Lightness has become a frequently discussed topic in the last few years. Many riders are looking for an alternative to the commonplace heavy-hands/gripping-legs type of dressage, and lightness, légèreté, seems to hold the promise of harmony and effortlessness that we all strive for. Some people limit the concept of lightness to the rein pressure they feel in their hands, which leads them to mistake the absence of contact for lightness. However, the issue goes far beyond mere rein contact.
If a light rein contact is only a small aspect of lightness, what other ingredients are involved? As you will see in a moment, all the other elements of the training scale play a role as well. The first ingredient that comes to mind is Balance. You can also refer to it as Self carriage. A horse who is not evenly balanced on all four legs will never be light. The reason is that only a balanced horse (or human) can relax and let go of all unwanted tensions. As long as the horse (or the rider) is still unbalanced, he has to keep certain muscle groups in permanent tension in order not to fall down. This tension creates blockages that interrupt the energy flow, and each blockage makes itself felt as a hard, unresponsive area in the horse's body. The tense muscle group does not let the rider's aids "go through". Balance in turn develops out of the regularity of the footfall sequence, i.e. Tempo and Rhythm.
Balance has a lateral (right to left, and vice versa) as well as a longitudinal (front to back and vice versa) component. The lateral aspect of balance is really nothing other than Straightness. As long as the horse is still crooked, he will carry more weight on his stiffer side, especially on the front leg of that side, which makes itself felt as resistance and hardness throughout the entire side of his body, including a heavier, stiffer rein contact. Put differently, crookedness is a form of unbalance and consequently entails the absence of lightness. A crooked horse will never be light.
The longitudinal aspect of balance is synonymous with a certain degree of Collection. In order to take the excess weight off the forehand and let it flow backwards through the haunches into the ground, the joints of the horse's hind legs have to flex more or less, so that the croup starts to lower slightly and the pelvis starts to tuck. The tucking of the pelvis raises the horse's back and enables it to swing, which opens the pathways for the energy, the Impulsion to sweep through the horse's entire body. A horse who is longitudinally unbalanced will look for a fifth leg in the rider's hand to hold him up.
Balance also has a mental or psychological dimension. A horse who is mentally unbalanced will always be physically off balance as well.
As I explained in the previous paragraphs, balance and straightness are prerequisites of Relaxation, or Suppleness, since an unbalanced, crooked horse will always be stiff. Relaxation is in turn a prerequisite of lightness, because lack of relaxation creates an unresponsive horse who feels hard to the touch, not just to the rider's hands, but also to his seat and legs. Just like balance, relaxation has a mental dimension, too. If a horse is mentally tense, he will not be able to relax physically either.
Balance, Straightness, Relaxation, and Suppleness are prerequisites for Permeability (Durchlässigkeit, or "throughness"). As long as there is any negative tension (not to confuse with positive, necessary muscle tone) left in the horse's body or mind, the tense muscle groups will act as "road blocks" for the energy travelling along the horse's spine. The rider can feel these road blocks as resistances in his hands, seat, and legs.
In order to connect the horse's different body parts we need Impulsion. Without Impulsion, the horse will merely drag his feet. His back will never swing. He will forever remain a "bag of bones" that have no cohesion or connectedness among each other. To the rider this feels as if he were sitting on two (or more) horses: one in front of him and one behind him. In really bad cases it feels as if each leg belonged to a different animal. Impulsion is the energy that creates cohesion between all four legs, the back, the neck, and the head. Impulsion is the energy that is recycled by means of the circle of aids. It is almost like an electric current that sweeps through the horse from the back to the front and enables him to produce even the tightest turns and the most demanding movements. The higher the demands, the more impulsion is necessary. It manifests itself as responsiveness to the aids, especially the leg aids. The rider taps into this energy reservoir, channels it, and directs it according to the horse's needs. Impulsion can also be compared to water that is flowing through pipes. If the force of the water is strong enough, it will sweep anything along with it that is in its way. In very much the same way, certain blockages in the horse's body can be swept away and dissolved by increasing the impulsion, whereas if the energy level is too low, the rider will never be able to create balance, suppleness, straightness, permeability, collection, or lightness.
The last ingredient I want to address is attentiveness on both the horse's part and the rider's part. It has to be introduced at the very beginning of the training, long before the horse is ever mounted. And it has to be fostered, maintained, and deepened throughout the horse's life. The horse has to learn to pay such close attention to the rider that he recognizes the smallest change in muscle tone in the rider's body and tries to interpret it as an aid. Conversely, the rider has to have so much body awareness and body control that he only moves or changes his muscle tone if he intends to give an aid. An inattentive horse will never notice any but the biggest, crudest aids. He will be spooky, distracted, and therefore tense. A rider who is unbalanced, tense, unfocused, will instill the same qualities in his horse. Contradictory aids, poor timing, inappropriate intensity of the aids will create confusion, tension, irritability, the opposite of lightness.
We can therefore say that true lightness encompasses the all the elements of the training pyramid. If one of these elements is lacking, lightness is not yet achieved - even if the rein contact may measure only an ounce. Lightness is the sum and quintessence of correct training. Due to its complexity, it is fragile. Once it is established, it is not something that is guaranteed for life. Rather, it has to be monitored, guarded, and re-established when it deteriorates. Initially, lightness "happens" only for a few strides at a time when all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Over time, it happens more and more frequently and for longer periods of time, until horse and rider spend the majority of their time in lightness. Riding in lightness all the time, true lightness that contains all the ingredients, is a good goal to strive for, but we should not expect to be able to reach and maintain ideals forever. All we can do is try to come as close as possible with every stride.