Riding English

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Ask Julie Goodnight:
What’s the difference in Western and English riding? Especially when it comes to “contact?”…

Question: Dear Julie,
I have ridden Western for the last 20 years, and have trained my horses based on the resistance free method or natural horsemanship as it is most commonly known today. I ride my current horse in a Myler bit with a short shank that has the independent side motion as I tend to go back and forth between two hands or one.

I recently started taking Classical Dressage lessons and I am struggling most with the reins. I’m so used to releasing a rein when the horse does what I ask, or using a rein to ask the horse to drop it’s head and relax, and yet the dressage horse I ride seems to look for or even need that contact. My instructor describes contact as holding my child’s hand – not too tight, but don’t let go either. This is so counter intuitive for me since I don’t understand how to reward the horse I’m riding without releasing the rein. Can you help me understand the necessity of contact? How do you calm down a chargey horse that needs to be on contact? Can you ride on contact constantly, or should it just be for certain maneuvers? Can a horse go back and forth? Is contact better? I’m really struggling to understand the why and how.

Thank you so much,

Answer: Sharon,

Thank you for some very thought provoking questions—questions that I have pondered a lot myself over the years. To me, the most challenging difference between English and Western riding is the difference in contact. I switched from English to Western and had to learn to give up the direct contact on the mouth. It took me almost two years to break the habit and learn to let go of my horse. You are switching from Western to English and need to learn to ride with contact so that your horse can rely on it and balance on steady pressure.

Contact is contact, whether it is an ounce of contact in each hand, a pound of contact or five pounds (and BTW—riding on a loose rein is not riding “off contact” because the horse can still feel your hands and any movement you make, even with slack in the reins). A horse that is ridden on direct contact learns to rely on the contact in part for his balance, just like when you hold a horse’s foot up to work on it—he should not be leaning on you but he can rely on your contact to help him balance on three feet. So a horse that becomes accustomed to riding on direct contact will often search for the contact and throwing the reins away can be a lot like suddenly dropping out from under a horse’s leg without warning and letting his foot slam to the ground. He can regain his balance, but it would be nice if you gave him some warning before you dropped his foot.

To simplify, English horses balance on the contact and are reliant on the rider to hold the desired frame, while Western horses are required to hold themselves in the frame on a loose rein (self-carriage). English horses go “on the bit” (searching out contact and stretching into the bridle) while Western horses come off of the pressure from the bit. Western horses learn that if they hold themselves in the desired frame or give to bit pressure, they will find a release and that is known as coming off the bit or seeking out slack. English horses come to rely on the contact for balance. It is really just a matter of what the horse is used to.

However, for either English or Western horses, the release of pressure is always the reward, but that release can be relative. You can still give a release of pressure when riding on contact without throwing the reins away. For example, as you ask for more collection, you will increase the contact with rhythmic alternating rein pressure; when the horse comes into the frame you want, you can soften your hands, softening the contact, without going to a loose rein. It is still a release and still a reward. For more information on using the reins in advanced maneuvers like collection and lateral movements, see volume 5 in my riding DVD series, Refinement and Collection.

A “chargey” horse is indicative of a training problem and riding with or without contact is probably not the solution. I’d first rule out a physical problem for his anxiety, then I’d look to the bit to see if something could be done to make the horse more comfortable in his mouth (one of the biggest sources of anxiety in hot horses) then I would look to better training to deal with disobedience. A horse that is properly trained and obedient should not change speed unless signaled to do so by his rider. It is quite likely that with a chargey horse I might spend more time riding on a loose rein.

I like for all the horses I ride and train, whether English or Western, to be ridden both on contact and on a loose rein in every training session. I also like to ride them both in a natural, long and low frame and at various degrees of collection in each session. There’s no reason why a horse can’t do it all, if the rider can adjust.

If you are going to be riding on direct contact a lot, you might want to switch to a snaffle side piece instead of the short shank. Although the Myler short shank (HBT shank) is not much stronger than a snaffle, it does give a little more leverage (one pound of contact might mean 1 ½ or 2 pounds of pull). The great thing about the Myler bits is that you can get eh same mouthpiece on a shanked (curb) bit or a snaffle (direct pressure). I’ve written a lot about this, so check out some related articles in my training library.

I don’t think riding on-contact or on a loose rein is better or right or wrong, it just depends on what you are doing and the style of training. A well trained horse and a rider with soft and educated hands should be able to do it all.
Good luck!

–Julie Goodnight Trainer and Clinician
If you liked this article, Julie suggests watching the Myler’s free online videos at http://juliegoodnight.com/mylervideos.html and the following products to help you continue the work with your horse (http://shop.juliegoodnight.com or call 719-530-0531 for ordering help):
The Goodnight Bitting System
The Goodnight’s Principles of Riding 5-Part DVD Series

Safety Concerns: Looking For A Horse… Is My Trainer Helping?

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Question Category: Safety Concerns

Question: Hi, Julie:

My trainer (of 6 months) agreed to help me find an Arab or Arab Cross. She is a dressage instructor with no real fondness for the breed. Her preference is most definitely an Arab Cross. I know little about buying a horse and decided she was the authority and have turned it over to her. I know several ladies though who are strong endurance riders on the East Coast and one of them had three prospects for me to look at. She sent a video to my trainer. To my eye they all looked great. She’s given three thumbs down on each. Several other gals at my barn have been searching for more than a year. They’re not looking to buy an Arab because they only want to do dressage. But, again, all the prospects for one reason or another, she says “no”. However, a friend of hers had a horse she thought would be terrific for one of my friends. All excited, the horse arrived at the barn with a huge gash in its back leg. An injury sustained with no attention for a good month. I was shocked our trainer would have even allowed the horse to be brought to our barn for consideration. After the vet check, he determined the swelling was so severe that the horse would be good only for breeding otherwise should not be ridden. The damage was too severe.

I don’t know what to make of all this. I belong to all of the horse organizations. Everyone has horses for sale. I need a trainer to help me weed through the good vs. the bad. My confidence has gotten shaky this week in my trainer’s decision making. I should also mention, she has a friend who needs to sell an Arab cross. When I asked her if the horse was a good endurance prospect, she had no information. If you were me, what would you do?


Answer: Teresa,

If you are looking for an endurance horse, you should find a trainer that is active in that field. It is about as far from dressage as you can get. You need an expert that can guide you through the pros and cons of horses, their breeding, conformation, performance, etc. These are the people that have contacts in that realm of the horse world and would know of good prospects (you don’t need to waste time looking at inappropriate horses).
Finding a horse to buy is often a long and arduous process and I know many people that have looked for more than a year before finding the right horse. Be patient and be picky and find some help.

There are seller’s agents and buyer’s agents. You need a buyer’s agent that you can pay his/her regularly hourly fee to look at horses for you. Or you could engage a trainer to look for horses for you for a finder’s fee (be wary of commissions for buyer’s agents since that encourages the trainer to look for an expensive horse). Most often what you encounter is the seller’s agent (like with real estate), who is receiving a commission on the sale (usually 10%); therefore you may not get all the info you need about the horse. Be very leery of double-dipping agents (taking a commission from both buyer and seller).

Good luck and be patient. When you find the right horse, it will be well worth the wait. Don’t forget, the internet is a great resource for finding horses for sale, but use discretion.


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.

Riding Skills: Is Contact Required For Collection?

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Question Category: Riding Skills

Question: Julie,

I saw your clinic at the horse Expo in Illinois a couple of years ago and am completely impressed with both the your clinic and the down to earth way you present information on the Q&A page of your website. I know I have learned a lot from you! I have a question that I hope you can shed some light on for me.

I have ridden in a western saddle for around 30 years and just took up basic dressage in the last 6 months. I had a judge comment to me in my last dressage test that I don’t have enough contact – which I knew – but then she continued on and said that without proper contact there is no way a horse can canter confidently.

I have ridden horses and seen horses ridden on a loose rein – or even bridleless – that seem to be cantering quite confidently. Is she referencing a proper collected dressage canter specifically or am I missing something in my knowledge of a horse that is ridden in western pleasure, reining, barrel, or other disciplines? Thanks for taking the time to respond and I look forward to hearing from you.

Thank you,

Answer: Nicole,

Collection is a natural movement—it’s known as “prideful” behavior and most everyone has seen it at one time or another. The horse has his neck arched high; his tail up over his back and he is strutting his stuff. Almost everything we ask of the horse when we are riding he can do naturally—therefore he is capable of doing it with confidence. To say there is “no way” a horse can do this is perhaps an overstatement.
Horses can make collected maneuvers under saddle, with or without out heavy contact, on light contact, a loose rein or with no bridle at all because they can do it on their own naturally. Unless the rider gets in the way, which we all know is usually the case.

The judge that told you the horse needs more contact to canter confidentially no doubts believes that that is the most prudent training technique to get the desired result.

It’s true that support with the outside rein will help you engage the horse’s hind end—but I do not believe that heavier contact necessarily gets a better response. In fact, in my opinion, the lighter the horse is (the less pressure on the bit required to get the desired response) the better the movement.

Having said that, you’ll benefit a lot in your riding skill and knowledge of riding theory by taking dressage lessons. There are some schools of thought in dressage that are very heavy, and others that strive for lightness and natural movements. Allege Ideal http://www.allege-ideal.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=274&Itemid=47〈=en is a movement in dressage that I believe strongly in and whole-heartedly support. There are some important issues at stake here—check it out.


Copyright ©Julie Goodnight 2000. All Rights Reserved. No part of this website may be reproduced without owner’s express consent.