(“It certainly beats bulldozing him around.”)
Contact, connection, self carriage – these are mysterious concepts when entangled with admonitions not to let your horse hang on you but not to hand ride. How much weight to allow in your hands varies through a horse’s development. Without allowing him to take advantage of you, as a very green horse develops the concept of “forward” and “going to the hand” a little bit of physical support which gives him a target to aim for, speeds the process.
But if an inexperienced rider gets stuck, this is often where it happens. The formerly desirable contact morphs into rigidity or leaning. One rider reaction is to circumvent the problem by becoming more passive or lighter, but this approach avoids creating a pliable, permeable topline. Without that, engagement and collection are unattainable. A second reaction is to back the horse off the hand, either marring his activity behind or curling him behind the bit. In both cases there can be no honest connection or all the things which can flow from it.
Two seemingly opposing exercises combine to demonstrate the relationship you are seeking. Each should be alive in the other. One is the ability to allow the horse to stretch respectfully long and low, gradually chewing the reins out of your fingers. The other is that German term überstreichen which denotes the ability to release one or both reins while the horse remains round, bent, balanced, uphill, and connected though the physical contact is removed for several strides. All the while the mental aspect of the connection remains.
My general advice is don’t be afraid of a little heaviness if it is short term and for a good purpose. Lightness is a very worthy goal—not always achieved only by being light— and it must not be confused with acquiescing to your horse’s wishes and having less control.
Your horse must always be surrounded by the aids. The nature of that surrounding can be pretty subtle, and because I am very fond of horses going that way, I have lots of imagery that I like to share. One is the “magnetic bottle,” a hypothetical from the field of nuclear fusion research where an extremely hot plasma gas would melt right through its container if it contacted the sides of its vessel. But because the plasma is ionized, it can be suspended in mid air by electromagnets —complete control without physical support.
In Germany I saw a small pen on wheels —imagine a cart with no floor which is pulled behind a tractor. Put a handful of cows in the movable pen and they will docilely march along to wherever you’re taking them without once the walls of the cart bumping into them. They just know stay within that space you have created.
And my third image – this one a bit more esoteric — the playing of the theremin. Look it up on YouTube. This is the one musical instrument which is played without you physically touching it. It’s essentially a box of electronics with two protruding antennae—one a vertical rod and the other a horizontal loop. They emit electromagnetic waves, and the musician by passing her hands directly through those waves can change the pitch and tone of the sounds It makes. True, your riding experience is more tactile than that, but the fanciful notion of your aids dancing around the outside of your horse is a very pleasing one! It certainly beats bulldozing him around!
Finding the balance among all these qualities is elusive but the source of great pleasure. The FEI speaks of the horse being a “happy athlete,” and most athletes are happier when no one is pulling on their face.