ultimately collection.

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