There’s more to the art of contact than you may think. National A Level dressage judge and trainer NICOLE TOUGH explains.
Contact refers to the line from the rider’s hand to the horse’s mouth along the reins. We apply contact through our rein aids and to master the right contact is indeed the art of riding.
Dressage riders should aim never to pull on the reins. Our reins should act like side reins on the lunge. Side reins don’t give and they don’t pull, and the dressage horse has to find a way to organise their body and work within the restriction of the side reins. When we get in the saddle, our reins should emulate side reins with the addition of a mutually agreed pledge: you, the rider, will never pull back but they, the horse, must understand that they can never pull your hands forward.
To understand this, imagine that when the rider’s hands are consistently positioned correctly, they are like a power point and the rider creates a current by plugging their horse in to the power point though their leg and seat aids. The horse is animated through the activating aids of the seat and leg, causing a rise through the wither and neck. Then, on finding resistance at the bit from the steady hand position (the power point) they yield at the poll, and, with the poll as the highest point, assume an outline relevant to the level and stage of their training.
This is the theory. Concepts like yielding at the poll, and accepting the restriction of the rein sound easy, but the horse is an animal with a mind of their own and a will to find the path of least resistance.
Regarding horses’ mouths, master dressage technician Carl Hester recently pointed out that “some horses are born with mouths like bricks, some with mouths like silk, and some won’t let you touch the bit at all.”
The horse with the mouth like a brick often tends to be a ‘leaner’. The leaner likes to lean or hang on the rein. The concept of yielding at the poll is not so easy for these horses. Their riders can be tricked into accepting too much weight in one or both hands. Meanwhile the ‘hider’ is the horse that likes to sit in, just behind the contact and ‘hide’ from the bit. The concept of accepting the restriction of the rein is not so easy for them, and their riders can be tricked into accepting an empty feeling in one, or both reins.
For the leaners, it is imperative not to accept too much contact. And we mustn’t wait until we feel like our arms might drop off to correct it! For every step of too much weight in the hand we accept, it will take us triple the steps to convince the horse that it wasn’t okay. Why? Because by accepting too much weight, we approved of too much weight. And how much weight is too much? In a Masterclass, Steffen Peters described the right weight as a can of soda in each hand.
How does the rider correct the problem of too much weight? By making it uncomfortable for the horse to lean by applying more restriction or load in the reins, and the right contact comfortable with floppy elastic bands as reins. Having said this, it should be understood that every horse has different comfort zones. Some have high tolerance and some very low. Know your horses comfort zone and correct them with that in mind – but correct them you absolutely must.
The right contact is not negotiable. We set the rules. We must say ‘I know how strong you are, but don’t use your strength against me’. Horses can use their strength to carry themselves, or they can use their strength for evasion. When they use it for evasion, it is up to us to turn this mistake into a training opportunity. As Steffen Peters also said “every mistake is a perfect training opportunity” – and leaning on the rein is a mistake.
Hiders can be more complicated to correct. They tend not to accept bit pressure and require very good feel from their rider to give them the confidence to accept the contact and ‘plug in’. The advice here is to never reward the hider with loops in the reins; they have to learn that contact is their trusted friend. It will never hurt them, and it’s okay to pull a bit. The rider of the hider needs to push the horse, with a driving leg, to the contact, but have enough core strength to regulate the speed so the horse doesn’t get faster. If you have a hider, you can never make the mistake of pulling the reins, which will undermine their confidence and set you both back.
Remember, our horses go exactly the way we train them to go. We must take ownership of their way of going, and if it’s not the way we want, embrace the training opportunities they provide us with.