Every person seems to have a different view point as to actually what is meant by contact. When I ask students to take up what they think of contact on PI (our electronic horse), the degree of contact ranges from as little as 250 grams per rein to over 4kgs per rein!
The actual expression “contact” has its origins in the premise that the horse should seek a soft contact with his bars of his mouth on the bit – i.e. a contact. And the purpose of contact is to provide a communication between the horse and rider and vice versa. 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 be correct the contact should feel alive. When we have correct contact (the reins neither too long nor too short) 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 (or noseband if we are riding bitless), and then through the reins to our hand where we feel the energy as a subtle pulse.
According to Alois Podhajsky (director of the Spanish Riding School 1939 – 1965) a perfect 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, the better the horse’s balance the more consistent and vibrant the contact will be. Conversely, a horse’s balance is improved by the correct contact. The old masters discovered that contact was most effective if the horse’s head was carried close to the vertical. However a head position that was in front of the vertical was considered far less of a mistake to one that was carried behind!
If we always ride on a loose rein, our horse will fall on his forehand and his withers will drop. After all, walking along on the forehand is what horses do naturally, which doesn’t matter if the horse is in a field or out on the prairie but it is detrimental to the horse physically if we are asking him to carry us on his back.
If we ride with too short a rein, and force the horse’s head into position, the horse will probably “break” between the second and third neck vertebra (sometimes between the third and fourth). When this occurs the connection between the horses haunches and bit are severed. The position also limits the horse’s ability to use his back and neck correctly and therefore go “through”. Riding like this for any length of time is detrimental to your horse physically and will result in neck and/or back injury.
So what is correct contact? As already mentioned, the reins must be neither too short nor too long. It should be the horse who seeks the contact and the rider, in turn, who grants it.
Gustav Steinbrecht talks at length about how to achieve contact in his classic book “The Gymnasium of the Horse”. He extrapolates that there are 3 gradations in the degree of contact, the light contact, the soft contact, and the firm contact. He reasons that the first can only be achieved through working “back to front” and takes time and dedication, the second is for what he calls military riding, which we could interpret in this day and age as happy hackers and the third for hunt and race riding. He goes on to say that the contact will vary with one and the same horse, depending on his state of training.
To achieve that correct and elastic contact your elbows need to frame your torso, so that your reins are connected through your hands to your core, seat and back. We need supple, feeling hands that can give to the movement of our horse’s head. A horse will only actively seek contact with our hands when he knows he can trust them. Unfortunately, as sessions on PI show, most people use their reins inadvertently (to a greater or lesser extent) to assist their rising trot.
The reins take on that much talked about ‘elastic’ quality when we allow the joints in our arms (wrists / elbows / shoulders) to ‘breathe’ with the horse’s movement, which means our elbows need to be bent and our wrists straight . I believe that until we truly understand this forward giving concept of the hand (even in the downward transitions), the horse will protect himself by retaining tension in the jaw, poll or somewhere in the neck to avoid us unwittingly jabbing him in the mouth.
With horses whose hind legs mainly push (don’t step under the horse’s point of mass but either trail behind or step out to the side), there will be, as already mentioned, a tendency for the horse to lean on his bit. To rectify this we need to encourage his hind legs to step further under his body and flex more at the joints. All too frequently students are told to kick on and shorten the reins in an attempt to achieve just this and all too frequently students try to do just this and fail miserably. I believe it is far more effective to use arena patterns to help achieve this goal. Use clearly defined 10m circles and figures of 8 to encourage your horse to step forward and under with his inside hind leg. You will need to be precise about your line of travel and be aware of any tendencies that your horse may have with regards to falling in or falling out. Once your horse is going well on the 10m circle you can enlarge the circle (one horse’s width x 2 horses’ length) to further encourage his inside hind to step further under and to get the outside hind to flex further and carry a little more weight. And then as the horse starts to step under further he will lean less on the bit and start to shorten his frame.
As Steinbrecht so eloquently said, the appropriate contact is not fixed in stone. It is always changing. It needs to change depending on our horse’s frame or focus. The contact a rider might need to convey a meaning to a horse may also have to change at any given moment in order for the horse to get the message.
Finally we need to be able to take an equal contact on each rein. This is not as easy as it sounds as we aren’t always aware of just how different our hands can be. Research in Sweden has shown that most riders take more pressure on the right rein when asked to take equal pressure on both reins. (Randle et al. 2013). Closer to home, studies of students on PI show that there may be some correlation between the stronger hand and the diagonal dominant hip.