Contact: Wait Too Late… Then Panic


Dear Fellow Primates: It is our instinct to grab. It is our instinct to talk in imitation-semaphore with our hands, to eat with our hands, and react to fear or alarm with our hands. We start when we’re babies being offered a finger to grab and we never let go. We use our hands to fuss, fumble, and fidget and we do it so naturally, we don’t notice.

Horses, however, do notice every small movement on the reins or on the lead rope. Reins work like a megaphone from our hands to their most fragile mouths, metal on bone. Last week, I wrote about it but if you ask a horse, the bottom line is, bit or bit-less, they don’t like their faces pulled on. Horses might put humans into two categories, the ones who don’t know they have bad hands and the ones who do know and are working on it.

Think of the woman in the knife-throwing act. She stands stock-still as the knives slam into the wood right next to her face and she doesn’t flinch. Horses wish we were more like her. Egads, most of us cover our faces during pillow fights. Instinctively.

A good riding instructor agrees with horses on the topic of hands. Truthfully, nothing is more challenging than developing kind, giving contact. We think training horses is the act of teaching horses to give up their flight instinct, but in trade, we must overcome our instinct to grab. It takes time to surrender instinct to trust.

Want to learn a cheat in the meantime? A shortcut your horse can appreciate right now? I’ll explain it in the way I would work on an issue with a horse. It doesn’t work to tell a horse (or a human) that every move they make is wrong. Constant correction diminishes confidence and encourages a bad attitude. As affirmative trainers, we say yes to the horse, so when training ourselves, we must find ways to do the same, with the happy knowledge that horses and riders are works-in-progress forever, if we’re lucky. Then deconstruct the problem into smaller pieces and start by finding success with fundamentals.

You’re riding, the sun is shining, the stride of your horse rocks your spine in a soft rhythm, the reins are soft, and all is well with the world. The next instant it’s a fight, you’re pulling and he’s bracing, and it doesn’t matter who started it. Barring a spook, what happened? Because a spook isn’t a reason, it’s an excuse. Start by finding the core reason. Commonly, we get in trouble by missing our mark. We wait too late and then panic. We feel rushed and react loudly with our hands. It could be turning a corner or changing speed, would you have needed to pull a rein if you had prepared sooner?

Step one is understanding how horses move. If they are moving freely forward, horses can be very agile but if we confine their movement with the reins, they lose balance. If they’re moving with restriction, they get awkward. Bi-peds can pivot but having four legs is cumbersome in small quarters. Think of turning a truck and trailer, the horse’s front and rear must both negotiate the turn. If you don’t plan for the room needed, you’ll overcorrect with your hands.

One of the most common times we pull on a horse’s face is asking him to make a 90 degree turn from a halt, mounted or in hand. We pull their heads to the side as if we were steering a parked car. Forward motion is needed to turn a car or a horse. It’s a hard-fast rule. A horse must be moving before we ask for anything else. When your horse is allowed to move forward, riding feels like gliding on ice, he can be light and agile. Constricted reins are like leaving the parking brake on. Drag and resistance for both of you.

Deconstruct to a solution: If we prepared ahead, the last-minute wrestling wouldn’t happen. Practicing transitions is a place to start. Pick a mark up ahead; a post on the long side of the arena or a rock beside the trail, but plan to turn there. If your horse’s nose is already at the mark, it’s too late! Pick another mark. But if you prepare before that mark, ask your horse to stride on and simply turn your waist. Your reins haven’t changed, your horse has turned, and you haven’t broken your horse’s rhythm. That’s the secret. You must ride in alignment with his movement. A break of rhythm in you is a loss of balance for your horse.

Pick another mark ahead and prepare for a halt. Ask your horse to go forward, and then count three strides with your sit bones, melting into the saddle with an exhale on three. Don’t pull, if you miss your mark, adjust on the next go, give your horse time to process that you’re not pulling on the reins. Congratulate yourselves and try again. Pick another mark and prepare to trot at that spot. Inhale, relax your shoulders, inhale deeper, and in the rough vicinity of the mark, allow your horse to lift to the trot. Allow his poll movement to balance, follow with your hands and then pick another mark up ahead, and exhale down to a bold walk.

You’ll miss the marks in the beginning but if you are a few strides off, who cares? Cheers all around; it’ll improve as the two of you find balance in the transition. That’s what it means to be a work-in-progress. You’re learning that working with your horse’s movement is more important than the position of a rock or a post. Practice kindly. Eventually, your horse will trust your hands, as much as you respect his mouth.

You know you’re doing dressage, right? There might even be letters on the walls. In dressage, we believe the art is in the transition, that how we ask is as important as what we ask. Preparation is the building block to better hands and a relaxed and forward horse, whether trail riding or any other discipline.

Authentic dressage isn’t about breeches, but a helmet is only common sense. It isn’t about what kind of saddle you ride in, but the ability to communicate through that saddle. We endeavor to ride the inside of the horse, and we do it from the inside of our bodies. Dressage was born centuries ago to encourage the strength, suppleness, and confidence of the horse. Dressage happens when two souls find oneness in movement.

I’ll be talking about Dressage Fundamentals for Every Horse at The Barn School this Sunday.

Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward 

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23 thoughts on “Contact: Wait Too Late… Then Panic”

  1. Thank you for this………….if I had had the benefit of your writing and insight when I was riding and searching for this exact kind of help, perhaps I would still be riding today instead of reading this with a broken heart.

  2. Thank you, Anna. I am certain things will improve with Zen Bear & myself when I fully digest the fact he cannot pivot !!! Why is that so hard to remember ? I think at some point, far in the past, I must have had in my head that the horse follows his nose/head so if I could get that pointed in the desired direction the rest of the horse would follow ! Crazy I know, but there ya have it.

    Now I am working from home, I reserve my 2nd cup of coffee, after feeding the boys, for reading your blog on Friday mornings. I appreciate your teachings so much. You have made a world of difference in my horsework.

    • Sarah, I agree that horses follow their nose, it’s true. They just have to take a step first. No one teaches that. Well, that’s not true. My mentor yelled forward a hundred times an hour. I am her legacy. 🙂

  3. Steering is my focus of late, and a tidbit I read that really helped with the semi-truck analogy? That we mistake horses following their nose in a turn, but they follow the base of the neck. (OH – just read that was an earlier comment – how DID we get the idea? Perhaps the same place as early kiddy lessons that tell us the “reins are your steering and brakes!” OY how much to UNdo with that terrible introduction to reins!) Also, as I have been prone to overactive arms in my riding, I tried yesterday a technique that has a 12″ resistance band around my wrists while holding reins. These two ideas together yesterday put Taye and I into the most lovely straightness on our every turn! No pulling, just polite quiet conversation.

    • Hehehe! Wonderful. I suggest a neck ring but the resistance band, but that sounds like a great idea. Any version of the ‘string that connects mittens’ to keep our hands wrangled. My mentor made me carry a stick! Thanks, Dodie

  4. Anna, I believe that this particular blog will become a meditation for me before I work with any of my horses going forward. The truck and trailer analogy is brilliant; such a vivid visual. For me, riding with a neck ring verses reins really helps point out the need for advanced preparation. A question: When starting horses or restarting adoptees from unknown backgrounds, would you introduce a bit or not?

    • I don’t mean to be evasive, but I’d check with the horse. Horses can be such unique individuals. It depends on where I’m riding and a bunch of details. I do know this: I use a neck ring in ever lesson, every ride, as well as a bridle. Does that help??

  5. I struggled with balance and softness on my gelding, XXW. I thought it was his width. I purchased a different saddle. It changed my balance, now we communicate with his softer, we are better together.

  6. “Dressage happens when two souls find oneness in movement.”
    the ultimate goal, achievable much earlier in the relationship than we are led to believe
    thank you for advising on a subject that is so universally needed

    • Absolutely. Sometimes I think there is nothing more beautiful than a simple walk-trot test. Thanks for your comment, so true, Nancy.

  7. Pingback: Stand Off 16 Jan 21 | truthinus

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