Winner of the 2007 USDF Newletter Award - General Interest Original Article
Lightness - An Elusive Quality
By Paul Kathen © 2006
In order to make sure we are all on the same page let me identify what I mean by lightness. I am defining the weight of the connection between the rider’s hands and the horse’s mouth. We want it to be light but not so light that we are disconnected. We cannot measure the contact in grams or kilos. It is a feeling in the rider’s hands that may differ from day to day with the same horse and this may even vary during a single training session. The weight should become less as the ride progresses as long as you do not increase the degree of difficulty, and I certainly do expect the contact to become lighter as the training of the horse advances. Just to give this a measurable number, what you feel is ideally the weight of the reins plus one ounce. Let us assume the best contact with your horse is weight of the reins plus one ounce and you were to put reins on your horse that would break at that strength of contact, your reins would be torn in a very short time. This is not because your horse was being bad or because of an incident that caused him to pull; nothing that dramatic. It would happen because there are moments in which a correction is needed to re-establish balance, or an improvement of the gaits is required that calls for a short, but stronger connection than the ideal. We want our horses to maintain their individuality and their personality along with their spirit of pride. We also expect them to work on their own, yet to be obedient. Such a horse needs to be guided and corrected and if its intentions and those of the rider are allowed to drift too far apart, then the rider must use a measure strong enough to establish that obedience does take precedence over individual expression. At such a half halt the connection may be very strong. That does not, however, mean that the pair has lost lightness as long as the correction was only momentary and resulted in an improved connection.
The first three steps of the training scale, namely a steady rhythm, suppleness and connection, give us balance and throughness. Then we add impulsion and we have all of the ingredients to achieve lightness. Straightness and collection will improve and confirm it even more. “So,” you ask, “Since I cannot use a scale to measure the weight in the reins in order to determine whether or not my horse is light, how can I decide that I have reached that magic moment?” The instant your horse has moved into self-carriage and throughness, the weight you feel in your hands measures what is lightness for your horse at that stage in his development. As I said earlier, this is not the same for every horse. It even varies with each horse every day or with different movements. Self-carriage indicates that the horse carries itself and none of its weight is in your hands. There are, however, other factors that play an important role in the strength of connection. Balance, throughness, and impulsion are not exact values. They change from one situation to the next. Poor footing can affect balance and so can the rider. Any outside or rider caused distraction will change throughness, and impulsion may alter from day to day. These are all influences that tend to negatively shape lightness in the connection between horse and rider. The main factor to positively influence the link between the two personalities is the rider herself. It is up to her to establish and maintain balance and throughness and create in the horse the desire to move forward. Continued work on straightness and collection will also advance lightness in their connection.
At first your horse has to struggle with the additional weight of the rider. It throws him off balance and it takes time under saddle and constant corrections by his rider to re-establish his natural balance. If you have never started a young horse you do not know how athletic, fit, and strong one must be to succeed in this endeavor. Such a horse can be supple like a snake one minute and stiff as a board the next. He is searching for his own balance, frightened by the not always balanced rider, and finds himself at the end of the long side of the arena having to turn just as he had conquered his fear of falling down. In the horse’s desperation he seeks support in the reins. You had better give it to him so he will not lose all confidence. This connection, while helpful for the horse, cannot be considered light. Not to worry. Lightness is the consequence of much work to first familiarize the horse with the idea of being ridden, plus the result of strengthening the horse’s muscles to be able to carry himself and his rider without having to lean on the hands of the rider. In my experience, it became very obvious that with much time spent at this stage in order to create “solid basics,” I have also created a “solid basis,” for success later on.
Long lines and large circles at a working trot are the start, followed by transitions into the canter or the walk. At this time you must observe yourself and try to be objective in your assessment of yourself as far as your riding skills are concerned. Just as important is how well your temperament suits the undertaking of teaching an animal of superior strength but inferior intellect. You will find out soon enough whether your body can deal with the rigors of the task. It takes humility to realize that the emotional ups and downs are too much for one’s system and that unfairness is creeping into the training. That will only hurt the progress and limit the final result. What makes this job so difficult is the fact that you must be a perfectionist on the one hand and a compromiser on the other. You must be tough yet understanding. You must challenge him but not overtax him. You must be goal-oriented and yet be able to stop before you have achieved your goal. Not everyday is a step forward. You must see the big picture yet pay very close attention to the detail. This horse is going to try his hardest to convince you that he knows better how to trot than you do, and he is right. You, however, must incrementally push him into the trot that you know is not his first choice but that which he must adopt in order to stay sound, to be more comfortable for you to sit on, and to enable him to execute the movements you want him to perform later on. It is this knowledge that must override his natural tendencies.
How do all of these considerations translate into your actions in the saddle? Remember that your goal is to make him light. We here at Tex-over Farms have developed a principle that says, “If you don’t, your horse won’t.” Add these two statements together and you must realize that if you want a light connection, you yourself must be light in your hands. There is no contradiction between the last two paragraphs and this statement because the task is to make him light, not to expect lightness at the start. The key to guide a horse that wants to rely on the rider’s hands for support into the horse that carries itself and enjoys lightness in its connection with the rider is to condition the horse to desire harmony with its rider in the form of absence of pressure. Please notice I said pressure, not contact. It is impossible for you not to have a contact with his back while you are sitting on him but your weight can be heavy and uncomfortable or feel lighter and fairly comfortable to him. Your legs should also maintain a touch with the horse’s side. Most important for the horse is your feel in the reins. This is where he is most sensitive and you do not want to destroy that sensitivity by a constant hard contact. So, while through his own choosing, the contact at first may be heavy it does not have to be rigid. The way to start the road to lightness is that you keep your hands very steady while they, as well as your arms and shoulders, remain relaxed and thus create elasticity in the connection. Also from the very first moment on his back you seek every opportunity to make the connection lighter. At this point half halts and transitions are your best tools because they require a relaxing of the reins. Remember to always ride your aids from the back to the front! Do not expect great deeds from your horse at first. He is just learning and testing what you might want from him while at the same time still fighting for balance. You may think that this is an unnecessary reminder but I see over and over again how riders become frustrated and unfair with their mounts.
I felt especially encouraged by an interview I read with Hubertus Schmidt, in my opinion currently Germany’s best dressage rider. He repeatedly emphasized the need to return to easier exercises when encountering problems in the more difficult ones. Half halts, transitions and exercises such as shoulder-in, when ridden correctly, help us to improve our horse’s balance, lighten their forehands and their connection with the rider. As long as the horse reacts as expected we are just cruising along, but when we encounter resistance we often become our own worst enemy and then manage to undo three months of training in one session. We give in to frustration and start to fix by force. We push too hard and pull too strongly. This then produces defensive behaviors in the horse and before we know it we are in an all out war. Every time we harden in the reins it causes the hind leg to slow and reach less, generating just the opposite outcome of what we strived for. It is always my suggestion to develop the positive habit of communicating with your horse through body language. Every time you are tempted to start an exercise or an aid with your reins, remind yourself to use your weight and legs first to initiate a movement and only use the reins to regulate what your body has produced. This way you have ensured that you ride from the back to the front and you will teach your horse to shift its main focus from his mouth to his back and sides. The downside is that your seat must be up to the task because your horse will then react to any change in your seat, including the inadvertent ones. This is precisely the reason why so many inexperienced riders find it difficult to ride a well trained horse.
As you move from long lines and large circles to small circles and lateral work you will often find a return to heaviness by your horse. The difficulty for the rider in this situation is to find the line between being helpful and being interfering. Show your horse what you want him to do and then give him a chance to execute. If it turns out to be wrong, correct and let him try again. Support him only by directing, not by doing for him. If he is still heavier than you would like after he has mastered the coordination of the movement, it is probably a loss of impulsion that has him looking for support from you.
All horses are different and this is truer in their individual eagerness for work than in any other aspect of their personalities. There are many different reasons for this. The main one probably is the difference in their temperaments. The way they were started, their physical condition, and their level of talent for the task are other factors in their willingness to work. The talented jumper may be a drag in the dressage arena and the dressage horse may refuse to enter the jumping arena. When the rider has convinced the eager horse to place this desire to go forward under the control of the rider, she has a horse with impulsion. The less willing horse must be trained to move forward upon the demand of the rider, for without impulsion lightness can not be attained.
The Germans use the term, “Schwung,” to describe impulsion. It is much better suited to encompass all that we mean by impulsion. It indicates a positive mental attitude that brings about physical energy. When we look at the problem in that light I believe it becomes quite clear that constant pushing and prodding will have the opposite result of creating impulsion. It will make the horse less sensitive to the driving aids and more resentful towards work. As I defined impulsion earlier, it is the horse’s desire to go forward under the control of the rider. In other words the horse is ready to move out but waits for the rider to tell him to quicken, slow, lengthen, or shorten the strides. He is also ready to transition either up or down or come to a halt. The sluggish horse also has the ability to be that responsive. This ability must, however, be awakened and developed. I suggest that the best way to success lies in cavaletti work, a bit of jumping, and cross country riding. Many changes of scenery will keep him curious and distracted from the fact that he is working hard. This way the energetic approach to dressage will become a habit to replace the lazy one. Keys to creating a change in your horse are persistence and patience, as well as being a thinking rider who constantly finds ways to keep the mind of the horse busy and does not allow the work to become routine and boring.
If I, as a trainer, have managed to keep my horse through and supple while improving his impulsion, I should have experienced at the same time a much lighter connection with him. His balance has shifted towards his hindquarters and the resulting lightness of the forehand brought him into self-carriage. Now that I enjoy the lightness I strive for it is up to me to maintain and improve upon it. Every exercise I have ridden to advance suppleness has also helped to develop straightness and collection. By asking for a greater degree of straightness and balance I also gain a more reliable lightness. Now the more difficult exercises become easier to perform for my horse and he is less likely to look for support in my hands.