|Developing soft but effective rein aids can take time and dedication but the results are worth it to both horse and rider. Photo credit, H. Moats|
The reins and our hands are just one of our many aids. The seat, legs, weight and energy that we ride with are just as important as our hands. All of our aids are necessary and should be used in equal measure when we are having a complete conversation with our horses. Soft Feel means that we are working with our horses as one being. We are moving in harmony as a unit. For this to occur, we need to be on the same page, mentally and physically with our horses. That connection happens through our aids. When we rely on one aid to the exclusion of the others it can make the entire message we are sending to our horses much more difficult to understand. For instance, if we ride only with our legs and not with our seat we may only be saying "GO!" and when we could be saying "Move forward in a nice soft jog and prepare to bend". If we hold onto our horses with too much contact we may only be saying "STOP" and not, "Softly bend around this corner and then prepare for the lead departure from a nice shoulder fore." What's more, like any self respecting teenager (which properly describes all of my personal mounts) they will soon block out and ignore any command given in all caps. They become dull due to overuse or oversimplification of a single aid and learn to just tune it out. So, it behooves us to ride conscientiously with all of our aids, and soft contact is one of those important aids.
|Soft contact through the reins is an important and elemental aid. Photo credit L. Duetsch|
So, what does contact mean, in the context of Cowboy Dressage? What does it feel like? To me, it feels like holding hands. There is enough connection so that my horse can feel the subtlest change in my hands through weight or energy in the rein. There is enough connection so that my horse can communicate back to me through the reins when he is struggling with balance or carriage. There is enough contact that I can make a change in direction, bend or frame without first gathering up a handful of new rein. There is enough connection that I don't have to move my hand back behind my body or up to my chest in order to make a connection or significant change in my horse. Soft connection is not soft feel but it helps to build soft feel. Soft connection is just the hand hold between two ballroom dancers. It allows those dancers to move together in rhythm and tempo through multiple changes in direction or complicated maneuvers. For me, personally, the goal of soft contact is to have a slight float in the rein. That soft float says that my horse has recognized the connection, accepted it and is ready to carry on. This builds not only soft feel but self carriage.
|Soft contact occurs irrespective of rein length. There should be just a hint of a float even in the short frame. Photo credit MM Harrison.|
Soft contact is also instrumental in establishing frame in the horse. A shorter rein indicates to the horse a shorter frame while a long rein should indicate to the horse a long frame. There are other changes that must be made through the other aids to completely help the horse through the frames, but rein length is important in helping the horse establish those frames. It is very important to understand that soft contact has little to do with rein length. You can maintain soft contact on both a long and a short rein and the goal should be to establish a soft float in the rein no matter the rein length.
|Soft contact in different rein lengths and different frames. The rein length helps determine the frame of the horse but the soft contact doesn't change. Photo credit L. Duetsch|
Like soft feel and partnership, soft contact is a goal that we work towards with our horses. We can always be forgiving and light with our hands and reward our horses for their try. In the real world, this doesn't mean that we don't ever have to pull on our horses. But, it's the way in which we pull when we have to that is so important. First of all it is important to not be a post on which your horse can lean. It is easy for some horses to get into the habit of always leaning on the rider's hands and for some riders to get used to the feel of the weight of those reins in their hands. Teach your hands to crave that lightness and then fix it up so that you are looking for that lightness in your hands. When you feel like you hanging on or pulling on your horse it is up to you, as the rider, to change the situation to change the message and find the softness that you can reward. Perhaps that means going to bend so that you can soften one side of the horse at a time. Perhaps that means sending some alternating energy down the reins so that you aren't a steady post to the horse. Only you can determine which is the right answer in each situation and it takes some trial and error to figure it out. Every time a student says to me (as I have said to my mentors in the past), "I feel like I'm just hanging on the rein." I reply to them, "then stop." That was the advice I was given as well and I know it can be frustrating, but if this was easy, anybody could do it! It takes commitment, time and an ability to "feel" for that softness so that you can reward it in the horse.
|Soft contact on a long rein helps encourage the horse to reach down and forward extending the frame and the gait. Photo credit M. Fabion.|
Secondly, it is important to never grab the reins without properly preparing the horse for the contact. Respect is a two way street and nothing will diminish the horse's respect for the rider as the loss of that respect from the rider. When you reach for your horse, with any of your aids, reach softly. Snatching, grabbing or yanking on the rein is not well received by the horse and he will learn to brace for that unexpected pressure. Always ask first with the maximum of softness and allow your horse the opportunity to respond to that first.
|Soft contact during the free frame walk. Photo credit L. Duetsch|
There is absolutely a time and a place for that long draped rein. I use that draped rein with no soft contact in a number of different ways. Sometimes I want the horse to ONLY listen to my seat. Leaving that rein draped so that my hands are not tempted to assist the horse in finding the answer that my seat is trying to convey. Sometimes I want the long draped rein to weigh on the bit and encourage the horse to relax down with that weight of the rein. But, when we are riding a test and I am asking for every once of communication and response from my horse, soft contact is the necessary tool that allows us to ride in harmony, partnership and with soft feel.
Soft contact is a very important concept for Cowboy Dressage riders. I encourage all of you to play with the feel of soft contact and allow your horse a chance to adjust to it. When the horse understands and accepts the soft connection through the reins you may find your communication become much more refined and advanced.