When novice riders first try to get their horses ‘on the bit’ they often overuse the reins in an attempt to get their horses into an outline.
Sadly, this often results in riders fiddling with the reins, jiggling the bit in the horse’s mouth, and/or swinging the horse’s head from side to side. Some riders may also resort to using gadgets such as draw reins, bungees, and leverage bits for added mouth and poll pressure.
Although these methods will encourage (or force) the horse to lower his head, none of them will create a correct and comfortable contact.
So, in this article, we take a look at contact within the dressage scales of training, where a correct contact comes from, indicators of a good contact, and how to go about establishing a correct contact with your horse.
RECAP: The scales of training
The scales are designed, through systematic training, to create an equine athlete who works in a perfect balance and makes the most of the movement they naturally possess.
There are six scales in total, and although there is the odd occasion when one can be skipped over to work on improving another, they’re meant to be approached in a set order, starting with rhythm and finishing with collection.
The first three scales (rhythm, suppleness, and contact) are also variously called, the familiarisation phase, the training phase, and/or, the phase of understanding and confidence, i.e. when your horse is becoming familiar with carrying your weight on his back, is developing an understanding of your aids and how to work between them.
Contact within the scales of training
None of the scales can be addressed in isolation from the others, as they are all interlinked to some degree. However, there is no doubt that focussing on contact can only be effective once the horse has the rhythm and suppleness in his body to be able to maintain a steady contact.
So what exactly is contact?
The FEI definition states:
“Contact is the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and ‘seek’ contact with the rider’s hand, thus ‘going into’ the contact. The horse seeks the contact and the rider provides the contact.”
There are a few key points in that definition that we want to break down.
1. “…soft, steady connection…”
A correct connection is consistent and elastic.
Only if the contact is still can the horse respond to the lightest of the rein aids.
A ‘busy’ contact (where the rider fiddles with the reins) will make it difficult for the horse to decipher the rider’s aids due to too much background noise.
2. “The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and ‘seek’ contact with the rider’s hand…”
The contact is created by the horse moving forwards into the contact.
It is not created by the rider taking a tight hold of the horse’s mouth, or creating backward pressure on the bit, or downwards pressure on the poll.
3. “The horse seeks the contact and the rider provides the contact.”
When the contact is established correctly, it is the horse that ‘connects’ to the bit and to the rider’s hands, not the rider’s hands forcing a contact on the horse.
Where does a correct contact come from?
Many people think that the contact starts in the rider’s hands and finishes in the horse’s mouth, and if they have the right “hold” on the reins then the horse will accept this contact. However, a correct contact connection actually starts in the horse’s hind legs.
It is part of a circle of energy that should flow from:
- the horse’s active hind legs
- over a supple and swinging back (longitudinal suppleness)
- arriving in the mouth as the horse seeks the bit
- traveling along the reins to the rider’s hands, where it may be modified to create movements, transitions, half-halts, etc.
- through the rider’s supple body and adhesive seat to
- the rider’s driving aids (legs)
…and then back into the activity of the horse’s hind legs. And so on it continues, round and round.
As you can see, the horse’s head is not held in position with the rein contact. It’s the transmission of energy over the horse’s back that creates the contact and gives the horse’s head and neck the correct position.
Indicators of a correct contact
If the contact has been established correctly, then the horse will display the following positive indicators:
- The horse will step forward into the contact, working through a supple poll.
- The horse will work over a raised and swinging back to allow the energy of the hindquarters to be transmitted into the bridle.
- The horse will accept an elastic contact, quietly chewing the bit without the tongue being visible.
- The poll will be the highest point.
- The horse’s nose will be slightly in front of the vertical, or on the vertical in higher degrees of collection.
- In the medium and extended paces, the horse will visibly lengthen the entire frame, including the neck, whilst continuing to stretch towards the contact.
- The outline is maintained without change when the rider yields the rein forward for a step or two, as in the movement described as a ‘give and retake.’ This proves that the horse is in self-carriage and is not being held in a false outline solely by the rein contact.
- The horse seeks to take the contact forward and down when the rein is lengthened, as in the free walk on a long rein.
Indicators of an incorrect contact
If the contact has been established incorrectly, then the horse will display the following negative indicators:
- The horse’s nose coming behind the vertical.
- The horse dropping the contact altogether and ducking behind the bit.
- The horse opening his mouth and coming against the contact.
- Head shaking and/or head tilting.
An incorrect contact can also be displayed by the rider having loose reins with the contact abandoned. The rider may think that they have a light contact when in actual fact, they have no contact at all, providing the horse with nothing to stretch into.
Three steps to establishing a contact
To help break this down further, here are three basic steps to establishing a good contact.
You should aid your horse with your legs sufficiently so that he moves enthusiastically forward in a good rhythm with energy and at a suitable (brisk but not quick) tempo.
In other words, check out The Scales of Training: Scale 1 – Rhythm.
Don’t be tempted to push your horse beyond the speed and energy where he can still comfortably find a reasonable balance. A decent contact may still be established without a great degree of impulsion, provided that the horse is responsive to your leg aids.
As you do step one, you need to receive the power that you’ve created in your hands with a secure elastic contact; no looping reins and no pulling back or fiddling. Allow the horse to stretch into the contact and connect with the bit.
The energy needs to flow over your horse’s back from the horse’s hind legs to your contact. For this to happen, your horse must demonstrate a reasonable amount of lateral suppleness, longitudinal suppleness, suppleness of the joints, and mental suppleness.
In other words, check out The Scales of Training: Scale 2 – Suppleness.
To further improve the contact and your horse’s balance, you can use half-halts, transitions, and school movements to encourage the hind legs to come more underneath the horse so that his forehand becomes lighter and more mobile, promoting self-carriage.
Other tips and things to note about contact
#1 – Forward-thinking hands
Always have a feeling of pushing your horse towards the contact (forward-thinking hands) rather than pulling back (backward-thinking hands).
Good practice for the rider is to consider that the rein contact comes up the reins and terminates in the rider’s elbows, with the hand as a modifier en route.
With this concept, pulling on the reins becomes a thing of the past, as the elbows should never move behind the rider’s body, and as a result, the energy circle is never blocked by the rein contact.
#2 – The contact will develop
Although the contact should remain steady and even, it will (and does) vary from horse to horse.
It is even different at different training levels with the same horse, and it will develop as you and your horse progress.
The contact will also change during different movements, such as transitions and half-halts, when it may be momentarily firmer.
In essence, you will never come to the end of developing a good contact and connection with your horse.
#3 – Create no blockages
For the contact to be established correctly, the energy must be allowed to flow over the horse’s supple and swinging back.
If the rider blocks this energy by gripping with the knees, tightening through their seat, balancing from the reins, and/or not following the horse’s movement with a supple and balanced seat, then a correct contact will not be possible.
#4 – Contact in young and novice horses
If you are training a young and/or novice horse, it’s important to be aware that they might not have the relative engagement and balance to stay connected and on the bit for long periods.
They may briefly come off the contact, either too low or too high, but quickly find the aids again and reconnect. With intelligent and sympathetic riding, this is ok, and to be expected.
Try not to focus on the ‘outline’ and concentrate on having the horse working forward over his back and swinging along without tension or resistance. Keep your hands steady, light, and even and your horse will gradually become sufficiently strong enough to maintain the connection.
Also, in the early days, it’s best to keep training sessions short to prevent muscle soreness and fatigue.
#5 – Balance the aids
Don’t fall into the trap of cramming your horse between stronger leg and stronger rein aids.
You need to balance your leg aids with the energy that you are receiving in your hands.
Remember that you want to ride your horse to the contact, but don’t push too much as to drive him through the contact.
Hopefully, from this article, you can see that contact is not something that happens solely between the rider’s hands and the bit – to be a part of this cycle of energy, both horse and rider’s entire bodies are involved.
In essence, the correct contact is created by the transmission of energy over the horse’s back, resulting in the horse stretching towards the bit and seeking a contact with the rider’s hands.
A good contact is the result of correct training.