Archive for April, 2011

What is Contact?

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One cannot envision contact; so there are no images accompanying this post. One can, however, conceptualize contact. To get the concept, enlist someone else to read these words while you sit on a saddled horse, without stirrups, eyes closed.  Then pick up your stirrups, and listen again, eyes closed. 

Obtaining and maintaining soft contact- that is contact with the leg, seat and reins is a  complex, and, I dare say, crucial concept of equitation. Contact entails, on the part of the rider, an awareness of his calves and –through his boot and saddle flap– a “feel” of the side of the horse. Simultaneously, the rider must be aware of the inside of his thigh, his seat bones, and lower back, and– through the saddle flap, the seat of the saddle, and the pad underneath it– “feel” the horse’s back. Also simultaneously, the rider must be aware of his own shoulders, elbows, wrists, and fingers, and –through his gloves, reins, and bit– the horse’s neck and head to “feel” of the horse’s mouth. It is all to be connected.

Actually, it is more complicated than that, or vastly simpler, once you understand that what we really want to do is feel, in order to control, the horse’s individual hind legs, prerequisite to controlling the horse’s  back and shoulders. Which is why it is more apt to say that we “put the horse in front of the rider’s leg” than to say that we “put the horse on the bit” as an indication of a more intense, more energized degree of “riding on contact”.

Now, if all of this is complicated for a rider, who is, after all, a human being possessed of intelligence superior to the horse which, partner though it may be, or is becoming, is still an animal, then learning to go “on contact” is immensely more difficult for a horse. The horse must have that identical set of awarenesses, albeit in reverse, and must submit its animal will to its “feel” of, i.e. awareness of stimulation by, a rider. So be sympathetic, and question yourself, first,  if things are not going well.

More specifically, recheck the correctness of your overall position, and your position’s ability to fluidly follow and absorb the motion of the horse, without, in any way, interfering with the balancing gestures of an equine athlete at any stage of development. To do this, it is wise for riders, whether novice or vastly experienced, to develop or refurbish their own seats and “feel” for contact by riding schooled horses alternately with green prospects.

Whether riding a green or schooled horse, the mechanics of putting the horse “on contact” are the same. And perfecting the process of obtaining and maintaining contact with a horse is a lifetime quest…more on this later.

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Discretion is the Better Part of Valor

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When the sun rose over my toes Sunday morning, I threw open the shutters and windows to be serenaded  by a marching band, heralding the course of the GO! St. Louis Marathon. I like brass bellowing through my neighborhood, I thought, especially if this happens only one, not every, Spring dawn. Stirred, I took breakfast to the deck, and was disheartened that the strains of the brass band were soon followed by sirens of emergency vehicles, lots of sirens. With 19,000 registered participants, certainly some bodies were going to be over-stressed, I thought, sadly.

Breakfast downed, news read, breeches donned, and tack packed, I motored cautiously around, over, and under the securely cordoned Marathon route…to ‘da barn. Through open windows, the air was heavy with humidity and the trar thermometer read 75F still before 9am. Only two weeks earlier, we were slogging through afternoon snows! The weather has changed…too fast.

Sunday was a riding, rather than teaching, day.  The footing of the outdoor court was perfect…moisture content just right. The first horse loosened easily, and confidently bent and stretched into even contact all around. But after a mere 20 minutes of his usual warm-up, this horse was wringing wet, head to tail. Not lathered, not panting, not the least distressed, but wringing, soaking wet, all over, for the first time in maybe 6 months. And so was I.

During what was intended as a walk interlude preceding “the work” we caught our breaths easily enough, but only got wetter. It occurred to me that maybe the warm-up was all this horse needed to help him become acclimated to summer!  So out we went for 20 minutes of trail walk. Untacking, I noted that the saddle pads were soaked through and that his bandages were sopping wet. This horse had sweat profusely, from unusually light exercise. So he was sipped out, showered, hosed, and set fair.

I myself drank quite a lot of water, and ate a sandwich, en route the next rides.

Only for the next horse to become totally drenched in about 15 minutes of exercise. And so the next. These guys got only their warm ups, and long walk-downs, showers and rubs. The barn thermometer registered 90F in the shade.

Back in town that evening, I read that the Marathon had been curtailed by prudent organizers. Due to heat and humidity, at 9:15 am, only runners who had passed the 9 mile marker were permitted to complete the full Marathon course; all others were diverted to a Half-Marathon course at the very spot where I had heard the marching band.  Many participants had been taken to hospital for emergency treatment, many dropped out, and many more were observed and treated at the finish line.  Nobody died.  A runner commented, “We trained in snow, but competed in a sauna.”

“Discretion is the better part of valor,” I consoled myself.

Today, Tuesday, back in the saddle, the air was WILD! dry, and crisp, if pollen-laden.  The warm-ups were solid. The focus of the lesson for one was canter-walk-canter transitions, preparatory to improving flying changes. For another, the work was trot shoulder-in to trot half pass to trot shoulder-in, encouraging the horse to respond to a mere change of the position of this rider’s seat bones. And for the third, the accent in the walk interlude was maintaining rhythm and activity into and out of, first, one, and then two walk pirouette steps toward achieving, on coming days, an excellent walk half-pirouette. His ‘work’ was longitudinal contracting and stretching, working trot to collected trot to working trot to medium trot  and repeat after change of direction. And the correlative exercise at canter.  I am pleased that they are all getting stronger.

And so we proceed, one day at a time.

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