I thought this was an insightful post by one of my trainers, Sarah Martin. If you have not had the chance to work with her yet, she is wonderful!!
I have recently had some wonderful conversations with trainers around the concept of “lightness.” Some trainers are having a hard time getting their students to TAKE a contact- because the student is afraid that then the horse is not “light.” Others are having a hard time getting the balance out of the rider’s hand and on to their seat- where the horse can then actually balance and become light in the correct, elastic way. In addition, Western Dressage is battling with this concept- and I hope for their sake that they can get some good information from accomplished [and correct!] dressage sources while the sport is still in it’s infancy, so they , too, can understand what “lightness” is.
From a Dressage perspective, lightness is what results when a horse self carries by shifting weight from it’s forehand towards the haunches, accepting the connection of the rein in such a way that the horse does not need to lean on the reins to find it’s balance, but instead lifts it’s back muscles. Think of bending over to lift a heavy load- if you only use your back you end up injuring it- if you engage your legs and stomach, you can lift much more, more often, and more safely.
Horses will power into their shoulders to counterbalance the weight of a person on their back. At training level we are asking a horse to distribute their weight in a “horizontal balance”. You could think of this as distributing the weight in 1/3′ s : 1/3 of the weight goes to the hind legs, 1/3 goes to the back and 1/3 goes to the shoulder, neck,jaw. As a rider you could think of the balance of the horse starting from your seat [the third that is the horses back], emanating down your leg [the 1/3 that is the hindquarter] and forward through your arms and reins – the area for the horse over the spine in front of the saddle- the shoulder, neck, jaw. Your seat is the balance point, and the regulator, of where the horse puts his balance. Like standing on a see saw with a leg on either side, a rider learns to balance the horse from back to front so that you can feel where the weight is going, and direct it so it becomes equally distributed. With horses the challenge is that it is not only back/front, but laterally- inside to outside- that creates the circle of the aids. That is why I teach that the sequence of aids in warm up or starting a green horse is inner rein,weight on the inside seat bone, inner leg, send the momentum out [yes, drift!] until you feel the horse lift it’s back, then capture that drift with your outside leg, and send the momentum to and through your outside seat bone to the outside rein. You should and must feel the horse make a connection to the outside rein- and this is the touchy part. If you do not offer a stable point of contact, contact will never get made – i.e. if you are too “light” in what YOU offer the horse. Flip side, if you lock down your outside arm and hand and HOLD- the horse will touch the rein and think- “Yikes!” and shrink away from the connection. This is where focusing on THE BALANCE POINT comes in- watch that you have enough inside influence [leg, seat and rein] to have a slight curve- SLIGHT- in your horses spine from tail to poll. You can use drifting out on a circle line to make this easy. Then capture your horses outside drift with your outside leg closing and sending the horse forward onto your outside rein- where you feel a pound, for example, on the outside rein. If the horse takes maore than a pound, make sure it was not YOU who took it- give it away momentarily, as in for ONE STRIDE- and start again. Use connecting your stomach muscles to your spine – ugh!- to stabilize your core/seat- relax that feeling and see where the contact on the outside rein is.
Western or Dressage- Training level or Grand Prix- you must be able to establish this connection to get your horse lifting through his back to the connection correctly. AND- to get YOU riding the connection THROUGH YOUR SEAT correctly. You have arrived when you can increase or decrease the weight in your hand by a pound either way, simply by making the connection through your leg/stomach stronger or softer. Some horses like a pound, some horses like 3, some like 3 ounces- but there must be a quantifiable degree of connection in order to move to the next phase- collection- or the place where your horse essentially balances between your leg and seat, with your hand just serving as an interpreter of the balance. Enjoy your ride!
Sarah teaches Dressage clinics all over the United States and South America. Her passion is for teaching and enabling “the lights to go on” for rider’s of all ages. Sarah believes that every rider has talent, and it is lazy teaching that leaves a rider feeling ignorant or inept. Grand Prix can happen in this lifetime for more than just an elite few! Sarah Martin Dressage