Through various sources recently, I have started to feel awful about the rein contact I take when I school Echo. I know that comments weren't intended as criticism and it has been from reading other posts on the matter of 'light contact' that I have started to feel this as well, so none of the material has been specifically aimed at me, but I think contact is a real issue with most dressage riders.
I am, officially, my own biggest critic. When I was working for David Pincus, he used to get hold of the other end of the reins and make me take a contact on his hands, so he could feel what I was doing to the horse's mouth. He usually said that I was not taking enough of a consistent contact - that I was dropping the contact at the wrong moment, and that in fact, giving with the rein is definitely not the same as dropping the contact. You should always be able to feel the horse's mouth, even when you have given in your rein contact. My instructor, John, has reiterated this recently - I need to have a more consistent contact - not stronger or lighter, but just clearer to the horse.
I have started to really think about the type of contact I take on Echo. JME made a very interesting point in a comment on my post Needs Must, which brought to my attention whether my rein aid was behind or in front of the wither. Also, when I watched the demonstration by Emile Faurie, he said that you should only ever use your wrist when asking for bend, as any more than this will make the horse over bent and fall out. I think I was doing both of these things too much - I was using more than my wrist to ask for the bend, and the aid was in front of the wither, meaning that she reacted in the wrong way to it.
When I was thinking about all of this and reading about the ideal 'feather-light' contact that JME says is possible on most horses, I started to feel the horse-owner's guilt. That sinking, deep-down feeling that you have done something dreadful and are not worthy of riding your poor horse, as you make such a terrible job of it. When I got on Echo yesterday in order to school her, I rode for the first 10 minutes in walk on a loose rein, completely unsure of what I should do. Then I sorted myself out.
I rode as I usually do - albeit with a sharper focus on what I was doing with my hands - and I remembered that I am capable of riding my horse. She is a cob, who is very young and naturally on the forehand, so she is not going to be uphill and featherlight just yet. She needs to learn about balance and subtlety and carrying herself, so I have to show her at the moment what I want. When she trots around, she always has her ears either forwards or sideways, tuned into me - she doesn't come behind the bit and she tries her hardest to do what I ask of her. I don't think she is uncomfortable.
I don't ride with a strong contact - I sometimes have to take a stronger contact, in order to create the frame where she will carry me in the easiest way for her - but when she gives in her poll and her jaw, then I lighten it. Surely that is the point of schooling - lightness is the end product, with harmony and balance achieved by working at it - especially when your horse is not ideally built for it! Lightness is what I obviously want to have with my horse - in all respects, but that cannot be reached (at least in my experience - except with a horse that is built naturally 'on the bit') without establishing a clear contact first.
I sound like I am ranting, and I think I probably am but mainly at myself. I always doubt my own abilities and get the 'guilt' but I have a happy horse who is willing to work for me, which I think has got to say something to me. I have to remind myself every now and again that schooling is a process developed throughout the horse's life - I can't expect it to be perfect immediately - she's only four!