On Bubbleneck and Marshmallow Contact

short reins

Bubbleneck with high head

As you probably already know, just when you think you know something, you realize that there is so much more left to be learned. Recently, this epiphany happened to me (yet again) and this time, it was about developing a better contact. Somehow, just when I finally felt that my contact was becoming soft and supple and kind, I discovered yet another deeper level of contact that blew away what I thought I knew.

Of course, it was just a momentary tease. When these new, exhilarating feels saunter into your world, they rarely stay around long enough for you to be able to really get a good sense of what just happened. You’re lucky if you can even just recognize (and maybe memorize) the feel before it flits along on its way.

And so it was that as I thought I was teaching Roya something, she ended up teaching me something right back. Please bear with me as I use these “fluffy” words to try to describe feels and visuals.


Next time you have a chance, watch some horses as they’re ridden in the ring. Look at their necks as they go around. Are they “filled up” – topline muscles supple and bouncy in the rhythm of the movement? Or are they flat and almost cardboard-like, not responsive to the movement, braced and stiff and still?

Bubbleneck is a term I came up with to describe what the neck looks like when energy is flowing over the topline as the horse moves. The muscles at the top of the neck bulge and ripple under the skin, working in tandem with the rhythm of the legs.

In contrast, the braced neck shows the exact opposite – the top of the neck is thin and unmovable (and the horse likely moves stiffly left and right) and the “underneck” bulges. Over time, the muscles under the neck might overdevelop. Or, your horse might be naturally predisposed to developing an underneck, due to conformational reasons.

Bubbleneck during a stretch


The key to developing a nice bubbleneck is to get the horse to lift the base of his neck. This lift allows the horse to move more freely through the shoulders and remain in better balance in the front end. Although the feel is initiated from the hind end, it’s what you do with the energy in the front end that either drops the base of the neck or lifts it.

Now, some horses might have incredibly good conformation and front-end strength. They can almost always move with a bubbleneck no matter what you’re doing. But many others, and especially those with a downhill conformation, will have more of a tendency to just brace, drop the base of the neck and move along on their forehand. In this case, what you do affects the horse either positively or negatively, depending on the result of your aids.

Marshmallow Contact

So while I was working on getting my horse to lift the base of the neck while moving in a steady, rhythmical and energetic trot, she suddenly took the bit and softened in every aspect. My fairly steady, fairly light contact morphed into something that I can only describe as “marshmallow.”

It was soft, fluffy, malleable and yet springy like a marshmallow. It was also as crushable – so if my (always closed!) fist tightened just past the “too strong” threshold, the contact would squeeze away just like a marshmallow would collapse into itself with too much strength. And so Roya and I floated along during those precious few strides, with this marshmallow-y feeling, in balance and somehow NOT on the hands but seamlessly moving together in tandem, with much less emphasis on the hands for direction.

And then it all fell apart!

Of course, now I’m looking for both bubbleneck and marshmallow contact in all my riding, through all the movements including walk and transitions. I can find that feel much of the time, if not all of the time. But as I get better at asking for bubbleneck and allowing for marshmallow contact, Roya is having an easier time allowing it to happen.

How to Bubbleneck

NOT Bubbleneck!

NOT Bubbleneck!


Bubbleneck must come first. Because without the lifted base of the neck, the horse’s balance is already affected negatively. Then “contact” can never get past a push/pull level. Here’s a breakdown of what I think I’m doing.

Initiate Implusion

Squeeze with the lower legs, encouraging a higher level of impulsion and energy, and a lifting of the horse’s back.

Follow With the Seat

Immediately allow the energy “through” with your seat. Encourage the horse’s initiative to move forward. You might need to allow more movement than you’re used to in your core and lower back to allow the horse to swing through his back.


I know it always comes back to the half-halt! But you must half-halt at the end of the energy surge, or the horse will simply have too much energy and fall to the forehand.

To little (or no) half-halt will just send the energy forward and down, putting the horse even more on the forehand and necessitating more bracing through the front end. Too much half-halt will stunt the energy and not allow it to “go through” enough, thereby stopping the hind legs from stepping under. So you have to fiddle long enough to find the just right amount of half-halt (all horses are different).

Find the Bubbleneck

Now you have to pay close attention to your feeling receptors. You can also probably see the topline muscles of the neck as they start to “bubble” (or not). Figure out what it takes for the bubbleneck to appear, and why it goes away.


As you can establish a longer bubbleneck, you should be able to feel the change in the level of your contact. Finding marshmallow contact isn’t about taking more or less pressure on the reins. It’s more about creating and maintaining an ideal balance. Make sure you keep a steady contact and wait for the horse’s change of balance to allow for the better contact.

Have you experienced something like this? How would you describe it? Let us know if you tried this and what the result was in the comments below.

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More reading: 

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: Sometimes it feels like the word “contact” has other-wordly connotations.

14 Ways to Communicate With Your Horse: We need to learn a language that relies on physical movement and feel – something very alien to people who don’t have to interact with a 1200 pound partner. 

Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions: Technically, it’s not something done by the hand.

On Slobber, Snorts and Sheath Sounds: It doesn’t matter the discipline – a good back means good movement and long-term health of the horse.

Finding the Magic of the Inside Rein: Well,  I have to confess that it isn’t really magic at all. But when you “find” that feel the first few times, it really does feel like magic.

7 Essential Aids For An Epic Canter Transition 

canter leftWhen you first learn to canter, it’s about all you can do to get the horse to change his legs from a two-beat trot to a three-beat canter. You do pretty much anything you can to make the transition happen – lean forward, kick, kick harder, kick some more, let the reins go, use your voice….

You might feel like the canter is a huge speed-up from the trot, and when the horse finally does canter, the euphoric feeling of strength and power sends you into a rocking horse motion that just can’t really be adequately described to the non-rider.

But then you get better at it.

You realize that the canter departure doesn’t have to resemble a rocket launch. You develop your aids till both you and your horse look a lot more civilized – and a lot less frantic. At some point, you realize that you can trot, maintain the trot rhythm, and elegantly step into the canter. Your aids become invisible, prompting less educated onlookers to think that the horse is reading your mind.

So how exactly do develop an epic canter transition? How do the aids become refined enough to create a smooth, balanced, active upward transition? In the following even steps, I’ve tried to break down each component of the transition in order to help explain the nuances that go into a split-second movement! Although it might seem a little complicated, I hope that it can describe each moment that goes into a better developed canter departure.

Once you know each part that goes into the one movement, you might be able to problem-solve your departures with your horse and focus on one or two aspects as needed. 

1. It All Starts With the Seat

Well, we already know this. But how does the seat exactly play into the transition? First off, your seat should be trotting when the horse is trotting. So if you are sitting the trot, your seat bones are actually moving in the rhythm of the trot. Be sure to promote a strong but not fast rhythm – one that your horse finds easy to move in while remaining supple.

If you are posting the trot, sit the last few strides before the canter. Use your seat to draw up the horse’s hind legs, asking for more impulsion.

2. Use the Inside Leg/Outside Rein

The inside leg has a very important job in this moment. Apply the whole leg (from ankle up) at the girth to ask the horse for a mild bend to prepare for the inside lead. If your horse has a tendency to lean in just before the transition, your inside leg becomes even more critical in helping the horse maintain balance by not allowing him to drop his rib cage toward the middle of the ring. 

The outside rein does little except to act as a “neck rein” – the one that sits onto the horse’s neck and prevents him from drifting to the outside. It also can work during the half-halt aids before and after the departure.

3. Half Halt Preparation

Do one or two or three half-halts before the transition. We often tend to “throw everything away” (as in, lengthen the reins, take the legs off the horse, fall to the horse’s front) as we head into the gait change. Fight that impulse and instead, keep the horse together. Falling to the forehand and trotting faster before the canter almost always ensures a low-quality canter gait. Although the horse might transition, he will likely be on the forehand, braced in his neck and jaw and hollow in his back.

Instead, after you ask for impulsion, half-halt the horse to balance his weight to the hind end. Keep your legs on for impulsion.

4. Use the Outside Leg – Ask For the Lead

The outside leg initiates the lead. Some people call it a “windshield wiper” motion: swing your lower leg behind the girth to ask for the first stride. The horse’s outside hind leg should strike off into the lead as your leg reaches back.

5. Canter With Your Seat

So far, your seat should have been trotting. Now, it needs to initiate the transition. So you go from two seatbones moving in tandem with the horse in the trot, to a canter motion with the inside seat bone leading (to allow for the horse to take the inside lead). Your seat now needs to promote the canter movement – swinging back and forth thanks to your supple lower back. Keep your shoulders fairly still by moving through your back. The swinging movement allows for the illusion of your shoulders staying still while the horse is moving.

6. Use the Half-Halt Again

Just because the horse is now in canter doesn’t mean that you should stop riding! Many of us tend to freeze in our aids, opting instead to just hang on to the increased movement of the canter. Well, as soon as you have enough balance and are able, go to riding actively again.

Half-halt – once, twice, three times maybe – in the rhythm of the canter. This helps the horse to stay “together” after the transition. The sudden surge of energy needs to be controlled so that it doesn’t just fall on the horse’s shoulders and forehand.

7. Canter on!

Now all you have to do is commit to the horse’s movement. Your seat should allow the movement that your horse offers, and it’s your job to not let your upper body fall forward/backward/sideways while your seat follows, follows and follows (unless you do another half-halt). 

* * * *
When you first start paying attention to each of these aspects of the canter transition, you might need to actually think through every part, talking your body into the necessary activity while negotiating the canter movement. But rest assured – with practice and time, things become more and more automatic, and then you can focus more on your horse’s specific needs.

Though we are talking about so many steps all subdivided here, in reality, it all comes together within a few seconds – from preparation, to the request, strike-off and follow-through. Eventually, it happens so seamlessly that the departure becomes just a quick thought – one that transpires between both you and your horse in an epic, seemingly mind-reading fashion!

How do you ask your horse for the canter? Let us know if there is anything missing in the comments below.

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Related reading here:

First, Plan Your Ride. Then, Scrap It: Even though you are inspired to get that horse to do the next cool thing, your horse might simply not be ready.

What Being On The Forehand Means to the Horse: The idea here isn’t to cause guilt and doom and gloom; instead, we should learn all we can and take steps to avoid known problems.

How to ‘Flow” From the Trot to Walk: Although we rely on our hands too much and initiate all movements from the horse’s mouth, there are many alternate aids we can go to.

Why You Don’t Need to Panic When Your Horse ‘Falls Apart’: Even if you are not thinking “panic”, your body might be communicating it by either being completely passive or too reactive after the horse is off balance.

How the “Not Canter” Can Drastically Improve Your Transitions: Every time you ask (with the correct aids), the horse resists. The situation becomes ugly – you have a hard enough time just sitting the bounciness, never mind getting the transition. What to do? This article remains one of our most popular posts of all-time.

14 Ways to Communicate While Riding Your Horse

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

How do you communicate with your teammate when you ride?

Athletes from other team sports learn to communicate with each other as an essential part of their activity. Hockey, soccer, basketball, cricket – or any other game where players rely on each other – requires excellent communication between players. Regardless of the rules and the playing field (or rink), athletes coordinate with each other through voice, signals and body language. In fact, you could say that communication is the single most important factor in a team’s success aside from raw talent.

Horseback riding is unique among team sports precisely because of the horse that becomes your athletic partner. The difference between other sports and ours is that we must learn to communicate to our teammate in less obvious ways than people do in other sports.

We need to learn a language that relies on physical movement and feel – something very alien to people who don’t have to interact with a 1200 pound partner. Want to improve communication with your horse? Use these “natural” aids in rhythm with the horse’s movement, at the right moment within the stride, and see how you can speak in full sentences through the body.


The seat is where all riding starts. Without a stable, balanced seat, you will always have trouble staying with your horse. But more than that, you can communicate so many things through your seat that you can make your hands and reins become the icing rather than the cake.


Soft, “breathing” calves can communicate confidence and reassurance to the horse. Use a stronger calf aid to ask for bend or reinforce a two-track movement but then release again to reward and reinforce your horse’s response.

Lower Back

Although the lower back is technically part of the seat, it can send distinct messages through the seat that are not necessarily connected to the buttocks. Brace with the lower back to resist the horse’s forward movement, or release and follow to amplify it.


The knees deserve to have their own section here because they have their own effect on the horse’s movement. Often, riders release their seat only to pinch with their knees. The resulting conflicting messages could cause the horse to hollow his back or slow down despite the seat aids. Release the knees moments at a time and see how your horse responds. If he gives you rounder, bolder movement, you know that you have been gripping too tightly with the knees. Keep them soft (but not so soft that you lose balance) and see what your horse thinks.


The thighs have a similar action. You can grip through the thighs to resist and restrict movement or you can soften, which will allow your seat to move along with the horse. The thighs also help the rider in finding a deeper balance in the saddle by settling into the saddle. Finally, they can reinforce your bending aids so that there is contact with your horse’s side from the seat, through the thigh, to the calf and foot. This is the imaginary “wall” we speak of when we want to create an aid that the horse will step away from to create the bend or lateral movements.


Your shoulders hold more power that you can imagine! If you lean back within the movement (ie. don’t stay leaning back), you can influence your horse to shift his weight further to the hind end without jerking the bit in the horse’s mouth or causing him to hollow his back. 


The average head weighs 10 pounds! Use your head purposely and it can also act as an aid, and influence your other aids. In general, keep your head up and eyes looking slightly ahead of your horse. If you want a bend, turn your head slightly toward the bend – but don’t overturn your head or it will encourage an overbend in your body as well as your horse’s!


Yes, these can also “talk” either in conjunction or not with the seat. Squeeze the gluteus maximus and lighten the load on your horse’s back. Soften the glutes and become heavier in order to deepen your seat aid or reinforce your rhythm.


The feet factor into communication as well. Keep your feet parallel to the horse’s side to follow and “breathe” along with the calves. Turn the toes out to create more of a wall especially for a lateral movement. Alternately, take the foot off to invite the horse’s rib cage into that space.


We always teach that the fingers should be closed in a soft, light fist so that the communication going to the mouth is consistent and steady. Sponging the reins can wiggle the bit in the horse’s mouth and conversely, closing the fist can keep the horse from pulling the reins out of your grasp. Some moments might require a more solid feel while other moments can be “butterfly” soft. But in all cases, avoid opening and closing the fingers.


We’ve spoken about the effect of the elbows before. In general, the effect of the elbows can be similar to the fingers. Keep a soft bend so that you can follow the horse’s movement. Momentarily hold them on your sides to resist for a half-halt.


The eyes deserve their own section here because they can control so many aspects of your body. If you can find your “soft eyes” (a term first taught by Sally Swift), you can communicate softness through your skull and shoulders, which then can influence the rest of your torso and aids. Use “hard eyes” when you want to abruptly influence the horse (say, during a sideways deek when you were asking for a turn) but return to soft eyes to resume going with the horse.


Many people write about the breath as it relates to horse riding. It is essential to breathe uniformly while you move with the horse. If you find that you hold your breath at times, break the pattern by singing (even under breath – no one needs to hear!). Find a fun song that you know well and sing in rhythm with your horse’s movement. You’ll find that your body releases without any forcing on your part.


You probably know from experience that voice can be a huge support to your body aids. If you can teach your horse certain words or sounds, you can give him a heads-up while you apply your body aids or even before. Just remember to keep it quiet if you enter the dressage ring!


 Of course, as we all know, there is no such thing as riding with aids separated from each other. Although you can learn to develop arms and legs independent of the seat, and we can dissect each body part to the core, the secret to riding is that everything you do is received by the horse in one moment. So it is more of a holistic exercise that involves the whole body, than moving a hand or a leg or sitting in a given position. 

But by breaking down the aids, we can isolate the ones we need to develop. Then we can go back to putting it all together again – when we are on the horse’s back!

Can you think of an aid to add to this collection? Please comment below.

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Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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 More reading about the aids:

The #1 Rider Problem of the Year – The Leg Aid: You probably know from experience – kicking the horse along often does not get the response you really want. 

Interpreting the Half-Halt: This topic is a tricky one but here is a shot at it.

Why A Release Is Not A Let Go in Horseback Riding: Many people interpret the term ‘Release’ literally – but that’s not what really means.

In Praise of the (Horse Riding) Hand: How to develop hands that sing poetry in your horse’s mind!

10 Tips for the Average Rider: Are you an average rider? Then join the club!




Where Does Your Half-Halt Start? Here Are Four Suggestions

half halt backThe term “half-halt” is used in the English riding disciplines, and the Western folks call it a “check”. In both cases and regardless of bit type and rein length, the feeling that goes through your body is the same. Because under most circumstances, the half-halt shouldn’t start from your hands.

What it’s not: 

- a jerk

- a strong and steady pullback

- a taking up of rein followed by a full drop of rein

- a sideways movement of the reins either left or right or both

- a turning of the wrists downward

Technically, it’s not something done by the hand. Although the hand certainly plays a role in the end of the sequence of aids, it shouldn’t be where the aids begin. And it can’t be active through the beginning, middle and end of the half-halt.

Because just messing around in the horse’s mouth isn’t where the riding’s at! (Click here to tweet if you agree)

The Whole Body Half-Halt

Good riders ride from the body.

They use their seat, their torso, their abs, their legs. They stay tall and supple in their position, and rather than allowing the horse to carry their weight in the mouth (through an unreleasing rein aid), they influence their horse through every other aid possible. The hands become the icing on the cake after the body has done the talking.

In all the cases below, the hands strive to do nothing but stay lightly closed and steady. They should take up the rein contact so that the horse can feel some pressure, but they don’t use pressure to cause pain in the mouth. Instead, they work with the torso to send one collaborative message to the horse. The elbows should be on the body, softly bent and allowing or resisting as needed. The rein and the bit in the horse’s mouth should be the last part of the aid sequence.

Since we’ve already talked incessantly about the half-halt, go here to find out what it is and here to figure out how to say “go” and “no” at the same time. This time, I want to take a closer look at where the half-halt actually originates.

The Seat

Most half-halts will originate at the seat. This is the area that is in direct contact with the saddle, and the root of our balance and position. By resisting the horse’s movement through your seat, you will bring the horse’s energy and weight more to his hind end and therefore off his forehand.

So as he goes along, you can either flow along (release) or resist (brace) to stop his forward (and maybe downward) energy. You can tighten through your legs, your thighs and “grip” more with your rear end (!!).

In any case, the horse will feel this through the saddle. His response will come from his back rather than his mouth. Beware of using too strong a seat and stifling the horse’s flow of energy. You want to resist for a few strides, in rhythm with the horse’s movement, and then release.

The Lower Back

You can focus your attention a little higher in your back, to the lumbar area. Rather than gripping with your seat, your back does most of the resisting. In making a slight backward motion in rhythm with your horse’s strides, the lower back can send a softer, less demanding half-halt.

Use this starting point for a “ballerina” horse – the one that doesn’t need much input and responds quickly and honestly.

The Upper Back

This half-halt helps the horse lift the front end more than the others. If you begin your aid from just behind your shoulder blades, you can influence the horse’s head height and the amount of weight he is putting on his front legs.

Use this starting point for the “rooters” – the horses that grab the bit and plow down to the ground. It gives you a nice alternative to just slamming the horse in the mouth with the bit. This way, he learns to actually rebalance himself rather than having to deal with pain in his mouth.

The Hands

Did I just say that the half-halt shouldn’t start at the hands? Well, there might be one time when you can use just finger strength (although your arms are still part of your torso as you move along with your horse).

If your horse is already on your aids, and he feels soft and supple and is confidently moving along, you might want to just not stop your communication with him. You might want to keep the flexion of his head, or softly touch his tongue to prepare for a transition. You might want to just continue “talking” to him so that he doesn’t end up tuning you out.

Use your fingers. Keep the same lightly-closed fist, but soften and tighten your fingers within that fist. Some people call it “squeezing a sponge” because that’s what it should feel like. Pay close attention and see if you can literally feel the horse’s tongue in your fingers.

Just remember that you can’t do even this lightest of half-halts without the seat and the body. The hands must be a part of the body’s communicating aids and not acting on its own.

So there you have it. I use these half-halt locations interchangeably, depending on the horse and how he feels. I find it helps to zero in on the specific body parts so that you can intentionally send the message you want to send.

Do you begin your half-halt in a different location? Comment below.

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Don’t miss a single issue of Horse Listening! If you like what you are reading, become a subscriber and receive updates when new Horse Listening articles are published!  Your email address will not be used on any other distribution list. Subscribe to Horse Listening by Email

Buy the book for many more riding tips! Horse Listening – The Book: Stepping Forward to Effective Riding

Available as an eBook or paperback.

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 Read more about the half-halt and more.

What To Do When A Half-Halt Just Won’t Do: How to make a half-halt “go through”.

Why A Halt is Not A Vacation – in Horse Riding: Why you shouldn’t turn off when you halt.

How to Halt Without Pulling on the Reins: Finding the harmonious halt.

Top 10 Ways to Reward Your Horse: … while you are riding!

The Art of Slowing Your Horse’s Legs Down Without Losing Energy: How to establish a calmer, more reasonable rhythm that will allow your horse to swing more through the back.