How are Connection, Rein Length, and Weight in the Reins Related?
This article is the third in a series of articles that will serve to discuss in depth the various tiers of the USDF Training Pyramid. Every dressage rider should be very familiar with this Pyramid. The tiers are as follows: Rhythm, with Energy and Tempo; Relaxation, with Elasticity and Suppleness; Connection-Acceptance of the Bit through Acceptance of the Aids; Impulsion-Increased Energy and Thrust; Straightness with Improved Alignment and Balance; and Collection-Increased Engagement, Lightness of the Forehand, Self-Carriage. A pamphlet discussing it in depth may be found here: https://www.usdf.org/EduDocs/Training/Pyramid_of_Training.pdf
Since everything we do every day with our horses is interrelated, I will demonstrate with these articles specific connections between the various tiers, and how they can be used to facilitate the training of the horse at every level. The vast majority of riders and horses are at Training Level, but what the reader must understand is that this is the MOST IMPORTANT level, for horse and rider. A good education in the beginning secures the future of every dressage horse and every aspiring dressage rider. ~Stacy C. Williams
Connection(Acceptance of the bit through acceptance of the aids) is the third tier in the USDF Training Pyramid. The explanation further illuminates: “The energy generated in the hindquarters by the driving aids must flow through the whole body of the horse and is received in the rider’s hands. The contact to the bit must be elastic and adjustable, creating fluent interaction between horse and rider with appropriate changes in the horse’s outline. Acceptance of the bit is identified by the horse quietly chewing the bit. This activates the salivary glands so that the mouth becomes moist and production of saliva is evident. The softly moving tongue should remain under the bit. The quality of the connection and balance can be evaluated by ‘üeberstreichen’, releasing the reins (to demonstrate self carriage) or by allowing the horse to chew the reins out of the hands (to demonstrate relaxation).”
This article will be on the longer side, simply because the concept of connection is by nature very specific to each individual horse and rider, and is furthermore a dynamic state, changing within the ride, from day to day and from year to year. This makes it a very nebulous concept that is difficult to explain. It has to be felt. This is why robots will never be able to judge dressage, and is also why dressage judges trained within the same system will have differences in opinion. It is the point from which all of the advanced work develops, thus a clear understanding on the part of the horse and the rider is critical.
Perhaps one of the most concerning topics for newer dressage riders is rein length, and, the amount of pressure or weight in the contact. It is a subject often discussed. The most difficult concept for riders to learn at the basic levels is how contact(the amount and the evenness of the pressure in the rein) relates to connection(the ability to influence the back and hind end and stay "on the aids" aka "throughness"). Many riders want me to tell them which notch on their handstop reins is the correct notch. Unfortunately, my answer always has to be "it depends". If there was a set formula for these kinds of things, dressage would not be so difficult. It would boil down strictly to science, vs. the art that it actually is. Art is a reflection of emotion, feel, or intuition. However, good art is always based in science and therefore the two are not wholly independent. An artist who does not have the technical skill to use her tools correctly cannot convey her vision, no matter how creative.
So how long should a dressage rider's reins be? Furthermore, how much pressure should the rider feel in her hands? It depends. The first thing riders must understand is that the contact belongs to the horse, and connection is a gift the rider earns. It is the job of the rider to ensure that the horse is first traveling with a good forward thought, with correct rhythm in all three paces. The horse should be supple enough to bend somewhat symmetrically left and right, all with a relaxed state of mind and minimal negative emotional or physical tension. Once this is established, the length of the rein and the weight of the contact depend on a number of factors: 1. The ability of the horse to engage the hind leg, whether affected by level of training or conformation. A long backed, downhill horse will obviously be less able to engage the hind leg and shift its balance to load the hind end during the stance phase as compared to a horse that is shorter and more uphill. 2. The degree of lateral and longitudinal suppleness of the horse. 3. The lateral and longitudinal flexibility of the horse’s jaw and poll and the amount of space in the throatlatch area. 4. The sensitivity and/or stoicism of the horse. Iberian horses often prefer a lighter feel, whereas a more old-fashioned style Warmblood may prefer a much more solid feel. 5. The horse’s conformation in terms of neck shape, set and length. 6. The correctness of the rider’s seat and hands as well as the rider’s physical strength. This correctness goes directly to “tolerability” of the contact that the rider offers the horse. It goes without saying that the more correct the rider’s seat and hands are, the more tolerable the contact will be for the horse. 7. The stage of training of the horse. A green horse, be it a green Training level horse or a green Grand Prix level horse, may at times need more help balancing. The more confirmed the horse is at its level, the better able it is to hold the connection through the rider’s seat vs. relying on the support the bit creates. There are many more factors that could be mentioned here, but these are the most common.
Biomechanical studies have shown that most horses prefer a weight of roughly 2 lbs in each rein. This more or less answers the question of how much weight should be in the reins. But the nuance of the feel in that weight can vary greatly. Two pounds of dead weight with no adjustability will cause even the strongest rider’s fingers to fall asleep and shoulders to get sore. One can only imagine how the horse must feel in this scenario as well. On the other hand, a highly trained horse who is strengthened to full capacity and in complete balance and harmony may work with only the weight of the reins and still remain completely connected to his rider. Furthermore, a very powerful and big moving horse can offer a very elastic and malleable connection of five or more pounds, particularly in the extended paces or in the passage. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the rider to develop her seat and position to such a degree that the “feel” is not lost in the contact. A rider who falls behind the motion or stands in the stirrups will necessarily rely on the horse’s mouth for her balance, thus limiting the horse’s ability to use the contact to create an honest connection from the hind leg, through his back and into the rider’s hand.
As for rein length, again it depends. The horse who is properly connected from the hind leg, through its back and into the rider’s hand will fill up the length of the rein as it is lengthened gradually by the rider, stretching down and out. This is why the stretch down circle is such a fundamental part of the tests in Training and First level. There also used to be a canter stretch down at Second level, and conscientious riders will still check the horse’s willingness to stretch every single ride, at every pace. The difference between a beginning rider and a more educated rider is that a beginner will view that pesky trot stretch down circle in the Training and First level tests as a “movement” and not as a tool to gauge the honesty in the connection as the educated rider does. The horse lowers and stretches as the rider tactfully feeds out length, yet remains completely adjustable. Any horse can be taught to drop its head to the floor on cue, often seen when riders widen their hands or see saw the bit. That is not connection and will not develop the scope in the topline needed for advanced work.
Riders must realize that a long rein is not any more kind than a short rein, and quite often it can actually be less kind. If the reins are too long, and the horse is not properly connected, completely on the aids, and in full self-carriage, then by necessity the rider will only be able to make contact by pulling back. Using the hand in a backward fashion is a cardinal sin in development of a horse’s willingness to accept the bit. Recall my earlier statement that the contact belongs to the horse. The other major realization for riders concerning rein length is that in order for the contact to remain elastic, the length of the rein must be elastic, not static. This elasticity comes from the stability of the rider’s seat and position, and the ability to absorb the bounce in the elbows. The wrists must remain stable, but, the elbows must flow and follow, to eliminate any “snapping” of the reins. The rider must be able to adjust the rein length quickly and tactfully at any point throughout the ride, without disturbing the acceptance of the bit. Anyone with some climbing experience might relate to the following comparison. A rock climber always climbs on a rope that is dynamic. The rope has some stretch. The lead climber always has a very light but elastic connection to this rope, and it is the life-saving job of the belayer to maintain just enough connection with his leader to prevent a fall to the deck. If the lead climber were to fall, the elasticity in the rope would give slightly and thus absorb energy from the fall, preventing the climber or his belayer from being snapped in half upon making full contact with the rope. This system only works if there is not too much slack in the rope, nor too much tension which would prevent the leader from advancing upward. This is a life and death scenario, but nevertheless clearly emphasize the need for a proper understanding of connection. As it pertains to the feeling the horse encounters, if a rider does not have enough control over her position to maintain a light, elastic, reasonably steady connection with the horse’s mouth, the horse will feel that same “snapping” at every rise and fall of the stride. Place a bit over your shin and have a non-riding friend move the reins in various ways if you would like to understand how the unpredictability of an inelastic and unsteady elbow/hand/bit connection can cause you great distress. Such is the lot of the horse and it is important for every rider to work very hard to improve her position enough to offer a “tolerable” contact to her horse.
How does a rider determine whether or not the connection is good? Much of this depends on feel. The horse will feel easier to sit, even(especially) a big moving horse, because the connection from the hind leg to the hand creates a steady wave on which the rider can balance and follow. The sounds of the footfalls will diminish as the horse’s body and back absorb the concussion. The space behind the saddle will fill in as all of the muscles of the horse’s back fill and stretch in reaction to the lifted abdominal muscles. The horse may feel taller as the hind leg engages and bears more of the load. The legs will work in sync and there will be no roughness in the way each hoof impacts the ground. The rider will be able to open and close the horse’s frame-commensurate to his level of training-at will. The horse will go easily forward, and respond smoothly to the half halt. A rider who understands fully the concept of a quality connection also understands that you don’t teach a horse extended trot as though it is a movement. Extended trot develops naturally over time, with correct attention to the basic details of rhythm and all it encompasses; relaxation and all it encompasses; and the development of an even and committed acceptance of the bit by a horse that is genuinely on the aids and in front of the leg.
Connection is where the rubber meets the road in this discipline, and the quality of it can make or break a horse’s ability to progress through and beyond Second level, which is the foundation for all the advanced work. It also will make or break a rider’s ability to ride at an advanced level, because a horse that is well connected is easier to ride. Ask any Grand Prix rider, and they will tell you they spend the bulk of their rides developing the basics of Rhythm, Relaxation and Connection. They use the touchstone of Second level work to prepare their horse day in and day out. It behooves every rider and every horse to work every day toward an elastic, dynamic, mutual connection irrespective of competitive goals. Who doesn’t appreciate that feeling of oneness only achieved when horse and rider are genuinely connected?
The photos that follow will illustrate some points outlined in the article. I like to use photos of myself and my own horse for a more real world comparison, and also for copyright reasons.
Photo one illustrates a three year old horse showing at Training Level at his first show, in proper connection. Notice the parallelism of the diagonal pairs of legs, the slightly open throatlatch, and the reach through the entire topline towards the bit. The rider’s elbows are allowing forward, and the line from the elbow, through the forearm, the hand and to the bit is straight. The poll could be slightly higher, but this is a good moment in connection for a young horse. Photo credit Dow Williams
Photo two illustrates a Third level horse who has lost the commitment to the connection. At first glance, it’s quite a nice-looking moment, but on further examination you will see that he is not reaching out to the hand and has instead retracted his neck slightly. The rider’s hands are slightly above the line of connection. If the photo were taken from the other side, we would notice that the joints of the hind leg have not taken enough weight to sufficiently lift his entire mass into a more uphill, “out to the bridle” manner. This is a great example of an honestly working horse who is not quite yet strong enough to support his mass in more advanced work. It isn’t a terrible moment, but, little leaks sink big ships. Photo credit Andalusian World Cup