Not long after I got my Freedom I remember riding him in a lesson and feeling that he was going pretty well. He was hot but “packaged.”
My trainer reminded me that if I was holding him together the entire time, I was losing the ability to communicate with him. She told me I had to let go. Not necessarily dropping my horse but maintaining a soft giving contact that would allow a conversation with him. When you have a soft contact you can feel what’s going on with your horse and you can feel him reaching into the contact and relaxing through is back; muscling your horse onto the bit might look like there’s a connection, but it’s only a one-way conversation. Heavy pulling sets up resistance in the horse’s jaw and neck and actually can make your horse off balance by putting more weight on his forehand.
Letting go of a horse that’s wired to go can be scary. Keep in mind that when racehorses are galloped jockeys use a steady hard contact so they associate that with going fast. I started to “let go” of my horse in a ring. After all, it’s not like he could go anywhere. Letting go forces the horse to rebalance himself and makes the rider start to use other aids to slow him down. This is where your balance comes into play: half halts done through your seat and back. And I needed all of the tricks I could muster because he went pretty darn fast.
But once he realized that I wasn’t going to keep him in a death grip of control, he started to listen and to slow down. In fact, most of the time now he seems most comfortable in a light contact where he’s reaching toward the bit and accepting it.
We still have moments where I forget to let go. One of them was yesterday. My horse has a serious case of spring fever. He wanted to go and he didn’t want to pay attention. In the middle of my ride I realized that my body was tight and I had a death grip on my rein. I started working him in figures (circles, 8s, etc.) to slow him down and remembered to give with my hands and use my other aids to ask him to slow down. I’d be lying if I said he was good, but at least he got better and I had some nice work at the end where he was swinging through his back and more relaxed.