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Nicole Tough on Self-Carriage

Self-carriage: what’s it all about? Top dressage rider NICOLE TOUGH explains what it is and how to achieve it.

When the rider can slacken the reins for at least five to six steps (uberstreichen) and the horse doesn’t become longer or faster in the steps, and remains in the same frame – this is self-carriage. I was fortunate to both take lessons from and to watch lessons with FEI Judge General Stephen Clarke, who said to his student: “Let go. Take the water wings off, and see if they can swim for themselves.”

In Australia, we call them floaties, but what a wonderful analogy it is. We have to give our horses the chance to self-carry. If we always keep the floaties on, we’ll never teach them to swim on their own.

Here’s the thing: horses can use their muscles to carry themselves; or they can use their muscles for evasions. It is the rider’s job to make self-carriage the more desirable option. It’s not a happy picture for the horse to be pulling the rider around the arena. In short, the horse doesn’t need to be a freight train. If they are, it’s what they understand to be acceptable.

Self-carriage is a concept that has to be understood and trained by both rider and horse. To achieve it, riders need to understand that horses learn not when pressure is applied; but when it is removed. This removal of pressure is the horse’s light bulb moment; and rewarding the right moment is crucial to learning self-carriage.

When a rider stays on the rein for two seconds or longer (unless it’s a correction), then they are inadvertently giving the horse the opportunity to lean on the bit. Something Steffen Peters once said in a masterclass has stayed with me: the rider should never do anything in the saddle out of a habit. In other words, every aid has to be applied with a reason and to achieve a targeted response.

As Nicole softens the rein, five-year-old Leopold learns to self-carry (Image by Christy Baker).

So, never pull or restrain through the left, right or both reins for no reason, or worse still, to produce no result. Never just kick to have the next step exactly the same. This actually creates a numb horse. If the rider brings any pressure to the horse, and no response is triggered, the rider needs to increase the intensity of the pressure until the desired response is offered – then immediately remove the pressure. This should equal that light bulb moment.

Another point to remember, and it’s something I often see: the rider inadvertently allowing the horse to be heavy on one rein, or both, and then 20 minutes into the training session, when their hands and/or arms are sore, they say to the horse ‘not anymore, this is too heavy’. But guess what? It was too heavy the moment that it was. If a rider puts up with the wrong contact for any length of time, it becomes much harder to convince the horse that it’s not okay. They don’t understand if it’s okay for 20 minutes, and then it’s not. It was the great Reiner Klimke who said that timing is crucial if you want to have a conversation with your horse.

The very moment the horse looks for support on the rein is a mistake, and every mistake is a perfect training opportunity. Don’t miss the opportunities, or your horse will learn that the rein is there for them to lean on – and you, the rider, are back to square one. Groundhog Day! The horse must carry their own head and neck.

Not taking advantage of training opportunities teaches your horse that the rein is there for them to lean on, and they will not learn self-carriage.

To achieve self-carriage, the rider has to create the reason for the horse to let go of the rein. Use a holding/correction rein, make a difference with your leg, and soften the rein to its ideal at the right moment, and the horse will learn to self-carry and develop their topline.

Please note that when we use the rein, we only resist with it – like side reins. We must never pull. And the stronger you have to resist, the softer you have to become after the correction. And a second note: whatever amount of rein is required to make a difference, the leg is required to match – never rein without equal or more leg.

Having said all of this, there are some horses that like a bit more contact than we might otherwise like. These horses need this weight for a bit of security, but the weight should never be so much as to create strain on the rider. That sort of riding builds the riders muscles, not the horse’s.

In conclusion, self-carriage is not negotiable. When you have the horse through and on the hind leg, everything will work, anything is possible, and there is no better feeling. Happy training!

Feature Image: Nicole and FEI horse Ferragamo demonstrate self-carriage (Image by Christy Baker).