I got to ride yesterday. If you can call it that. I tacked up and got on and walked around. With PJ missing a shoe and the thin layer of ice covering snow over unsure footing, there was nothing else to do. But I wasn’t going to let the opportunity of a warm day go to waste. I decided to concentrate on keeping even contact in both reins. That was not an easy task because PJ was looking around a lot. One minute he would be nicely bent to the inside and the next he was swinging his head to the outside to look at a horse in the adjacent field. He also raised and lowered his head a lot to help himself power through the snow drifts.
It’s important to keep an even feeling on the reins to teach the horse that contact is a good thing. When riding under regular circumstances, we practice a lot of stretchy circles both at the walk and trot (and I should probably do it at the canter too). When letting the horse out, he should follow how much you let out the reins. Start with opening your pinky. You should feel a very brief change of contact as your horse adjusts and then he should feel just like he did when you had him more up. Let the reins slip out your fingers another inch and the same thing should happen. Then let them slip a little more until he’s in a nice long and low frame. He shouldn’t try to grab the reins. If he does that, send him forward back into the contact you have and try again. If he stays in the contact, he won’t fall on his forehand.
To bring the horse back into a shortened frame, half-halt first to shorten his body, which will automatically shorten his neck to closer to where you started. Then fairly quickly pick back up your reins by reaching across. If you try to inch up your reins, it takes too long and you’ve lost the benefit of the half-halt.
People are afraid to let their horses out on a long rein for the stretchy circle because they are afraid they are going to loose control. But if you do it correctly, the horse remains in contact the entire time, so you maintain the control. Also, allowing the horse to stretch his neck is a reward for him.
If you normally have trouble keeping a nice, even contact, try riding with your hands wide. Keep your elbows at your sides and hinge your lower arms away from your body like wings. Once he’s even with the wide contact, you should be able to bring your hands back to neutral (on either side of the withers) and maintain the feeling because the horse wants that feeling. This is how many young horses are started.
For my ride yesterday, no matter where PJ positioned his head, I moved my hands to follow. Sometimes that meant moving one of my hands several inches away from neutral. However, I made sure not to allow my hands to cross the withers, which is always incorrect. The goal was for PJ to consistently feel the same pressure from my hands so that he would seek that pressure when I had my hands correct, thereby discouraging him from wanting to swing his head around. I only rode for 15 or 20 minutes but at the end he had a lot of foam around his mouth and was paying a lot more attention.