Lightness is not about having loose reins, or even a forward hand. Lightness is about 100 things coming together in unison allowing the rider the room to give the rein without the horse losing the engagement, rhythm, balance, uphill, tendency, cadence, and forwardness of the movement.
“The relaxation of the mouth alone is not enough. It can be deceptive, because it does not necessarily lead to lightness. It has to be accompanied by the relaxation of the entire horse. When he relaxes the back, it will definitely have repercussions in the mouth,” said Nuno Oliveira.
I am constantly being shown pictures on social media with comment after comment praising the rider for “lightness” and I look at it and think, sure the rider is letting the rein loose, but anyone can do that if you pick the right moment. Lightness is not the rider’s ability to loosen the rein, is it “the consequence of impulsion and collection," Oliveira stated.
So how do we tell if a horse is truly light? And how do we achieve this? The common mistake we see is a horse that is simply bouncing up and down and therefore not into the contact.
“The great mistake about lightness is to have a horse ridden on floating reins neither round nor full of impulsion. This is not equitation, it is trail riding. We should only release the contact when the horse is round and in impulsion,” Nuno explained.
Alternatively riders think they can just push the horse into the rein, and then allow, and so we end up with two ends of the spectrum: with lightness lying very neatly in the middle.
Many riders in the name of impulsion put too much tension in their horses. Others in the name of lightness, have their horse “abandoned” (without a sufficient connection). The truth of equitation is in between those two extremes.
So how do we obtain true lightness? First we must have our horse in balance and this can only be achieved when he can bend as easily to the left, as he can to the right. Then we must have our horse round and on the bit, and this can only be achieved when he is in front of the leg and moving alone. Finally we must achieve collection and true collection, which is not to be confused with just squishing the horse into a ball of tension.
“The difference between a compressed horse and a collected horse is that the collected horse can put his nose toward the ground (stretch) while staying round," Nuno wrote.
Lightness is not something that magically happens when we give the rein. It is something that is achieved over years of training with the use of exercises and transitions and a system of correct reward and timing.
“We must obtain a horse that is round and light by the nuance and delicacy of our techniques, rather than by using “legs like a wrench” to obtain by force some flashy immediate effects," said Oliveira.
So the next time you see a picture of a horse and rider and you think, "wow lightness," check again. This is not to criticise but to learn and understand, to differenciate true equestrian art and appreciate it where it deserves the merit.
by Sarah Warne - Photo © Astrid Appels