Achieving an acceptable contact depends on the previous scales (rhythm and suppleness) being relatively well developed.
Contact is the easiest of the scales to see and feel whether it is good or not, but is the most difficult to achieve. It is a complicated and divisive topic about which there is much disagreement: how strong/light should it be? What is a ‘correct’ contact?
Contact varies. It will be slightly different between different horses, at different ages, at different levels of balance and development, during different movements and even different moments within an aid. Contact is a vast topic, and you should always be seeking to expand your knowledge, and discover what works for you and your partner.
What IS contact
The FEI defines contact as: “the soft, steady connection between the rider’s hand and the horse’s mouth. The horse should go rhythmically forward from the rider’s driving aids and seek the contact with the rider’s hand, thus going into the contact.”
This sounds confusingly as though you need to be addressing impulsion (Scale #4) to achieve contact, but this is not true: an acceptable contact can be achieved without a great deal of impulsion provided the horse is reactive to the rider’s legs (i.e. thinking FORWARD, which is not the same thing as having impulsion or, indeed, speed).
In fact, contact is not just about the hand and the bit -aids are given by the seat, legs and hands – all three form contact points between horse and rider.
Indicators of a good contact
- steps forward to the contact, working through a supple poll.
- works over a raised and swinging back to allow the energy of the hind quarters to be transmitted forward to the bridle
- accepts an elastic contact. His mouth is quietly chewing the bit without the tongue visible
- his poll is the highest point
- his nose should be slightly in front of the vertical, or in higher degrees of collection, on the vertical
- in medium and extended paces he should visibly lengthen his entire frame, including his neck.
- the outline is maintained without change when the rider yields the rein forward for a step or two, as in the movement described as ‘give and retake’.
- seeks the contact forward and down when the rein is lengthened.
How to achieve a good contact
As you can see, contact is far more than just what is happening between the horse’s mouth and the rider’s hands; it is a part of the circle of energy that should flow from
- The active hind legs
- Over the swinging back
- Arriving in the mouth
- Travelling along the reins to the riders hands, where if may be modified to create movements, transitions, half halts etc.
- Through the rider’s supple body and adhesive seat to
- The rider’s driving aids (legs and seat)
- Into activity of the hind legs
- And so on, round and round.
To achieve this, a rider must be supple enough in their position to move in harmony with their horse, and also stable but without stiffness.
Good practice for the rider is to consider that the rein contact originates in the horse’s mouth, and terminates in the rider’s elbows, with the hand as a modifier en route. With this concept, pulling on the reins becomes a thing of the past, as the elbows should never move behind the rider’s body, and as a result, the energy in the system is never blocked by the rein contact.
Holding the reins correctly is a good start.
If you were to ride without gloves, you should be able to see the nails of your little fingers, which also has the effect of rotating your elbows inward.
To achieve this position you must keep stable but flexible elbows, positioned with the point of your elbow on, or just in front of, the point of your hip (top front wing of your pelvis), and with the forearm completely relaxed. The upper arm is held in place by the triceps muscle (the one on the back of your arm). Any tension in the biceps muscle (on the front of your arm) or the forearm causes backward pulling, and a stiff, strong contact. The use of the hand is achieved by small movements of the fingers, and slight inward flexions of the wrist, and NOT with the ‘squeezing the sponge’ action so often described, which tightens the forearm.
The height of the hand depends on the level of training of your horse – on a Novice horse the bit should be level with your knee, on an Advanced horse, with your hip – and your hand should be at the appropriate height to form the straight line elbow-forearm-hand-rein-bit.
Your horse must also be taught to accept the contact with a relaxed jaw, chewing the bit softly with a closed mouth. Without this acceptance, no effort from you will achieve a good contact. With many horses this involves you first offering a more forward feel to the contact without restriction, and may also require the noseband to be loosened – a tight noseband may disguise a contact problem but will never solve it.
Next, you will need to use just the right amount of driving aids from your seat and legs to make your horse step forward to the bit, without getting too fast, tense, or unbalanced. Your hands are there to receive the contact, not to make it. The amount of weight in your hands will, as described earlier, vary according to many factors, the important thing is that there is never a backward pull from the rider’s hands.
A young, or weak, horse will tend to move its head and neck around to avoid the contact – your challenge at this stage is to follow the movement with your hands to maintain the same light contact wherever the head goes – not easy!
The contact should also remain as consistent as possible between different frames – whether the horse is working long and low, or with his neck up and arched in collection. Varying the outline during a working session is an essential schooling exercise for a variety of purposes, in this case to confirm the security of your contact.
Quoting from a Horse and Hound article by Carl Hester:
“If your horse is in self-carriage you should be able to give and retake the reins without him losing balance, but how many people ever actually do this at home?” says Carl. “Incorporating it at home even for three strides at a time will help you see where you are with your training. It also allows your horse to relax in his mouth, helping encourage him to chew the bit and become softer.”
Although this piece is about self-carriage, the last sentence is very appropriate to contact.
Signs of contact problems
- Against the hand – nose well in front of the vertical, not flexed at the poll and using the under neck muscles to resist with consequent stiffening and hollowing of the back
- Above the bit – head up high with a hollow back
- Fighting the contact
- Rigid jaw
- Poking the nose
- Unsteady mouth
- Tongue out – intermittent or consistent
- Stiff at the poll
- Head behind the vertical (prolonged, not momentary)
- Intermittent contact
- Hiding behind the contact (behind the bit/dropping the bit)
- Over bent
- Broken neck – flexion is not at the poll, but at the second or third neck vertebra
- Short in the neck – contracting the neck back, with or without a hollow just in front of the withers
- Not through the neck: the face may be close to the vertical, but the neck is not arched, with the under neck muscles and top neck muscles both in the same degree of use. The top line of the neck should be longer than the underline – if they are both the same length the frame is incorrect
- Leaning on the bit (relying on the rider’s hand to support the balance)
- Any variation in the outline during a give and retake
- Not stretching forward and down to the bit when the reins are lengthened (unless the horse is young or weak, when he may not yet be able to achieve this without losing balance)
Importance of a good contact
Without a good, or at least, acceptable, contact, you will be unable to progress your horse’s training in a truly productive manner.
A good contact is essential for positioning the horse with ease for the lateral movements, and for aiding effective half halts. Without these tools you cannot develop engagement, and without engagement your horse will remain on his forehand.