Developing a clear, non-verbal language with your horse means making a connection and this is where your dressage journey begins. Without a useful contact, as a dressage rider you will be unable to communicate with your horse; you will be unable to ‘engage in any type of conversation’ or convey any message effectively. It’s a really widespread problem.
Establishing the contact, maintaining a contact, making a connection, being above the bit, getting behind the bit, head tilting, head wobbling/shaking, strong contact, soft contact; there are a myriad of issues, so for those of you that need help let’s explore a little further.
What Do I Mean by Useful Contact?
Physically outline is a round silhouette; a ‘round outline’ is the frame that is seen from hocks to nose and comes about when you ride your horse forward into a good contact. It is the flexion of the hind limbs that has a direct effect upon the horse’s ability to flex his jaw and lower his nose. The flexed limbs create the energy which travels from behind, over the back, through the neck, and into your hands at which point it is required to be recycled back to the hind legs, but this will only occur if you have a ‘useful contact’. If you have no contact, a loose contact (due to giving forward and back with the rein) or intermittent contact by not holding the reins securely (so opening and closing the hands) the energy will seep out through the front and not be recycled, thus creating balance and rhythm issues and allowing your horse to hollow over the back.
With the hind limbs stepping further forward the transference of weight will only take place from the forehand to the quarters, thus the forehand will ‘lighten’ but only if your contact is such that the energy is recycled.
Getting There is Not Easy
When teaching your horse to accept a contact it can sometimes seem like you are holding him up with your hands, it can feel a little heavy. Particularly if your horse has been trained to go with his head in the air and is not used to being ’round’ for a period of time.
It helps to know when you have successfully connected and have a good contact and it is relatively easy to recognise. When you and your horse are connected through the contact he becomes a lot more comfortable to sit on because his back is relaxed; the trot and canter gaits feel more bouncy because your horse’s back is swinging; you feel in control and feel like you can work though transitions, smoothly and promptly; your horse will be ‘in front of the leg’ (so will not need continual reminders from you to keep going); he will feel light and obedient, this is because he is ‘on the aids’, willing, submissive and ready for your instructions without resistance in the mouth or body. Believe me, once you have felt what it feels like to have your horse connected a) you know about it and b) you will not want to ride him any other way.
So many riders confuse lightness in the contact. There is good lightness and bad lightness. Bad lightness is when you feel lightness in the rein but actually what you have is NO contact, either a looped rein or worse a ‘wishy-washy’ rein that will constantly prod your horse and may even be causing him discomfort in the mouth and certainly will be creating inconsistencies in your communication. Good lightness is the stable ‘feel’ in your hands, no pulling, not strong or downward deadness but still a good feel in the hands.
To initiate contact with your horse, you must shorten the reins. Many riders believe that shortened reins means pulling reins, nothing could be further from the truth. You should aim to achieve a ‘useful rein length’ that allows a secure feel of the bit in the horse’s mouth, it should be steady, which is where it gets tricky; take up the rein contact, and keep it steady, but you must allow and follow the horses head movement. All too often I see riders who worry that their hands are not steady enough so they stiffen their arms in an effort to keep their hands still thinking that a steady contact is keeping everything still, it is not, you must ‘allow’ or your rein will actually be on-off, on-off or loop/straight, loop/straight with the movement of the horses head.
Next, invite your horse to reach forward into the rein contact. This can be thought of as a ‘handshake’ with the horse, where the horse comes to meet you, like when you reach forward to shake someone’s hand, they reach forward, and you make contact! Ask the horse forward from your legs and seat. Create a millimetre of space for your horse to reach into (from a giving elbow movement – don’t drop the reins or let them through your hands). You should feel your horse surge forward with a lifted back. This is an indication that you are on the right track.
A Word of Caution
It is worth noting that the novice or untrained horse (whatever the age) needs time to develop strength and flexibility to accomplish the desired ‘roundness’, it’s important then that every time you take a walk break, you should give a loose rein and let your horse adopt any frame he wants so that he can relax his muscles. The length of time you ask your horse to work ‘on the bit’ totally depends on the individual horse. Always consider his age, fitness, and temperament. Clearly, if you do too much and make your horse sore because he’s using his muscles differently, you’re not only going to have a sore horse, but also a horse that becomes quirky and resistant. So the trick with anything you do with a horse is to bring him up to the limit, and then take the pressure off. As soon as your horse shows signs of resistance because he’s either physically or mentally tired, back off. Build up day by day.
Contact can always be improved, like communication can always be improved. It develops with the goal of softness, lightness, gentleness and effectiveness of the touch. Good rein contact makes a happy horse and taking all of the above into account, only with soft shoulders, arms, elbows and hands will you achieve a good contact.
When working with Californian rider Sheryl Ross in 2014 Charlotte Dujardin said – “Sheryl, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Short reins win gold medals” when Ross’ reins got long as she schooled the flying changes. You cannot communicate without making contact!