Editor’s Note: 2018 Best Horse Practices Summit presenter Katrin Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years and is a regular guest columnist for Cayuse Communications. She lives in New Mexico where she works with dressage and Western clients. Visit her blog here.
In this ongoing series, Katrin Silva and Amy Skinner will preview elements of their Summit presentation. Read more about their exciting, informative arena presentation here.
When I took dressage lessons as a child, one of the phrases my instructor yelled was “Shorten the reins!” I was ten years old and loved horses more than anything in the world, so I had a hard time tightening contact. Most Western riders believe that riding on contact hurts the horse’s mouth, too. Yet most dressage riders think contact is essential for good riding. It’s a gridlock situation.
Both parties are partly right and partly wrong. It is, of course, possible to ride without contact. Many horse-rider pairs communicate effectively on a loose rein about where to go, and at what speed.
But some version of light contact also makes it so much easier to help the horse become a stronger, happier, more supple athlete.
The horse’s hind legs create energy. The rider’s seat and legs direct that energy forward, then the elastic boundary of contact redirects and recycles that energy over the horse’s back.
Energy moves in a circle, which helps a horse develop the muscles over his top line. Those developed muscles make carrying a rider more comfortable in the long run. The horse learns to take more weight on the hindquarters, to be lighter and more maneuverable, and to be truly a pleasure to ride.
So, why don’t we all embrace contact?
There’s bad contact and there’s good contact. The difference between them is like the difference between Velveeta and aged, artisanal cheddar from happy cows. Learning to ride with contact – the real stuff, not the cheap imitation – is a challenge, but it’s one of the biggest favors you can do your horse.
The wrong kind of contact can be an ugly sight. Horses, naturally concerned with self-preservation, resist in all sorts of ways: clenched jaws, lifted heads, or tucked noses behind the vertical.
Poor contact happens when: a rider’s hands are too rigid or too unsteady, because the horse has not yet learned to go forward, or because the bit is not the right type or size.
The “almost-but-not-really” contact well-meaning riders practice is poor contact, too. They hear they should ride with contact, yet shy away from it because they don’t want to hurt their horses. This hesitancy translates to an unintended effect: The horse feels a contact that comes and goes in a loose-tight-loose rhythm which, just like a constantly active leg or spur, soon becomes meaningless. Most horses will tune it out and become dull instead of soft.
So many things can and do go wrong with contact that riders wonder whether good contact is a goal worth pursuing. The many different horses I have worked with over the years have taught me that yes, it is. Contact, the real kind, can be a wonderful thing. Correct contact feels like an open frequency between you and your horse. Your sensitive, giving hands feel what the horse is thinking. They send almost invisible signals back to you. You’re connected, talking to each other constantly. Real-deal contact refines communication. It feels amazing and it’s beautiful to watch. Far from causing pain, it makes a horse’s mouth softer, not harder. It can take any horse-rider partnership to the next level.
A couple more things about good contact:
- Good contact is the kind the horse stretches into with eagerness, energy, and trust. The kind that is light, not heavy. Elastic, not rigid. This kind of contact requires an independent seat and hands that follow the horse’s mouth. Unbalanced riders need to become more balanced, instead of worrying about contact.
- Good contact happens back to front, not front to back. Contact has nothing to do with pulling the horse’s nose to its chest. Before a horse can learn about contact, he has to learn to move forward. This is why I always start young horses without contact. A green horse needs to learn to go forward from the leg, to stop from seat and rein, and to turn left and right. Only then does it make sense to think about contact.
Riding on contact and riding on a loose rein are not mutually exclusive. Any horse that has learned correct contact can still be ridden on a loose rein. In fact, releasing the reins is a required movement in upper-level USDF dressage tests because it shows whether contact was correct to begin with.
Is it more difficult to learn about the good, light kind of contact than to just throw the reins away and hope for the best?
Is it worth the time and effort?
Absolutely. Your horse will thank you.