*This is the first part of a three-part article. Parts 2 and 3 are linked below.
What do people mean when they speak of "contact"?
The topic can be either (overly) simplified or (unnecessarily) complicated. This is another one of those horse riding questions that you'll get 25 different answers when you ask 25 different people. Between different riding styles, techniques, horses and riders, and the fairly abstract nature of the topic, you'll find many different responses to the simple question: What is contact?
There is good reason for the ambiguity. "Contact" is one of those things that can take years to develop and understand. Then, just when you think you've finally figured it out, you'll discover something new that changes your whole perspective and adds a new dimension to your levels of understanding. Over the years, I've identified three stages of contact that I've learned and experienced. It is by no means the one conception of contact, but here is my take on it. Maybe it will help you in your development as you go through your riding experiences.
Each stage builds on the last. I think that all of us go through all the stages, starting with the first one as we begin our riding careers. Then, we progress to the second and then the third over time.
The trick is that we need to go through these stages until we develop the skills to get past them. The level you are at right now isn't where you're going to be in a couple of years' time. Finding the new level takes time, practice and stepping out of your comfort zone. As always, getting educated feedback is the key.
It's worth the effort though. The further along you get, the easier and quicker it will become for you to bring a horse along - even if the horse is fairly young or uneducated.
Stage One: "Take Up" the Contact
Lots of times, instructors tell students to "take up the contact". What they mean is that the reins are too long at that moment, and you should shorten the reins enough to make the reins straight.
When you take up contact, you can begin to feel the horse's mouth. This will in turn help you to confirm your aids for such things as stops, turns, balance (through half-halts), transitions and much more. Although the hands are the last of the aids to be applied, they nevertheless help to confirm what the rest of the body is signalling to the horse.
This is the most basic form of contact. The main point of the "take up" is that the action is initiated by you and you control how much pressure you put on the bit. You are initiating a beginning form of communication. This would be used especially for beginner riders or young or uneducated horses. While you won't finish your "contact journey" at this stage, it is where you will likely begin.
During this stage, you will likely be learning your other aids as well. You will be working on coordinating your seat, your legs, hands and voice to mean something to the horse. You will learn to stay with the horse and not get left behind. You will also learn to become more of an active participant (rather than passive) and become comfortable with unplanned situations such as spooks, romps and just generally getting the horse to go places.
Even if you are personally at other stages of contact, you might need to come back to this stage to educate a young or inexperienced horse for the same reasons. He will learn all your basic aids and become more comfortable with your directions.
The first stage is only a beginning but it is a necessary place to start for many reasons. However, there is so much more to come!
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