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How Much Contact Should You Have?

how much contact should you have how to dressage

Riders often think that their horse will work in a round outline if they have the right ‘contact’ on the reins.

All too often, this approach leads to the rider using too much hand in order to pull the horse into an outline.

So, how much contact should you have?

The right contact

It’s important to understand that it’s the horse that seeks the rider’s hand, and the rider who, in turn, grants it.

Attempting to impose a contact in order to place the horse’s head ‘in an outline’ will only cause the horse to break his neck at the third or fourth vertebra. This then becomes the highest point, rather than the poll.

Your horse may drop his head, but he will probably also hollow his back and trail his hind legs too.

The end result is an unbalanced horse that will either lean on your hand for balance, rather than taking the weight back onto his hind legs, or a horse that will drop behind the vertical in an attempt to avoid working into an unpleasant ‘hard’ contact.

Dressage judges are trained to look for faults such as these and will penalize them heavily.

Developing a good elastic contact takes time and patience, but it will be worth the effort in the end.

Establishing the contact

Begin by riding your horse on a long rein in walk.

Keep your elbows and wrists soft, your legs on, and gradually begin to pick up the reins.

Keep riding your horse forward, and stop shortening your reins when you can feel that the horse is comfortably reaching into his bridle.

Do not try to force the issue!

Every time you feel the horse drawing back from your hand, allow a little more rein, ride forwards and begin again.

Feeling the contact

In order for your contact to be ‘light’, you must develop supple, feeling hands.

Your fingers should hold the reins softly at their base without tugging or setting against the horse’s mouth.

The horse will only seek a contact with his rider’s hands if that contact is elastic and comfortable, and he can trust that his mouth won’t be bruised.

Your hands, wrists, elbows, and shoulders should all ‘breathe’ with the horse’s movement, rather than remaining fixed and rigid.

Make sure that your contact is steady, light and evenly into both reins.

The feeling in your fingers should be alive, rather like flying a kite on a windy day.

Faults and mistakes

Don’t allow your hands to row back and forth with the movement of the horse’s neck. The horse that continually nods his head as he moves along is just using his neck as a lever with which to drag himself along on his forehand. This way of going will be penalized in a dressage test, regardless of whether your horse is in an ‘outline’ or not!

If the horse is unwilling to work forward into your contact, he will protect himself by becoming tense through his jaw, poll or neck. Rather than moving his weight onto his hindquarters and flexing his hind leg joints during transitions, he may instead brace himself against the rider’s unforgiving hand, using it as a prop or brake.

This will cause unbalanced transitions and can also cause the rhythm to become unsteady.

Impulsion and contact

The outline and the contact with the rider’s hand come from the impulsion and the horse’s willingness to work forward and over his back.

Your contact should never exceed the amount of energy being generated by the horse’s hind legs.

Your hand should receive only what your leg puts into it.

In conclusion

The most important thing to remember when it comes to developing a good contact is to ride your horse forward.

Forget about the ‘outline’ and concentrate on having your horse in front of your leg, working forward over his back and swinging along without tension or resistance.

Keep your hand steady, light and supple and your horse will gradually become sufficiently confident to seek the contact. Only then will you be able to develop the horse’s engagement, balance and self-carriage – qualities that will all lead to higher marks in your dressage tests, and a happy enjoyable ride.

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  1. Hello, after discovering this site I decided to go back to the beginning again with my horses. I am working on rhythm and suppleness. I am striving for light, stretchy contact. If I understand correctly I should not be concerned with the way my horses carry their heads at this stage? It sounds like they eventually find their own true way as they get stronger and more confident. Am I interpreting this correctly?

    1. Hello Cathy,
      Yes, that is correct. In the beginning, you are focusing on the horse working freely forward in a good rhythm and stretching over his back to seek the contact. Once these are in place, then your horse should be working in a correct outline. It will be a novice outline to start with, but as your horse builds confidence working between the leg and hand and on the bit, then you can ask for more impulsion and engagement (with the half-halt) which will lift the forehand, create more cadence in the steps, start the development of collection and create a more advanced frame.

      Although, yes, you should not be concerned about the head carriage at this stage, there are a few red flags to look out for. If your horse ducks behind the contact, tilts his head, or comes behind the vertical, then ease the contact and ride forward. The most important part is that the horse SEEKS the contact and STRETCHES into it and you can feel him on the end of your reins. You can test this by allowing the reins to slowly slip through your hands (in walk, trot, or canter) – if your horse is seeking the bit then he will continue to stretch towards it. Your reins will end up longer, but you’ll still be able to feel your horse at the end them. This is proof of a correct contact that the horse is happy to work into and the correct outline and frame will follow on from it.

      We hope that helps 🙂
      HTD x

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