Light, relaxed contact on the reins…

I get an email newsletter called “Horse Sense” written by Jessica Jahiel (pronounced ya-hell). She is a talented rider and excellent teacher. Her background and primary interest is ridden dressage, but she advises readers on a huge variety of other topics. I came across this thought-provoking quote in one of her articles that I think applies to driving every bit as much as riding:

“…riders who make a deliberate effort to let the reins sag and flop, with the idea that they will take up contact only when they “need” it, generally make their horses very uncomfortable and apprehensive because the horses can’t rely on the riders to provide instant quiet communication through the reins.

“The ideal is a light, steady, relaxed contact that lets the horse’s mouth feel every tiny movement of the rider’s hands (and vice versa). What too many horses are given – sadly, by riders who believe they are being “gentle” – is periods of NO contact (“Horse, you’re on your own!”) alternating with sudden jolts when contact is imposed abruptly.

“This is unpleasant and causes horses to worry and become hesitant. Some horses will even move hesitantly or with shorter strides; most, though, will shorten, tighten, and arch their necks and go “behind the bit” so that their riders’ sudden grabs at their mouths will be less painful and less surprising.

“Like a person walking fearfully on an ice-covered pavement, a horse in that situation will be extra-careful and tentative, always worried, always afraid, always ready for something painful and sudden to happen. It’s not a nice way to travel….”

Although Jessica is talking about riding, I think her words are also relevant to people learning to drive, especially if they are coming from a riding background.

Many of us who ride Western on a loose rein think the normal pressure on the driving lines is far too heavy. Many people incorrectly trained in English riding think the contact on the reins should be heavy and unyielding, because the horse has to be held in a “frame”.

It’s clear from your words and from Jessica’s that neither approach is right, but it is difficult for a new rider or driver find the appropriate middle ground of “just enough pressure”. This problem is compounded by the fact that “just enough” will vary depending on the horse and the situation.

I remember ground driving my mare Sissel and feeling how she wandered and became anxious without contact and tended to ignore steady, heavy contact after awhile. She responded the best to appropriate pressure-and-release contact. Sometimes the “appropriate pressure” was pretty firm, and sometimes it was a lovely elastic give-and-take.

The “instant quiet communication” and “light, steady, relaxed contact” on the reins that Jessica talks about seems similar to the pressure and release you have been teaching us to use. It occurred to me that Jessica’s way of explaining things might be useful for riders learning to drive.

–DJW

More information about Jessica Jahiel:

Jessica Jahiel’s HORSE-SENSE Newsletter www.horse-sense.org
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