Episode 177- Rein contact: does your horse think support or correction?
A listener asks a question about the different levels of contact between dressage and reining. On the surface this seems like a question about a horse accepting the change between the two…but I took the answer much deeper than that.
I explain how the rider’s opinion of contact changes the horse’s experience, and two specific reasons I think riders feel challenged around contact. I give many examples of how horses can report their experience of contact, and I share the specific order that I train my horses in that allows them to view contact as support…not correction.
I also touch on bridleless riding and the idea of self carriage and the feeling of riding a fully adjustable horse.
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Stacy Westfall: [00:00:00] When I fully turn them loose and they know their job because they’ve learned it with really light contact. That’s always when my horses get dizzy.
Announcer: [00:00:11] Broadcasting from a little cabin on a hill, this is the Stacy Westfall podcast. Stacy’s goal is simple: to teach you to understand why horses do what they do, as well as the action steps for creating clear, confident communication with your horses.
Stacy Westfall: [00:00:30] Hi. I’m Stacey Westfall and I help riders become confident, communicate clearly, and get better results with their horses. In this season of the podcast, I’ve been doing all Q&A. Today’s question is about varying the different contacts between different disciplines, like reining and dressage. Let’s listen to the question.
Caller: [00:00:54] Hello, Stacy. In a recent podcast that I listened to of yours, you were mentioning that in this next year, 2022, you are going to be riding one of your horses, both in reining as well as traditional dressage. My question for you is, how are you going to train your horse with the different contacts in the bit? And how does your horse react to going from basically no contact in reining to contact in the traditional dressage? Thanks so much for answering my question. Have a great day.
Stacy Westfall: [00:01:28] Thanks for the question. Back in Episode 128 of this podcast, I discussed dressage versus reining and the lessons that I’ve learned from doing both. And although I touched the subject, I didn’t go directly into contact in the way that you asked this question. And it’s been really fun to do an outline for this because it keeps getting bigger and bigger and bigger. So I’m going to control myself, and I’ve kind of whittled it down to four talking points for this one. So if anybody else has questions, feel free to call and leave those to dig more information out of me. I want to cover the–the rider’s opinion, the horse’s opinion to particular challenges that I see for the rider that carry over to the horse, and then a discussion about the finished product.
Stacy Westfall: [00:02:22] So let’s go ahead and jump into the rider’s opinion. The first thing I want you to do is be a little interactive here. Answer this question. Nobody’s listening. You can just answer in your head. You don’t have to say it out loud. Answer this question. Is more contact or less contact better? I’ll phrase it another way. Are you aiming for less contact or are you aiming for more contact with your horse? Did you answer it more or less? Many riders, I believe, would say less. And when I asked myself the question, why would they lean that direction? I actually think that the leaning towards less contact is a reflection of a misunderstanding of what more contact could be. Notice if your brain automatically wants to put less contact and light contact together and then double check and see if your brain automatically wants to put more contact and heavy contact together. Did you follow that? Less light, more, heavy. And that’s what I think sometimes happens if you don’t slow down and think about this. But I’m going to propose this question: What if you could have more steady, light contact? Do you see how I crisscrossed those? More light contact, more steady, light contact. If you believed that was possible, how would that impact your communication with your horse? Even though the question that was left was framed asking from the horse’s point of view, and I will get there in a little bit, it’s really almost impossible to separate the rider’s view of contact from the horse’s experience of contact.
Stacy Westfall: [00:04:31] So let’s go to number two, the horse’s opinion. And it’s kind of interesting because I think that humans struggle with the concept of contact more than horses. When you think about it, have you ever seen or have you ever been riding a horse that decided it was going to eat grass or tree leaves or maybe a bale of hay you were riding by? Have you ever been on a horse or seen a horse drag the rider, pull the reins out of their hands to go eat? If you’ve seen that, then what that horse is saying is that a range of opinions is possible with horses. So some horses you will see that will avoid contact and there are some horses that will go full on and pull the reins out of your hands. And to me, when I look at this, sometimes I look at the problems, if we want to call it like that, like we’ll–we’ll label like watching a child, riding a pony and having that pony drag them pretty much out of the saddle to go eat, we’ll label that as a problem. But when you look at that, if you look beyond the problem, you can also look for feedback from the horse as to their experience of something like the bit in that moment. Now, this might be particularly stuck in my head because I spent years of my childhood trotting on my pony who would quickly stop and pull really hard on the reins down towards the ground so she could graze. And I was riding bareback so I would slide down her neck and land on the ground. I don’t even know how many times. I can’t even count how many times that happened to me. So in my mind and my body, I can still feel the truth of the idea that many horses don’t find contact to be a problem. So for just this podcast, just hold on to that idea because it’s super easy to go to examples where horses avoid the contact and it’s super easy to go to like places where horses need dental help. I’m not denying any of those things. Those are all true. I’m just saying, can we hold the space for 20 minutes to consider the idea that, what would it be like if we didn’t just assume that contact is a problem for horses? So I go back in my memory. I find many horses who didn’t have any problem with contact, and then I start to look at how this could be helpful. So I actually train my horses in a very particular order for a reason. And I actually believe that my views on contact are why I’ve been able to train multiple horses to perform bridleless at a competition level in reining. So under the surface it looks like a conversation about contact. It would be kind of pointless if I talk about bridleless like, How are you going to have a conversation about contact on the bridle and bridleless? But to me, the conversation around how a horse and rider view contact with the bridle is relevant to contact bridleless because we’re training the mind and the body of both the horse and the rider. So if I start viewing my views on the bridle contact and I start saying, What do I believe in that type of contact? It’s very often going to be a similar belief to how I’m going to use my legs. So, for example, if you think lighter and less is the better thing, that might seem like, okay, lighter and less, I’m going to go lighter and less on the rein contact. But typically, if you really believe that to your core, you’re going to want to go lighter and less on the leg contact also. And then at some point, at least for me in my program, that idea, that steady, light contact, when I can transfer the cues to steady, light contact in my body and legs, that’s a very similar line of thinking as to what I was doing when I was teaching that horse steady, light contact in the bit, steady, light contact with my legs, steady, light contact for communication. So to me, can you see how there’s a similarity going on there in the line of thinking and the belief that I have? And then that belief that’s going to transfer to my horse.
Stacy Westfall: [00:09:12] Okay. Let’s jump to the next one. The next one is–is kind of a an ever-growing category on this outline. I had it as the physical challenge for the rider, and my first outline was a hand coordination and leg coordination type thing, and then I had to create a whole nother subset. So let’s just start with this. A lot of times I think people struggle with the idea of contact because having good, steady contact with the horse is physically challenging. So we’ve got the mental idea of, is it right or wrong, good or bad?–that kind of a belief system around the concept of contact and then we actually have the execution of it. So if you do stretch your mind to being like, okay, I can see where steady, light contact could be beneficial the physical execution of steady, light contact can be a bit of a challenge because you need to have steady hands. And steady hands are a piece of that cue system and you’re sitting on top of the horse and maybe you haven’t totally conquered having an independent seat where your hands can be separate from you bouncing in the saddle. And so this is where I see a lot of riders are tempted to think that less contact is better because less contact if they put a drape in the reins and the reins are loose, that’s what a drape in the reins means. If the reins are loose, then they’ve got the impression that, okay, yes, I’m bouncing a little bit and my hands bouncing a little bit, but I’m not really in contact. So the fact that my hand is unsteady isn’t as big a deal. And there are ways you can get away with this. The challenge that I end up seeing when this becomes a long-term thing is that you’ll still have moments as the rider where you need to make contact to shape the horse, to change things. And now you’re going from zero contact to picking up contact and you’ve got the unsteady hand. And that initial contact to me is one of the most challenging things that we teach a horse. To go from no contact to contact is, in my opinion, much more challenging than going from light contact to varying levels of contact, because it’s that initial contact moment that can be the most challenging for the horse and the rider. And in my notes, I have they may be getting a little depressed right now or angry or frustrated. So I want to give you this. There is hope. It may seem like it’s impossible to improve your hands if you’re in that stage of riding where maybe you don’t get to ride very often. It’s a bit of a challenge because of the weather or how much time you are able or not able to put in. I’m just here to say there are actually a lot of ways that you can get better at this that don’t even involve riding your horse if you are truly interested in improving your–we’re going to call it an independent seat, but I could actually almost rather call it an independent hand. And the way that you can do this is that if you’re willing to do something every single day to improve this, you can without even being near a horse. I believe that you can teach yourself this feel. You can walk around the house for 5 minutes a day and work on this. You can start by putting a hardback book on top of your head and walking around, because as soon as you do that, you’re going to have to use your body differently to be able to balance that book on your head. You’re going to start increasing your awareness of how you’re experiencing your–own body and then be like, Oh, what would it be like if I was going to put an egg on a spoon and walk on my own two feet? You know what? I’ll do two eggs on two separate spoons and I’ll see whether my left hand or my right hand is better at this game. Or if you don’t want to do the egg thing, you could do really, really full glasses of water. And immediately what you’re going to notice when you do this is you’re going to have to use your body as a shock absorber. You’re going to have to use your elbows as a shock absorber. The amazing thing about doing this is that you’re going to learn not to necessarily hold this funny light contact with your fingers that a lot of us want to do with the reins. Like you’re going to have to hold that glass of water in your hand and then figure out how to use your body as a giant shock absorber, which is exactly what you’re doing when you’re riding the horse. To me, it’s not necessarily like–when people say that you’re working on improving your independent seat I get it because you’re sitting down and that seat is moving. But if you walk around and you are walking up and down stairs and you’re carrying these glasses of water, these eggs on a spoons, and and you’re doing this different stuff, you’re going to find it’s the same thing, because at the end of the day, to me, what you’re also doing, you’re separating your arm motion from your lower body motion, and that’s exactly the same. If you become determined to do this, you would be shocked at how much you can teach yourself not on the horse. Figure out how to separate your seat from your hands, your arms from your torso, how–however you want to say it like that. And I think this is also why a lot of times people who have a background in different sports where this has been trained into them with some other coordination tools, I think that’s why it is helpful because they come in and they kind of already have that ability to do that, separating in their own body. I didn’t have any of those because I didn’t really do any other sports outside of horses. It’s totally possible. Just decide you’re going to do it.
Stacy Westfall: [00:15:18] Now. I said this was kind of almost a two-part piece. It was like two challenges for the rider. We’ve got the physical coordination and then this is where to me it gets even more interesting. We have this accidental situation and I think you’re going to see how everything I was just talking about like that, avoiding the contact to avoid your hands that are bouncing and that kind of thing. Listen to how this ends up affecting the horse. Even if you have a well-trained horse, start seeing it right now from the horse’s point of view. And what I’m going to propose is there are a lot of times, if you view contact as something where you should be lighter, lighter, less, less all the time, then here’s what I think the horses start to see. The horses start to view contact as a correction. Do you view making contact as something you only do to make a correction? Because if you do, then you two, you and your horse, are in perfect agreement that contact is for correction. And then the horse is like, Oh, I don’t think I like contact because you’re going to correct me. And what happens is we end up with a rider that wants to avoid making contact and a horse that wants to avoid the contact because everybody’s viewing it as a correction. Here’s what I do differently. My views on contact begin before the first ride. I want in my groundwork, and I do ground driving when I’m getting ready to ride my horses, I want to teach the horse that my light steady contact is going to be there. When I’m doing the initial work it’ll be mostly inside rein only. So that means that I can be on the ground and the horse can be walking or trotting a circle around me. I’ll even lunge the horse and I’ll snap the lunge line onto the inside of the snaffle bit ring and I will lunge the horse, and the horse will start to understand that the contact isn’t a problem. The contact is very similar to what was happening in the halter. It’s just shaping. Then when I ground drive, I’m basically doing the same thing. But now I’m able to use the outside rein without being mounted. And so the horse is again learning, especially in ground driving, I love it, because they’re–they’re learning that the steady contact isn’t a correction. There’s not–there’s–even if we want to look at it like shaping, there’s like the steady contact is kind of the neutral place and then there can be more or less back to like returning back to steady. But it’s not a contact with a full release. The challenge when you start going to pick up, make contact and then give the full releases. And don’t get me wrong, there are moments when that’s 100% true and necessary, but follow it from the horse’s point of view. If that stays true, this is how making contact becomes problematic for the horse. The horse is like, Oh, no, contact equals correction. What I actually do is I spend months teaching my horse that neutral is like this steady light contact and then I can adjust from there, but I don’t fully drop them. And in that way, because I developed the language that way, I think it’s smoother and faster and easier for me to teach the horses to understand varying levels of contact before I go to dropping the contact and then re-establishing it. Because I already said earlier in the podcast, I actually think that’s a more challenging move than carrying the steady light contact.
Stacy Westfall: [00:19:06] If I were going to describe the contact that I feel it would be very similar to if you were standing in the barn and you’re holding the bridle in your own hands and you drop the headstall and bit on the ground, and then you pick up the reins and you go to pick up the bridle. There is a weight there of the bridle. And so I want at least that amount of weight in my fingers when I’m riding the horse. So that’s my beginning of my steady light contact. And then when you start to think that returning to that weight is the release, then I can pick up with a little bit more pressure than that to shape and then I can release back down to this very light contact. And then what happens is that the horse feels supported. Contact isn’t the problem, and they allow me to shape them and they don’t expect this 100% full release. I start doing absolutely full releases when the horse is accepting the contact and they’re not doing any head tossing or resisting or ducking or diving or rooting and all these other things that a lot of horses do when they’re trying to figure out how to avoid that contact. And those can become like a pattern that the horse thinks about, like the rider gets in, makes a change, fully releases. And then what happens is a lot of times riders hold the horse for, you know, 10 seconds instead of 5 seconds, and the horse is like, Oh, no, what’s going wrong here? I remove all of that by spending months where this light contact is the neutral place. So I hope you’re seeing my theme here. Contact isn’t a problem. I think that a lot of people and horses struggle with transitions when they’re riding, doing transitions of gait because of this view of this hot, cold, good, bad avoidance of the contact. Because if you’re riding and you don’t have the contact and you pick up to make the change in the horses, assuming that this is a correction, then it creates this very jerky, trying to avoid the situation. And a lot of times both the horse and the rider are actually experiencing this hot and cold view which is leading to this like, oh, how do we get these transitions better without actually making contact? That is a challenge. Do you see the theme here? The theme is, contact isn’t a problem which brings me to my final point, which is that the finished product, especially when I talk about reining here, the finished product is not the same as the training. So circling all the way back to your actual question, how are you going to train your horse with the different contacts and how does your horse react from going from basically no contact in reining to contact in traditional dressage? My horses have been training like this their whole lives. And because of this it feels a little bit like turning a dial to me. And so I can dial them all the way down to that very light contact, which is the one I said, when I’m picking up the bridle off the ground, that light contact, and then once my horses have understood light and then all these varying degrees of heavier and then returning back to light, that’s when I then introduced the no contact or moments when I do drop them and then pick them back up. And because they’re not in this habit of avoiding that first contact because they’re–my horses are actually like, oh, good, there you are. And I’ll give you an example of that in a moment. But because the foundation of my horses was trained in contact, then it’s very easy to return to it.
Stacy Westfall: [00:23:05] When I first transitioned my horses to moments of no contact. It happens in some different places. It happens like in the very, very beginning when I’m teaching them how to bend and stand still on the ground. There are moments where I’m bending them. They have the correct response and I completely drop the contact. Very quickly after they learned the concept of where I’m shaping them, too. That’s when I then start doing much more steady contacts, where I start doing ground driving. So I think, I’m hoping you can see that in the ground driving it would make it really almost impossible to fully drop the contact because you always have at least the weight of the reins as contact. So my horses know and trust my hands. So right now it’s really interesting with Presto because I’ve done a lot of trail riding with him and there are moments on the trail where he gets a release. But I don’t leave him fully alone all the time because I like to pick up and guide him over something and soften and pick up and soften. And over the last couple of years, there are moments where he’s being turned loose but we’re also walking and the trail is guiding him. And I actually know that’s a pretty big difference. So more recently in the arena, when I’m riding around on him and he’s almost a little bit dependent, we’ll even put it that far, on me being there to help him know exactly where he is supposed to be. He’s very comfortable being between my aids is one way you could say it. So I actually am releasing more of the reins and like putting him like in one hand, like turning loose like a neck rein kind of a thing for moments. And it’s really interesting because when I turn him loose for those moments, he’s so used to being guided by me that I actually feel him wobble left and right. I feel him looking for me by wobbling left and right. But at this point, he’s got enough knowledge of my seat and legs that he can feel himself run into–like, say, he wobbles to the right. He kind of runs into my right leg. It’s there. I’m obviously on him, but he feels that when he pushes too far that way, my leg is kind of there and he’s almost like pushing into it. And then I’ll feel him wobble the other way and he’ll kind of straighten out. But this wobble is there when I start releasing my horses. The spot where I typically feel it more so is when I’m teaching the horses to spin and we’re in the middle of the spin. I always teach the spin with contact and holding them, and then when they have really pretty good footwork, I start releasing them. And it’s the most fascinating thing. Because the wobble and Presto people could mistake for different things. But the really interesting thing about turning one fully loose in the spin after having held their hand for months is that even though it was super light contact for quite a while when I fully turned them loose and they know their job because they’ve learned it with really light contact, that’s always when my horses get dizzy. And I think that’s really interesting because what that tells me is that it does something different in their brain. Because their body is doing exactly the same thing, but their brain is doing something different. When I go from light contact and then I go to full loose contact and they have to hold themselves in this spin and work the footwork and read my body language and not have that direct hand-holding, that’s when they get dizzy. I think that is super fascinating and that has been true for decades with numerous horses. There is something about that self-carriage aspect of it that changes their actual physical experience in the spin. And I believe it’s this. I believe that when they’re following my very light guidance, that is actually a little bit easier for them than when I’m like, okay, you are 100% responsible for carrying this and shaping yourself and remembering the footwork. And then they’re like having to think more instead of just responding nicely.
Stacy Westfall: [00:27:22] So at the end of the day, what I hope you’re getting out of this is that my horses are very adjustable. This is why I was so quickly able to transition Popcorn, who had been my Road to the Horse horse and then a reining horse and then a mounted shooting horse and then went and was my dressage horse. The reason he was able to transition so quickly is because my horses have this very adjustable foundation that I train. And this is true for all of my horses. And I think one of the things that I’m finding so interesting right now is that as I move to some of the higher-level dressage movements, like the canter pirouettes or piaffe, when I start playing with these things, this is where over in dressage there are moments where there are much-0-it’s much less contact. Like it’s it’s very, very light contact. The horse is finding their own balance. And this is where it’s again, it’s reminding me of what I just told you about the spin. It’s like there are moments when you are working at high-level things where the–the horse is figuring out how to do this self-carriage. And this level of self-carriage is so different to me than what I was talking about earlier, where the horses are stuck in this hot cold. Don’t touch me. I feel like I’m getting in trouble when I get touched. To me, when that is a piece of the conversation, that is a horse that is in, you know, has come–come out of elementary school maybe and they’re may be early high school. This version of self-carriage up here, this is college-level stuff. And one of the reasons that you can tell that is because you can take that horse from very loose contact to contact without resistance. If when you pick up the rein to go from no contact to contact, if there is a herky-jerky, jumpy, throwing problematic kind of a response, that is a sign that you might be turning your horse loose and there might be a piece of you that wants to think you’re working on self-carriage. But that’s to me not the same thing as self-carriage. That’s just the horse independently-like going along. Like self-carriage to me is much more polished feeling of balance. You can turn a horse very loose and have the horse going along and be unbalanced. That is not just because they’re on a loose rein. It doesn’t equal self-carriage. I hope this was helpful to you. If any of you are listening and you actually have more questions after hearing all of this, feel free to go to my website and look for that orange button that says, Leave a Voicemail for Podcast and ask another question about this subject if you’d like. Thanks for listening and I’ll talk to you again in the next episode.
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