I am all for intentional, relaxing hacks with your horse. And I also think that it’s worth remembering that not all hacks have to be for ‘doing nothing’. In fact, there are some things that may actually happen more easily when out of the arena. Working contact is, for some riders and horses, one of those things.
We are always working towards soft, intuitive, and responsive contact when we ride. Contact that can shift and adapt depending on what the specific focus is.
Developing that sort of contact takes time, diligence, consistency, and a foundational understanding of what true contact is and how it works… Today, I want to give you a few key points that you can put into action next time you’re riding on the trail.
CLICK HERE to have a PDF of this article delivered straight to your inbox to print off or save and read later
How Independent Are You Really?
After speaking with thousands of riders for 20+ years now, there are a few key points that everyone wants to achieve. Contact (or ‘on the bit’) is one. Closely followed by ‘more feel’. Hacking or riding out on the trail is a great way to really begin assessing your abilities regarding both of these topics.
Another way of describing ‘more feel’ is to say that you are truly independent in your aids. You intuitively ‘feel’ what is the best approach at that moment.
I think that while your aids don’t have to be 100% independent to achieve a good working contact, you do need to at least be aware of what’s not! So this is where I suggest starting. Notice what happens when you move different parts of your body. So, let’s say you apply your left leg. Notice the effect it has over your right shoulder. Or your left hand…
Often the obvious lack of independence will happen on the same side of your body (left leg & left hand). The more subtle dependence happens across your diagonals (left seat & right shoulder).
Tip 1 – Focus on Testing Your Aids in All 3 Gaits
Test your aids first in the walk, where things are slow enough to discover and truly experience each movement. From there, I have often seen how the canter is often an easier gait to diagnose dependency issues than the trot! I think the natural rhythm of the trot is the cause of this… However, try all three gaits and see what happens for you.
Half Halt While out Hacking
I am a firm believer that the half-halt should be used everywhere when it comes to working with horses. On the ground, on the lunge, in the arena, and on the trail! I also feel that, when you begin truly tapping into this fantastic aid, you can only begin to improve your overall communication with your horse.
When you combine your independent aids with a well-timed, well-balanced half-halt; you can truly begin to tap into the energy available to you while out hacking with your horse.
Timing is essential. You really want to ask when your horse is in a position to answer. So, ideally, when his hind leg is on the ground. It’s like saying ‘stall the ball a second’ or ‘wait here a second’. If you do this at the point of the stride when the front feet are ‘touching down’ you will cause your horse to become heavy in front! Not what we are aiming for!
Your aids will only work as well as you can time them to your horse’s movements. Your weight will only ask your horse to wait if you ask at the right time…
Tip 2 – Focus on the Timing of Your Aids for the Half Halt
Therefore, step two of improving your working contact while out hacking is to work on first timing your half-halt. From there, refine your half-halt. I have a free audio training on the HALF HALT you can listen to next time you ride to work on improving this.
Engaging Your Horses Back (Becoming Lighter)
So, now that you have created a pretty good quality channel for the energy and you have worked on fine-tuning how you can influence this energy, we can begin truly harnessing it. Have you ever noticed how when you ‘engage your core’ you seem to grow an inch or two? Your horse does a similar thing – through his back. By engaging his core, he ‘lifts’ his back.
Unfortunately for many horses, as they try to ‘lift’ their back, there is a rider’s bum in the way – blocking everything!
If you want your horse to ‘lighten’, you too must lighten! And this has nothing to do with how much you weigh. This has everything to do with how you engage, use, and carry your own body. Let’s go back to the trot for a moment… So many riders rely on the natural rhythm of the trot (which, let’s face it, will happen regardless of what you do if you can continue to trot) to lift them ‘up and down’.
Tip 3 – Focus on Your Independence in the Rising Trot
My third suggestion for you to work on next time you’re riding is to focus on just how independent you are in your rising trot. Are you posting yourself? Or are you relying on your horse to ‘bump’ you up and down? By spending time on this, while coupling the previous two points, you can truly begin to work with the energy – rather than against it.
Gathering Energy into a ‘Working Contact’
Once you are truly working with your horse (so not behind, in front of, against, or just slacking) working contact is within reach. Remember, true contact is an agreement. It is the point of the conversation between horse and rider where everyone agrees to take responsibility for their own roles going forward.
This means that you are not ‘controlling everything’ and this can be a significant challenge for many riders to overcome (I was one of those!).
It requires a certain amount of trust, partnership, and faith to really go into a ‘working’ relationship with anyone. And all of our most intimate relationships are just that – I am not talking about employment here, although the same generally applies.
The same trust, partnership, and faith that you have in the people you hold most dear is what’s required of you to have in your horse in order to achieve ‘working contact’.
Why Contact Won’t Work…
Now, if your horse is not developed enough to truly engage in his responsibilities, contact is not going to work! So if he cannot yet work in rhythm, or in relative relaxation, or he’s not supple enough… Contact is not going to work! You might experience glimpses of it. However, even this is a little false as confidence and emotional development won’t be present.
There is a reason contact appears where it appears on the training scale; trying to achieve it without first having developed the lower principles will usually result in horse and rider hitting a really long, unending plateau!
Your horse must be developed physically, mentally, and emotionally in order to achieve true contact with you when riding. He needs to be able to ‘lighten the front end a little’.
Couple this with mentally understanding contact as being a little like ‘holding someone’s hand’. No one is pulling, no one is slacking; it is both parties agreeing to move together while holding hands.
And, finally, the equally important emotional development. Your horse has to first believe that he can actually do this. He has to have confidence in himself. And he also has to have confidence in you, the rider. I see it a little like “Okay, I’m giving you my mouth… I trust you to respect it”.
If you are having challenges with contact, please go and have a look at the posts linked below this one. I’m pretty sure something will resonate or help. Alternatively, ask in one of the groups (linked below), or send me an email lorna [at] strides for success [dot] com – obviously with no spaces in between😉
- Training Scale Part 3 – Contact While Riding
- Why Forward is Essential for Contact
- Putting All the Pieces Together When Training Your Horse
- Retraining Your Horse Versus Training Your Horse
- 5 Reasons You May Be Stuck when Training or Retraining your Horse
- The Training Scale for You and Your Horse