A good number of problems stem from the misunderstanding of contact. Often, riders are told to take up contact, without ever really being explained what it means, or how it should feel. Similarly, dressage trainers often focus much too quickly on contact with horses who don’t yet understand its meaning. Ask ten riders what ideal contact should feel like and you’ll get ten different answers. Not everyone is striving for lightness, but for those that are, lightness is different to everyone. A friend of mine once marveled at how light a lesson horse was to her, but to me was exhaustingly heavy.
So what does contact mean, why do we do it, how should it be used, and what should it feel like?
Firstly, contact comes in different degrees. Every touch from a leg, hand or seat is a type of contact. My first goal is to teach the horse what this contact means. How to respond to the leg, seat and rein, in a way that connects your aid to their body. This is their preparation for more rein contact. The horse, too, needs to understand how to go freely forward and maintain rhythm before more steady rein contact comes into play. I like to be able to walk, trot and canter a horse without them running off before thinking about riding “on the bit.”
Once a horse is secure in connecting the seat, leg and rein aids to their feet, riding with contact can begin. This doesn’t mean you take up the reins and never let them go, however. Just like in the previous preparation work, there is always a release to help them understand where to be, except now they’re smaller and more subtle. I think of it as centering – your body and rein aids provide a box around the horse and the release for them is in the center. They’re not held in place or inhibited with your contact, but always guided to the middle.
Riding or lunging with restrictive gear such as side reins, draw reins and other types of equipment address the symptoms but don’t solve the root of the problem. The horse that throws his head up to avoid contact, opens his mouth to avoid the bit, or doesn’t stretch down misunderstands or is limited by the feel he’s being offered. This type of gear can teach a horse a frame, but doesn’t teach him to use his back, connect the aids to the feet, to soften, to feel safe, and certainly doesn’t make him happier. Correct riding is methodical, takes time, doesn’t skip over important steps, and doesn’t worry about a frame right away – good riders know good things take time, and the frame of the horse will come with education.
The reason riding with contact can be so beneficial to horses is it can help guide them to straightness. I don’t think of taking the reins up and bringing the horse’s jaw in, but rather riding the hind legs of the horse toward the reins. In dressage, we look for evenness on both reins. Contact can be a guidepost for us to know what body part still needs suppling or straightening – if the horse is straight and supple, the reins will feel very soft, and that connection is comfortable, enjoyable by both parties. Resistance, if not created by the rider, is a message that the horse’s body is tight somewhere or not working like it needs to.
I think of the ideal contact as a feel following a feel – I can feel the horse, and they can feel me guide them, but neither of us are pulling on each other. My hands should follow the movement of their head and neck and back, and not restrict them.
A horse in this nice form of contact is the result of correct foundational work, but not the work itself. Being ridden into rhythm, straightens, and suppleness creates this enjoyable contact. Their mouths are quiet, their backs swing, and they are happy in their work.