Whereas contact is simply the feeling of the horse's mouth at the end of the reins, a good connection is a much more sophisticated feel and a subtle yet highly effective way for horse and rider to get and receive information from one another. Connection involves an elastic feel from the snaffle rein that travels through the arms, back, seat and legs of the rider. When true connection is established, the entire body becomes an effective and polished communication instrument, and that is where the art of dressage begins.
I have come to realize—and I really wish I had known this earlier—that a connection doesn't build from something; it builds from nothing. Yes, you read that right. The best connection starts from nothing but an independent relaxed seat and the quiet, neutral absence of aids. I have learned over the years that the best riders are successful largely because they have honed the ability to do nothing—to sit immobile and centered, at ease and in neutral. To be neutral in your body means being connected to your horse without inadvertently giving him any unnecessary information, just an elastic feel from your body through the reins to your horse's mouth.
Even after I understood this concept, it still took a good deal of time for me to eliminate the "white noise" from my riding. I had to be sure my seat was centered, soft, supple and still. I had to eliminate all fidgeting with the reins and nagging with the legs. Every movement, every aid had to mean something or it should not be applied. That is neutral. Once you have quieted down your riding, you will be amazed at how much better your horse will respond to you. Most of the time, your horse is reacting to some kind of signal that you are sending him, whether you mean to give him an aid or not. If the only "something" that he hears is a direct, quiet and softly spoken aid that comes from a supple, balanced and neutral rider, his response will surely be a generous one. Often, we think we are doing nothing, but we are being unknowingly noisy with tension in the hips, arms or shoulders, too much rein pressure or nagging restless legs. Our horses react in many ways to this constant stimulation. Some stiffen, block and ignore us; while others become restless and fidgety themselves. Nothing that resembles art can come from such chaos.
Learning to be neutral starts with an independent seat, using the body to balance and relax rather than holding on. The longe line is an excellent tool to teach a rider how to become independent. Once you have an independent seat, you can start with the reins, but don't apply rein aids that don't have meaning. Start with the softest connection that both you and the horse are comfortable with and after every rein aid, go back to that feel. It takes both time and patience to be able to do nothing. Take the time. Learn to have patience.
Teaching connection is difficult. I start talking to my students about connection very early, but it is really just words until they can begin to make use of these words by developing their feel; the horses start to reward them by responding appropriately. First they might get a feel for the energy that passes from front to back or back to front and then how the energy is received by the hind legs. Next, I instruct them to be aware the second that energy is lost. Timing develops by feel, and feel is developed by learning to ride in neutral.
Once you get the feeling of a true connection, you will want to recreate it again and again. It is important during this process to remember neutral and go back to it after every interaction. If you do as little as possible and as much as necessary whenever you want to achieve something, you will not go far wrong. Less is always more in dressage. Once you have that connection, your horse's gaits will look their best, and you will be a welcome partner to your horse and not a noisy intruder.
Yvonne Barteau is a U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medalist. She and her husband, Kim, train out of Indian Hills Training Center in Gilberts, Ill. Her book on horse personalities is Ride the Right Horse, by Storey Publishing and available at HorseBooksEtc.com.