No matter what discipline you ride you always want some sort of contact with the horse through your reins. We then want to be able to use this contact in order to collect the horse and create the proper outline or frame for the job we are doing. Despite how fundamental contact is to riding, it is one of the least understood concepts among riders.
All too often I see riders attempting to create contact and a frame by closing the reins and pulling the horse together. This results in a horse that isn’t collecting properly through his back. By creating contact by shortening the reins and pulling back we are forcing the horse into a restricted outline. This inherently creates tension and does not allow the horse to have self carriage since we are holding everything together.
In this picture you can see how the horse is ducking into the contact with a set rein instead of stretching through the body to create the contact. If the reins were released here the horse would hollow and come up. This is an example of incorrect contact.
I like to think of this like stuffing a jack in the box back in the box once he has popped out. By pulling the horse together you are compressing and hollowing his back in order for him to take up less space through his body. When the reins are released it is the equivalent of the jack in the box popping out. The horse’s body lengthens and he as the same poor carriage that he started with.
Instead, the horse should be creating the contact by stretching into the rein offered. When done correctly there should never be slack in your reins. The horse should expand and stretch through his body to fill any space allowed. As you shorten your reins he should shorten his body and create the same contact and feel in your hand in the smaller space. This is correct collection and self carriage because the horse is not relying on the rider to hold him together. Instead, he is responding to the rein length to adjust how he is carrying himself. In this situation if you drop your reins the horse will stretch down and out through his nose with his back lifted.
Both of these contacts can look very similar if you don’t look at the horse’s whole body to see how his back is moving and don’t check the rider’s arms for the tension that pulling creates. However, if you look closely the effect is very different. In this picture you can see how the horse is lifting with his back and stretching down into the bridle versus being held in. The loop in the rein helps show this, although it is not necessary. This horse is slightly above the bridle as he reached up to step over the pole on the ground, but the tell of a proper contact is the way his back and neck flow into the frame he is holding.
So the question becomes: How would you create this proper contact when the horse has his head in the air with a loop in the rein? Of course the most intuitive answer for riders is the shorten the rein. However, that leads to the pulling contact we described above. Instead, the rider needs to find a way to encourage the horse to stretch out his body and seek the contact.
This can be a difficult, time consuming task, but it is an important foundation for the horse to have in order to progress in his training. The first step here is to push the horse forward. If he is forward he will begin to reach through his body more. As the horse moves forward into a bigger, faster stride he will naturally begin to use his back a bit more and become less stuck and hollow in his movement. This should be done on a long rein so as not to inhibit the horse’s movement.
The next step is to start to ask the horse to supple through his back by bending. As the horse gets more supple while staying forward he will naturally begin to stretch. All the energy you have developed by pushing the horse forward will begin to be redirected up and down as you ask the horse to soften to the rein. This should still be done on a long rein to not inhibit the horse’s movement. One rein can be picked up at a time to ask the horse to soften and give before being given back. Switching between both reins will keep the horse equally soft on both sides.
It is important to make sure that as you ask the horse to stretch you don’t lose energy. The horse should slow his pace as he begins to lift his back, but the energy should be the same as it is transferred from carrying the horse forward to pushing him up. If you push the horse too far forward it will be impossible for him to carry himself and he will constantly be rushing and hollow. Find a forward pace before you start and make sure the pace still feels alive and full of energy even as the pace slows with the horse’s stretch.
Once a horse is properly schooled on how to stretch they will seek out the stretch because the stretch feels good to them. Only then can the rider begin to establish a proper contact.
When you have a horse that is stretching down consistently you can keep a light feel on the reins as the horse stretches. Here you have established a contact with the largest parameters possible. This is always the place to start so that the horse learns what he should feel in the contact. If the horse sucks back, raises his head and neck, or curls under with the contact maintain your rein length and ask him to soften and move into the stretch again. Once the horse is consistently stretching into your light contact you have established a proper connection with the horse, which is what contact is all about.
Only then can you begin to shorten your reins and ask the horse to shorten his body into a more collected frame. As you slowly shorten your rein you should continue to push the horse into the soft contact and encourage him to fill all the available space with his rounded movement. At any moment you should be able to let the reins out and feel the horse stretch down, but he shouldn’t be heavy or pulling on the tighter rein.
This contact is the same whether you are jumping, riding dressage, reining, or riding for fun. However, the process for establishing a contact is lengthy and requires good feel and timing, which makes it challenging for many to achieve. Creating a better contact is one of those goals that should always be present, no matter your riding skill or goals.