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.
Suppleness is #2 on the training scale, and as such will always be one of the earliest focuses when training a horse. Even when #1 rhythm (see my previous article) is maintained, a horse’s movement cannot be considered to be correct unless he is also working through his back without tension.
Like everything else in the training scales, no single scale can be worked on in isolation from the others, and you will find that as you work on suppleness, your horse’s rhythm (#1) will continue to improve, and a reasonable contact (#3) becomes more possible.
Suppleness is a central theme throughout schooling which must never be neglected or taken for granted, but constantly checked and reinforced at all stages of training.
As discussed in my last post, the SCALES OF TRAINING form the guidelines by which you should decide which aspect of training to focus on at any given point in your horse’s training, both within a single training session, and during a training phase that may be ongoing for several sessions, or even months.
Unless you address the scales in order your training will be less than effective, because each scale underpins the ones above, as depicted in the diagram below.
Without establishing the most basic of the scales at the base of the pyramid – rhythm – anything else you do with your horse will be worthless, because a horse without a correct rhythm can never develop any of the further scales, nor will such a horse ever find ridden work relaxing and enjoyable.
I often term this first scale ‘rhythm and relaxation‘, because the one promotes the other.
First, we need to consider what (in equestrian terms) constitutes good rhythm.
First, I’m making the assumption that you have heard of the scales of training.
I’ve been astonished to discover how many people during even quite long careers in competition dressage, have managed to miss out on this aspect of their education.
SO in case you come into that category, or even if you know of the scales, but aren’t quite sure in which order they are arranged, here they are:
RHYTHM (and relaxation)
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that I wrote a book called THE BUILDING BLOCKS OF TRAINING, so-called because it details how to build your horse’s training in a progressive, logical manner, explaining the order in which movements should be taught (as well as how to teach them).
Well the SCALES OF TRAINING are the underpinning guide to how your horse’s way of going should be built, and in which order to tackle any issues.
They are also the order of priorities used by dressage judges to determine what part of your horse’s training their comments will focus upon.
I use the word ‘underpinning’ not only to remain with the same building analogy, but also because this describes very clearly what I have demonstrated in the above picture: that each scale is dependent upon the ones beneath to hold it up.