By Jennifer Klitzke
What does it mean to ride with lightness? Is there more to it than riding with looped reins? What about connection and its role in the dressage training pyramid to bring about balance and rhythm?
Last month I took one of my horses to a classical French dressage clinic with Susan Norman. Susan had been a 15-year student of the late Jean Claude Racinet and a three-year student of Philippe Karl. Both Racinet and Karl are highly acclaimed French classical dressage thinkers of our modern era and have studied the work of Baucher.
Well-meaning riders are releasing their horses to lightness before their horses have learned balance and self carriage.
Susan holds dear the principle of riding with lightness, and when she said that she sees people riding their horses on loose reins when they shouldn’t, all of us at the clinic were braced for her next words. She went on to say that well-meaning riders are releasing their horses to lightness before their horses have learned balance and self carriage.
That really resonates with me as it relates to recent feedback I received from my gaited dressage mentor Jennie Jackson. A month ago, I had asked Jennie for feedback on ways to improve my Western gaited dressage with my naturally gaited Tennessee walking horse Makana. Jennie said that I need to ride my mare with MORE contact to establish forward balance into the correct mechanics of the head nod.
Jennie explained that Makana wasn’t traveling through from behind to the bit, and it showed in the presence of a “head peck” instead of a “head nod.” A head peck is an upward nose flicking evasion which is disconnected from the hind leg steps. Whereas the head nod is when the head and neck bob downward in sequence with each hind leg as it steps deep under the body.
After studying French classical dressage for the last year, my initial reaction to Jennie’s comment was, “What? Ride with MORE contact?!” But blending Jennie’s feedback with what Susan Norman said in her clinic put it into perspective.
Yes, ride with more contact UNTIL my horse learns to travel in a relaxed, balanced, forward rhythm with the correct mechanics of a head nod. THEN I can offer a release to a lighter contact and reward her AS LONG AS she remains in balance with the same quality of head nod. That’s what training for self carriage and lightness is all about.
Riding on floppy reins wasn’t training my gaited horse to move in balance or in self carriage. Training my horse to lightness offers her a release whenever she travels forward in relaxed, rhythmic balance with the correct mechanics of a head nod.
If my horse leans on the bit, that’s when I briefly lift both reins upward with equal contact on the corners of my horse’s mouth with gentle vibrating fingers, and then lowering my hands to a neutral position as soon as my horse lightens.
“There is no intimacy in long reins.” —Susan Norman
During the clinic Susan said, “There is no intimacy in long reins.” This was another profound statement coming from a dressage clinician who teaches lightness. What Susan meant is that short reins don’t mean pulling back reins. Short reins are communicating reins which are an ongoing dialogue with the horse. Short reins allow my fingers to have an even light feeling with the corners of the horse’s mouth to ask for softness and preparation for what’s coming next.
Another benefit to riding with short reins is that they allow me to keep my balance over my horse’s back, because short reins keep my elbows at my sides where my ear, shoulders, elbows, hip and heel align in balance. As soon as my reins grow long, my elbows extend forward and soon thereafter I begin to lean forward and lose my balanced alignment. Then my horse loses her balance, and she falls onto the forehand in response.
How do you know when your horse is in balance or not? That’s the tricky part. Balance is something that takes time to develop a feel for and balance feels different from one horse to the next. How balance feels on a Tennessee walking horse is different from that of a trotting horse.
The best way to learn the feeling of balance is through regular lessons with an educated dressage instructor who can coach you as you ride your horse. Over time, you’ll be able to feel balance more instinctively as you ride on your own.