A sense of feel
Establishing contact is very much about gaining a sense of feel. You should be able to feel your horse’s mouth through the rein. Your reins should not be too loose or too tight. You should be able to have enough contact that you can feel what he is doing with his tongue and lips. The right amount of contact will also allow you to feel if he is resisting or is uneven in the contact.
There are two types of contact that you use. Long and low, which is a softer and looser contact usually used for warming up and introducing youngsters to contact, or collection, which is a stronger contact.
If you feel that you are inconsistent in your contact, spend some time concentrating on maintaining a good contact and keeping your hands quiet. Start with keeping perfect contact in the walk and then build it up to a trot and then canter. Focus on using your leg to push your horse into the contact and not pulling back or letting the reins slack once he is working in a correct frame.
Soften your arm
When you work toward a correct contact, think about your elbow being at the end of the reins rather than your hand. There should be a straight line from your elbow all the way to the bit. Your elbows play an important role in keeping your horse soft and supple. Soft elbows will encourage your horse to soften his neck in the contact. Soft wrists encourage flexion, and soft hands make for a soft mouth.
If you feel that you set your hands, or become stiff in your arms, spend some time getting your horse to accept the contact while keeping your hands, wrists and elbows as soft as possible. Again, start in a walk and build it up from there. A wet and foamy mouth is a sign that the horse has accepted the contact and is playing with the bit, whereas a dry mouth is an indication of resistance.
Signs of resistance
The most obvious sign that a horse has not accepted the contact is resistance. This can be displayed through snatching, falling behind, grabbing and hollowing.
Horses usually snatch at the reins when you grip them too tightly. This can usually be fixed by gently sponging to encourage softness and suppleness. Don’t confuse this with sawing (pulling the bit from side to side).
This means that the horse is curling back to be behind the bit in order to evade the contact. If he does this he will be behind the vertical and you will lose the connection. To fix this, use more leg to push him forward into the contact. Make sure that your reins are not so short that he is being forced behind the vertical.
A horse might respond to the contact by grabbing the reins from your hand and pulling his head down. In this case, it’s important not to let him get away with this. Set your hands where you would ideally like him to be and hold the reins firmly when he tries to grab. By doing this, you allow him to just fight against himself and he will learn that the answer is to keep his head at the position in which you stay soft.
If a horse responds to the contact by hollowing, work him in a long and low frame. It will help to develop his topline muscles, which will help him hold himself in a frame.
The full Winter Training Guide appears in the June issue of HQ.