My first months riding at the Schultheis stable were of course without stirrups. I had already developed an elastic, rhythmical seat, but Mr. Schultheis wanted me to take it a step further and learn how to use my seat to create contact as opposed to simply following the horse’s motion.
Whenever a serious student comes to me for training, this is also the first step I require of them. After I see improvement in the seat, we talk about contact.
Schultheis was a stickler for contact. I was not allowed to pull backward on the horse’s mouth. After removing my stirrups, his first order to me was to straighten my arms toward the bit with no bend in my elbows and learn to stop the horse with my seat, not my hands. I was not allowed to bend or pull my elbows backward...ever. Walk, trot, canter, working gaits, collected gaits, transitions between all of these—no hands allowed.
This was a difficult phase, mostly because I suffered from severe carpal tunnel inflammation at the time and this position was excruciating for me. But I did not complain, and after a few days I learned how to relax with my elbows in front of me, and my further education began.
“Contact is the fifth leg of the horse.” This was a phrase that Mr. Schultheis repeated to me over and over again as he encouraged me to ride my horses with increasing impulsion toward the bit. I was not very clear at first what he meant by this phrase, but gradually I figured it out.
In balancing the weight of the rider while being ridden through from behind, the horse depends as much on the contact with the bit as he does on his own four legs to maintain his balance in motion. This does not mean that the horse leans on the bit. It means that if he is comfortable with the contact and knows that the contact will not change or interfere with his balance, he can step confidently off his own four legs toward his fifth leg (the bit) without fear of being jerked off balance by the rider.
Imagine this, Rita: You carry a small child on your back. This child is a spoiled, rambunctious boy; his name is Horrible Harry. He has a pair of reins in his hand (as opposed to the recommended broom) connected to a metal bit that you carry in your mouth. This child kicks you into trot, bounces against your back, pulls back on the reins, then drops the contact, abruptly takes the contact back and see-saws on your mouth.
How well are you trotting now? Are you relaxed and getting into the task of schlepping this kid around? Are you confident in your balance and your strides? Can you add expression to your gait?
You switch passengers and now you have a nice polite young girl on your back. Her name is Princess Polly. She takes up the reins, carries the bit softly in the upper corners of your mouth, never changing pressure, never losing contact, never moving the metal in your mouth. She balances herself perfectly with the motion of your trot. Her seat to hand connection is golden—never backward, never unbalanced.
How well are you trotting now? Do you enjoy your task? Is your trot improving? Are you proud to carry this rider? Are you showing off?
The horse depends on a kind and educated contact with the bit in order to relax his neck muscles while being ridden. Without relaxed neck muscles he cannot enjoy his task and he cannot add expression to his movement. He also cannot let all the impulsion from the hind legs through his back and neck because his jaws are tense. He is concentrating on the next movement of the metal and defending himself against it. He is not enjoying his work; he is not leaning into his work.
Mr. Schultheis also said that the ratio of the rider’s pressure on the saddle to the pressure on the bit, should be 9-1. In other words: Deep seat, light hand. Nine times the pressure from your seat as the pressure from your hand.
Catherine Haddad on Winyamaro: Pushing the bit in front of the horse and asking the hind legs to follow. Photo by Julia Wentscher.
This also took a long time for me to fully understand. But the deeper you sit in an elastic way, the more able you are to let go in front of the saddle and truly ride toward your hand, thus lightening pressure on the bit. Sometimes Mr. Schultheis reminded me to sit “heavy with the full weight of the upper body falling into the saddle.” Relax and let the horse carry you. Do not grip with your legs and lighten your seat. Another good reason to take the stirrups away....
This reminder to sit heavy on the horse always produced the same result for me. I leaned back a little, introducing my back pockets to the saddle, and let go with my legs. My balance and stability in the saddle increased. I could let go in front. More impulsion from the hind legs simply pushed into my back pockets and propelled me along with the horse. I could ride all the energy toward the bit.
I came to think of the bit as a point I was trying to push in front of the horse without losing contact through the reins. No loose or floppy reins. I thought of my reins like broomsticks as I pushed them toward the bit rings. Or sometimes I imaged my arms extending through the leather of the reins so that I could gently wrap my first two fingers through the bit rings.