Sometimes it feels like the word "contact" has other-wordly connotations. Is it related to celestial retrogrades, or long-told mythical verbal traditions, or is it a yogic position unreachable by the average equine enthusiast?
Simply put, it is a "must learn" skill that every horseback rider needs in their toolbox.
In fact, "contact" as it relates to horse riding is a lot less mystifying than it might initially appear. It is true that "one never arrives" to the perfect contact, and you can devote a lifetime to developing the ultimate level of contact between you and your horse.
But to think that correct and effective contact is something out of the reach of the average rider is simply not true.
Developing contact with your horse is very much like shaking hands with a person. You reach for the person's hand and the other person reaches for yours. You close fingers relatively gently (we are not considering those strong shake-your-shoulder-off aggressive shakes!) around each other's hand and you mutually lift and drop your hands in the shake.
In general, it feels nice to shake someone's hand. You both show a willingness to meet in the middle and share a physical bond that connects you together.
Here's another picture: We've all seen partners in figure skating reach for each other's grasp as if by some mutually-shared secret that is known only to them. As they skate along, their "contact" changes from hand to hand, forward to backward, always meeting at a designated point, never appearing forced or contrived. We see the results - almost imperceptible communication that enables both partners to use each other's talents to bring out the best in each other. You could imagine a similar situation between ballroom dancers, and other such activities.
And so it should be with a horse.
To initiate contact, you must shorten the reins. Don't let anyone tell you that it is "cruel" to shorten the reins on a horse. In fact, intermittently picking up and dropping the contact on the bit might actually cause discomfort for the horse.
So... shorten the reins but don't pull! The trouble that many riders get into with contact is that they think that short reins means pulling reins. This is far from the truth.
Once you have achieved a useful rein length that allows you to hold the bit in the horse's mouth, your next job is to keep that contact steady. This is where it gets tricky - take up contact, and then keep it there (prerequisite: strong core muscles and hands that are independent of the seat so they can respond to the horse's needs rather than using the mouth for balance).
Next, invite the horse to reach forward into the contact. This is the part of the "handshake" where the horse goes to meet you. The trick here is that you have to create room within the contact for the horse to literally reach slightly forward with the whole body (including but not limited to the head and neck) to meet your hands at the end of the bit.
Initiate the horse's reach by asking for more impulsion - from your legs and seat - and then allowing the energy over the horse's back and into your hands. Create a millimeter of space (don't drop the reins!!) for your horse to reach toward. If you feel your horse surge forward into a rounder body outline (creating a "lifted back" to carry you with), you know you're on the right track!
What do you do when you have contact?
Maintain it and then try something new!
Work toward getting your horse "on the bit". You might want to ask the horse to reach further underneath itself for more collection. You might want the horse to transition into another gait. Maybe you want a bend, or a counterbend. In any case, you will always be working toward promoting a better weight bearing position for your horse while you are on his back.
The point is that without contact, you will always surprise your horse into the new movement, you will likely cause discomfort or even pain in the horse's mouth, and there will often be inconsistencies in your communication.
One thing to remember is that the quality of your contact can always be improved. We do always seek "better" contact, developing in the softness, lightness, gentleness and effectiveness of the touch. Each new circumstance requires a small adjustment to the quality and level of the contact, and each horse has different requirements and tolerances.
Note: Different disciplines require different "styles" of contact (i.e. western riding using curb bits) but there is nevertheless always a minimum level of contact that enables the horse to work at its optimum.
How do you describe "contact"?
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If you liked this article, you might also like:
What Is Contact? A three-part description starting from the most basic to the more advanced versions of the concept.
Speaking "Horse" (a.k.a. Pushing the Envelope): How to develop respect and understanding from your horse.
Stepping "Forward" In Horseback Riding: What the term "forward" really means.
How Do You Develop 'Feel' In Horseback Riding? By three methods we learn feel!
When Do You Start Riding Your Horse? No, it's not when you mount in the ring!