Contact is the third building block in the classic German Scales of Training pyramid following after Rhythm and Suppleness (sometimes shown as Relaxation). However, the question of what contact is, or more to the point, just how much contact is needed and how soft or how firm the contact should be, seems to be something that a lot of people struggle with.
According to Gustav Steinbrecht (“Gymnasium of the Horse”) there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, namely, light contact, soft contact and finally firm contact. He states that a perfect light contact is only possible when the horse is in absolute balance and is able to carry himself in self carriage. This is basically because balance and contact are essential to each other, so the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance can be improved by correct contact.
Contact therefore is, in fact, ever-changing – dependent on the balance and the self-carriage of the horse. The more your horse is in self carriage the lighter the contact is. However, as we all know, there are moments during training when things don’t go to plan and our horse isn’t balanced let alone in self carriage and falls on the forehand. And when this happens, he will get heavier in the hand. The important thing here is not to try to fix the problem by pulling on the reins or shortening them even further but to try and help the horse to rebalance himself by using a downward transition or a series of half halts and double checking that you are sitting extra correctly and that you have your core engaged.
In the most basic terms, contact refers to the situation in which the reins are stretched in a straight line between the mouth of the horse and the hands of the rider. To an onlooker, correct contact should appear as an unbroken straight line from the rider’s elbow (which should be held at or above the hip) to the mouth of the horse. For this to happen, the rider mustn’t have their hands too high or too low but at the appropriate height for the head carriage of the horse. As a rough guide the hands should be held just above and in front of the pommel of the saddle.
How the hands are held is also important to the quality of the contact. They should be held thumb uppermost with the thumbs pointing towards the horse’s opposite ear and slightly downwards as though pouring a pot of tea. Many riders ride with what I call piano hands – where the hands are turned over as if playing a piano. This position prevents riders from being able to really follow their horse’s head with their hands (so the contact is rigid rather than elastic) so they try to compensate for this by opening their fingers in the mistaken belief this makes their hands light. But instead of having a light-feeling contact, they have almost no contact or no feeling and their lower arms can’t give to the horse or be elastic. When the knuckles are almost vertical (thumbs on top) the two bones of our lower arm run virtually parallel (when viewed from above) which permits the hand to be more sensitive and responsive and our contact more elastic.
It is also important to think of riding forward into your hands! Our hands may move outwards (as in an opening rein), inwards (as in a supporting or indirect rein) or even upwards, BUT NEVER backwards away from the mouth. And yet backwards is probably the most common mistake that occurs!
Equally one should never ride the horse from the front to the back but all too frequently this is what we do. The horse should move forward into your hands. In training for contact the horse must play an active part and the rider’s hand a waiting, passive part. In the original German version of the Scales of Training the word Anlehnung is used, which translated literally means “ leaning to” and not “pulling in”. A rider’s hand that is too active backwards or too hard leads to disruption in the horse’s balance.
Contact gives us the ability to communicate with our horse (and the horse with us). To be correct the contact should feel alive. If you hold your hands correctly, you feel a connection with your horse. When he chews the bit, you feel a small vibration on the reins. When we have correct contact we should be able to feel a flow of energy, that stems from when our horse’s hind leg touches the ground, travels along our horse’s spine, through his neck and poll and on into the bit and then through the reins to our hand where we feel that energy as a subtle pulse.
Contact should be thought of as a tool for sculpting the horse’s body and guiding the horse. You can use the rein contact to gauge the asymmetry of your horse. For instance if your horse is crooked because the hips and shoulders are not aligned precisely on the line of travel, the rein contact will be too heavy and inelastic on the stiff side (the side which the shoulder falls out from the line) whilst, on the hollow side the contact will be too light. If the hind legs push more than they carry, the rein contact will become heavy as the horse leans on the bit. If the hind legs carry more than they push the horse will stay behind the bit (which may feel light) and avoid the contact. As such, contact allows us to feel what our horse is feeling as any brace or stiffness will have a negative effect on the contact.
To have correct contact you need to sit correctly, using your core muscles to hold yourself in balance. An independent and supple seat is the cornerstone and prerequisite of soft contact. Your arms and legs are extensions of this correct position and are able to retain their position without brace. The upper arms hang straight down to your hips and support and frame your core. In this position, you won’t need to pull on your reins to stay in balance and conversely if the horse leans on the reins, you have the strength of your core to keep you from being pulled forward. Even when we ride with contact, we have to bear in mind that our reins are only a secondary aid. Our seat is the primary aid and it is the engagement of our core that helps the horse to engage his abdominals and find his balance.
The amount of actual ‘weight’ in your hands when taking contact will vary from horse to horse due to conformation differences and as already explained, the “frame” or level of schooling of our horse. The contact feels at its heaviest when the horse is stretching forward and down, becomes lighter as the horse comes into balance and even lighter when the weight starts to shift to the hind legs so that the horse now ‘carries’ himself (self carriage).
Another important factor is we have to learn to accept the contact from the horse as he moves into our hand. So many riders ‘give’ the rein as soon as they feel the horse coming to their hand. If they do this regularly, their horse will never be able to step in to the contact. You need to have a steady hand that ‘accepts’ the contact and closes the circle of aids. If you give away the connection at the same time you ask the horse to step under and carry more weight on his hindquarters the effect is like squeezing a toothpaste tube with the top open, the energy runs out the front and the horse doesn’t achieve the rounded frame you want.
When the rein contact is loose and floppy the horse cannot feel fine finger communication. Without rein contact he cannot learn to go into the round balanced frame needed for true self carriage. However once the horse can hold a round balanced frame, the reins may be given to him for a few strides to see if he can maintain self carriage.
Too strong a contact will block forward movement and prevent the horse from feeling light communication and whilst it might force the horse’s head into position, he will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth), drop his back and trail his hind legs in compensation. Too strong a contact also causes discomfort, numbs the mouth and can damage the nerves.
So what is correct contact? As already mentioned the reins must be neither too short nor too long but form a straight line between your elbow and the horse’s mouth. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it. In fact the definition of contact given by British Dressage says it all “ the ideal contact is a light, even, elastic feel in both reins and this is achieved by aids from the legs and seat, not the hand”.
Having said all that it is really hard to know just how hard you grip the reins. If you live in the UK my electronic horse, PI, is a great tool for seeing what really happens when you take up the reins. Sensors positioned at the bit record the actual amount of rein contact that you take up and show you just how light or heavy your contact really is. If your contact is more than 1.6kgs per rein the display goes amber to show that your contact is too heavy.
It is interesting to see what really happens when you give a half halt and whether you throw the reins away when you release it. It is also fascinating to see what happens to the contact when we do a rising trot!
So far on PI I have seen as little as 250 grams of pressure per rein to over 4kgs per rein. The contact can differ between the hands too – with the maximum variation between the left and right hand recorded so far being a massive 2.5kgs! Remember that our contact should be even – assuming we are riding on a straight line and our horse is in balance. Unfortunately, hands that are too strong are all too common. A recent study in Sweden found that their riders took an average of between 1.5kg and a massive 2.5 kg of rein contact in each hand. So much for that light, elastic contact that BD talk about!