Understanding Contact

Understanding contact is one of those vital things we, as drivers, continually struggle toward. Yet, the presence of correct contact, or the lack thereof, can make or break our driving experience. In this article, I want to try and break contact down for you in pieces you can understand and use where applicable.

To make contact work, and to have the best “contact relationship” we can have with our equine partners requires hard work, practice, practice, practice, and lots of thought. It also requires our horses develop in such a manner as to make our work possible. That’s where all these little pieces should help clarify the picture for you.

Don’t give up on me yet! I promise, I’ll shed some light on the issue of contact!

Ideally, what we’re after is a beautifully submissive horse who obediently stays on the bit and is soft while still being forward and easily controlled. We certainly don’t ask for much, do we! There’s nothing quite like wanting it all! So, in that light, let’s move on.

Contact comes in a variety of styles and one size cannot fit all. The first contact we learn is “passive” contact. That’s where we maintain light contact and the horse goes about doing his job without any interference or input from us. This is a “between other contacts” contact, if you will.

The next contact we learn is the “I’ve got you now” contact, where we have a firm grip on the horse’s face. There’s nothing wrong with this contact, but it’s not a contact we want to have as our “between other contacts” contact, or the contact we use most of the time! This should be a momentary contact which helps re-balance and redirect the horse’s energy. If we turn it into our “most of the time” contact, the horse can, and sometimes does, turn it into the “hang onto my face while I bolt and kill you” contact. I always get a little stressed when I see someone hanging onto a horse’s face with bulging biceps. This is usually a very bad sign of things to come. And, it’s always the driver’s fault, which is worse.

Alternately, we have the “you’re on your own” no contact contact. This is the “free walk on a loose rein” contact! You’re there and can fix things if you have to, but not “right there” as you are with passive contact. With passive contact you follow, with “you’re on your own” contact, you watch.

Lastly, there’s the “hey, hey, hey” contact. This is your most valuable tool, contact wise, as it can do the most for you. This contact is an in-tempo contact, matching the movement of the legs, or desired movement of the legs, and goes from passive to “I’ve got you now” and back to passive with as many repetitions as is necessary to achieve the desired result. If you have a horse who won’t walk, or rushes his trot or is simply too fast, this is a vital tool for you!

One more thing about types of contact before we discuss applying them. Contact can be applied, or, as the case may be, unapplied, on one rein or both reins. Usually, contact is applied to both reins, but, as you’ll see, there are times where contact is unapplied to one rein for certain jobs. Bear with me. This really will make sense.

Okay, so we have the kinds of contact defined. Let’s use them. Let’s start with the dressage test. We’ll make it a very short test, as I want you to get the idea without spending all day in the dressage arena.

I’m not going to actually bring you through the approach to the arena, because once you understand the pieces, you can manage that for yourself. Let’s just drive parts of the test.

Enter working trot. If you haven’t practiced this, and you are driving a snake, be patient. The more you drive and help your horse learn to balance himself, the less “snake-like” his passage will become. Six strides from X, go from passive contact to hey-hey-hey contact. You’ll increase and decrease your contact each stride for the last six strides IN TEMPO until you feel the horse is committed to stop, then resume passive contact and allow him to settle himself to a stop. To do this correctly, sit VERY tall, lean your torso slightly back and use your elbows to pull and soften, pull and soften, pull and soften.

The reason I’m not having you use the “I’ve got you now” contact is quite simple, and once you know it, it will make perfect sense. A horse’s head and neck are vital parts of their balance. When you grab hold of their head and hang on, you interfere with the horse’s ability to maintain perfect balance in a transition. And, if you hang on, your horse can lean, which means YOU are the one balancing him, instead of him balancing himself. So, in that light, it’s better for you and the horse to break it up into smaller signals. Starting with passive contact, sit tall, tip your torso slightly back and give a good firm holding hug and immediately go back to passive contact. Repeat this every stride until you get your downward transition to halt. Because the horse can still use their head and neck for balance because you didn’t grab and hold on, the downward transition will be smooth, and will become smoother with practice. Practice is the only action which will assist you and your horse in making smooth transitions. You will have to increase or decrease the firmness of the holding hug to suit your horse’s needs. As he develops ability to make the downward transition smoothly, you will gradually decrease the firmness and number of your hugs. Regardless, they shouldn’t be so big they actually upset the horse’s balance! That’s NOT the goal! You will ALWAYS sit VERY tall, lean slightly back and use your elbows! You can easily drive the entire dressage test with the judge not noticing, unless s/he’s looking, your subtle, yet effective, aids.

Now, the hey-hey-hey contact is also applied two other places in the dressage arena, besides using it to rate speed (more on that later). When you’re approaching the rail at C, you’ll use the hey-hey-hey on an individual rein to keep your horse from making the corner too early, and through the test as you approach each corner to keep your horse into the corner. The gelding I’m driving now is in the middle of this lesson, but the small amount of time he’s spent on this lesson kept us from taking down a gate on our last cones course! The course designer had placed one of the gates in the very corner of the cones course area. To make the gate, we had to drive very into the corner. I could feel him wanting to drop into the corner as we approached, and use the hey-hey-hey contact on the left rein to keep him straight and well into the corner, while maintaining firm passive contact on the inside rein until we could cleanly make the gate. I should mention, I did have his head slightly turned to the right in preparation for the corner, but straight would have been fine, too.

The single rein hey-hey-hey contact will change to a two rein hey-hey-hey contact coming into each corner (collecting and balancing) as your horse understand he isn’t to duck through the corners. The big change (other than the switch from just the outside rein to both reins) will be on the final release to passive contact in the corner. On the last release, you will only release the outside rein, maintaining firm contact on the inside rein. This will allow the horse to bend cleanly through the corner, encouraging stretch of the outside of the body and engagement of the inside hind leg. As the corner is completed, you will release the extra contact on the inside, allowing the horse to straighten.

Okay, so I’ve got you through halt and the corners, let’s talk about rating your horse. Now, in horsey terms, “rating your horse” has to do with speed. Speed also has to do with tempo, which has to do with rating your horse. I know. It’s a vicious circle, isn’t it. Let’s see if we can make it easier.

Ideally (that awful word again), you want your horse to have the same tempo (rate of footfalls) through the whole dressage test. If your horse is green, he’s unbalanced. If he’s unbalanced, his tempo’s going to be a wildly varying thing. What you want is a nice forward trot, hind feet landing in front foot prints (that defines a working trot in dressage) and the same tempo all the way through. There are two keys to a steady tempo.

When you push your horse forward, do it always in tempo, because you want more push from the horse’s hind end, not faster moving legs. Faster legs will increase your tempo, which you don’t want. If you push and get faster tempo, use your hey-hey-hey, using both reins IN TEMPO, to bring your horse back to the tempo you want, maintain passive contact and push again. If you continue to push in tempo and always bring him back in tempo, he will rapidly understand he is to do working trot, in tempo, always, and you’ll be able to concentrate on other improvements to impress the judges!

In cones and hazards, pretend you’re driving a dressage test, with odd corners, and drive accordingly, using your different types of contact as necessary. The “I’ve got you now” contact should be saved for emergencies, like having to stop for the spectator who unknowingly pushes his baby’s buggy right into your path on course and you don’t want to munch the little bugger, or when you’ve made a total bolux of your path and have to do an emergency slow and correct!

If you never hang on your horse’s face, but are there to help rate and balance him, he will get to the point he can balance himself uphill and down without a great deal of assistance from you and without changing his tempo! This is the best of all worlds.