beginning collection
Beginning collection. Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

* This is the third part of a three part series.

In Part I, we discussed “Take Up The Contact”. Click here to read Part I.

In Part II, we discussed "On The Bit". Click here to read Part II.

Stage Three: "On the Aids" or "Connection"

By the time you reach this stage, you've had lots of experience in getting the horse to move forward to the bit and developing balance both in yourself and your horse. This stage requires a good understanding and ability to do all things from the hind end (Stage Two), and more!

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The next thing you need to learn is how to get the horse to "come under" in the hind end, so that he can begin to lighten the forehand. And so, we move now into "real" collection (not the just-go-slow-and-short kind).

When you first learn to collect, it feels like you have to put a whole lot of energy into it. In fact, the first time I was coming near to getting a collected trot, I felt like I was putting everything I could into the trot - and my horse's movement felt huge! But aye, here's the rub. To collect, you need more energy, deeper hind end strides (to the point that the horse starts to "bend the joints" in the hind end) and an even lighter front end.

In fact, if you do manage to get close, you might feel your horse tilt a little - and suddenly, you're sitting into a sort-of climbing-up-airplane tilt. Not because you've moved your body in any way, but because the horse has. He has truly collected, and you are feeling the resultant weightlessness of the front end. Think "poll at the highest point" - not because the rider forced the horse to raise his head (and tighten his back), but because the hind end came under, the back rounded and the front end lifted.

If you can achieve this collection, even for a short period of time - because you will likely "fall" out of that balance until you both strengthen over lots of practice and time - you might feel a new type of contact that you haven't felt before. I've used fluffy terms before to try to describe how it feels to me.

This is what I'm terming as "Stage Three". The difference between this stage and the previous two is that the contact is incredibly light yet super "connected". It's like your horse can really read your mind, although you know it's more physical than mental. It's like you're both floating along in this togetherness that is touch, but not necessarily pressure.

I imagine that dance partners find this connection, as do pairs skaters. They are together at all times, in contact or not, but always lightly connected.

Here's the catch. This type of contact, or connection, doesn't happen from the hands. In fact, it's impossible to keep with the reins. It comes from balance. It comes from the horse's hind end. It's a position, or a posture, and it can happen because of the horse's ability to maintain that balance through his movement.

There's another catch. If you can't balance with him, you'll lose it in no time. So even if your amazing instructor can teach your horse to collect - and get the balance and connectedness - once you're on, you'll have to maintain it! Because this level of contact comes only from the kind of balance which results from your aids. Your horse can only do what you can do.

Once you get used to it, you will ride from all your aids more than from your hands - which can be termed as "on the aids". So you communicate most with your horse from your seat, your legs, your weight, even your head position - and last of all, your hands.

You can control your horse's leg stride from your seat.

You can control your horse's leg speed from your seat.

You can change your horse's gait, ask for more engagement, and encourage self-carriage and  from your seat and legs.

You can turn from your entire body, which positions into the upcoming turn.

And so on.

You ride "from your aids". This is the magical space that "self carriage" happens. Think of terms like "harmony" and "invisible aids".

To recap Stage Three:

  • Hind end steps under
  • Hind end tilts (engagement)
  • Front end lightens (self-carriage)
  • Super soft but connected "contact" - on the aids, not just on the bit

The Fluidity of the Stages

Although I've identified three stages of contact (I'm sure you can think of others or different paths to the same result), there's one more thing to keep in mind. The stages don't happen sequentially like a 1-2-3 method. They don't work like you're on a path where one stage happens, then the next and finally you arrive at the third stage.

The real-life experience is quite the opposite. The stages are there at all times, and you might fluctuate between all three in one ride. So you might start with having to take up the contact yourself, and in a matter of minutes, achieve the level of engagement that allows you to communicate through your aids.

Then you try a new movement, and it all falls apart again and you find yourself at Stage One again. Or it happens that one day, your horse feels great - and/or you came home from an inspiring clinic and are super charged to ride - and everything works at Stage Three - just for that day!

Or, maybe you and your horse can reliably work at Stage Two - over the back and on the bit - during almost the whole ride, regardless of what the actual movements are. Other times, you can get a feel of Stage Three but then you end up at Stage Two for most movements, and Stage One when you try something new.

The Stages are fluid, interconnected but not necessarily dependent on each other.


What's the point of identifying and discussing the three stages? 

First, to identify the terms and create a conceptual framework around them.

Second, to give you an overview of where you are and where you might be heading.

Third, to let you know that we're all working on the three stages at one time or another, and that it's not a problem to be fluctuating between the three until you can consistently maintain yourself and your horse at the third stage. I think that's what we're always aiming for - the highest level of connection.

If you missed the other parts of this series:

Click here to read Part I. (Take Up The Contact) 

 Click here to read Part II. (On The Bit)

I'd love to know how you think of and describe contact. Let us know in the comments below.

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If you enjoyed these tips, you can find many more in our new book, Horse Listening – Book 3: Horses. Riding. Life. now available for purchase! 

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Horse Listening Book 3

Top 10 Common Goals For Riders – Presented by Buck Steel Horse Farms: #4 - Connection!

What “In Front Of The Leg” Feels Like: What it feels like to get the energy you need for the beginning of engagement and self-carriage.

Demystifying “Contact” in Horseback Riding: To think that correct and effective contact is something out of the reach of the average rider is simply not true.

Find the Space Between the Give and Take in Horse RidingAs with so many other things in life, we need to find the happy medium.

5 Steps to Effective Short ReinsJust as with any other movement and technique that is taught to horses, short reins can be very beneficial to the horse when applied correctly.


  1. Hi! I am loving your articles on contact and am finding them very useful for where I am at in my riding at the moment. On paper this all looks great and makes sense but when in the saddle riding a horse I find that all of the elements you have mentioned do occur at varying points but not necessarily together! One area that I am struggling with repeatedly is allowing my elbows to relax and soften whilst keeping a consistent contact. I find that I fluctuate between being too rigid in my elbows or letting the reins go slack. It is a very tricky medium to find. I wondered if you have any tips for this? I know that it is important to ride from the leg and seat of course!

    1. Hi Michaela, I have the same sort of problem! It’s always hard to find the happy medium in all the aids, and there is no other way that I know of than to just practice over and over with intention. However, it does really help, especially at the beginning, to have an educated eye on the ground to even let you know when you got it right, so you can begin to identify what “right” feels like.

      Here’s another idea: Hold the ends of a skipping rope (or similar) as if they are the reins. Get a friend to be the horse and hold the loopy end of the rope. Let her move around and see if you can “soften” your elbows while you’re maintaining the contact.

      I wrote about something similar here, if you haven’t already seen it.

  2. Really appreciate your concepts & writing on this subject – contact! It can seem such an elusive goal & one I am still struggling to maintain with consistency. Please keep writing your articles – you have an amazing gift in being able to describe so wonderfully some very detailed & at times complex ideas. Thank you!

  3. Thank you! I am working on my riding to prepare for both CHA and PATH certifications and my instructors keep telling me I need more contact, needless to say I have seen it, but have never intentionally ridden with it and so now you have given me ideas of what Goals I should be trying to reach and approximate feelings to look for.