Finding Your Comfort Zone
This dressage rider learned the value of a quiet, firm rein contact in a clinic with dressage trainer Catherine Haddad.
By Risa B. Hoag
As a rider, one never knows exactly what to expect during a clinic. But Catherine Haddad's comprehensive online training videos had caught my attention and when I learned she was coming to nearby Gladstone, New Jersey, I figured it was a great opportunity to learn from her in person.
My mare Mia, a 9-year-old Selle Fran?ais, is a former jumper and knew nothing about dressage when I bought her in 2009. So we've had our work cut out for us. During the clinic, Catherine complimenting Mia on her gaits and working trot rhythm, noted that she liked my rein contact and then sized up my uneven hands and went to work on straightening my body. She did this not by asking me to straighten my torso or shoulders, but by telling me to put my knuckles together (literally) and hold my hands out in front of me with a bend in my elbow. I was quickly able to see that my rein length was uneven, which I compensated for by twisting my body.
"By putting your hands together in front of you, you are forced to make your reins even and you automatically straighten your body on the horse," said Catherine. "I do this all the time on my own horses and ask myself, ?Catherine, are you straight?'"
Next, Catherine explained how I should quiet my reins in order to keep Mia consistently (and comfortably) on the bit, and to tell her where her head and neck should stay. I needed to understand how to use my reins in a more "workmanlike" fashion. To do this, Catherine asked me to hold my inside rein in an upward way, with a real bend in my elbow, while my outside hand remained lower and directly in front of the saddle. Once I was able to get past the mechanical feeling of placing my hands in this manner, the difference was amazing.
This was an "aha!" moment for me. It took a while to understand that my outside rein could be lower and have less movement, while my inside rein could be held higher and be more active. Also critical was understanding that by keeping my outside rein firmly against her neck and by carrying my inside hand in an upward way, not only was I preventing her from escaping through the outside shoulder, but I was also keeping the bit evenly placed in her mouth. When I got it right, her relaxation was immediately apparent and she came round and through.
Catherine also pointed out that I did this exercise more naturally to the right. At first I didn't agree, but as I have practiced with this new rein contact I have found this to be true. I have a much more natural feel to the right, and it is taking more work to get comfortable to the left. Every rider has a better side, as do most horses, and while it is easier to work on the more comfortable side, forcing myself to work more to the left has enabled us to become more symmetrical.
During Catherine's second visit to Outfoxed Farm she got on Mia to demonstrate the steady and consistent rein contact she was looking for, as well as the frame I should expect. She rode Mia with a quiet, steady and upward contact and explained, "There shouldn't be any conversation going on. It's a piece of metal in the horse's mouth and the more you work it and the more you use it, the more resistant most horses get."
After about 10 minutes, I got back on Mia and Catherine positioned my hands where they needed to be. My job was to keep the contact exactly the same. This technique worked brilliantly. Catherine reiterated that my hands should remain quiet and neutral in order to show the horse where I want her head and neck to be, without playing and fiddling with the bit. The quieter and steadier the rein contact was, the quieter and rounder Mia became. "In good riding, the bit is not there for you to play with," said Catherine. "It is there for the horse to carry softly and quietly and evenly without interference."
Mia remained in a steady, forward and through frame the entire time as I focused on my quiet but firm rein contact. While we often read about lightness in the bridle, I found there was a certain amount of pressure in this connection. But neither one of us was pulling. Mia and I were both comfortable, and I was able to maintain that connection in the canter as well as in the downward transitions.
While the bulk of my lessons focused on rein contact, Catherine also provided some insight into my seat and using it more effectively in the canter. "Use your seat to tell the horse canter like this, canter like this?adjusting your seat as you ask for more collection or extension," she said. I have always used my seat to send the horse forward in the canter. However, Catherine helped me understand how to use my seat to collect and balance the horse as well. I find myself saying canter like this over and over in my head when we are working, regardless of whether I am asking for a lengthening in the canter or collection.
Throughout both clinics, Catherine reiterated to many of the riders, "You need to give your horses the amount of rein that is appropriate for the work and tell them to get comfortable there." The same is true for the rider. Put your body and hands in the right place and get comfortable there. Thanks Catherine!