Creating connections: what true contact should feel like

Contact should be seen as a symptom of what is happening behind

Riding can sometimes be an overwhelming minefield of both terminology and analogy, leaving the rider not entirely sure of what they are meant to be striving for. Here we demystify one of the most basic and yet complex concepts: the contact. We discuss what it means, what it should feel like, and how you can achieve a good hand-holding with your equine dance partner.

What is contact?

Contact is defined, at its simplest, as the feeling you and the horse share on the rein. Contact is an incredibly personal thing, individual to each horse and rider. Renowned South African dressage coach, Marianne Conlyn, once likened the contact to me as holding hands with a boy: you don’t want him holding you too tight, but you don’t want it too light either. It remains one of my favourite analogies to share with pupils, and one that always helps them find a way forward.

But to delve deeper, the contact should be seen as a symptom of what is happening behind. As with all symptoms, treating it with short-term solutions such as different bits or running reins may provide temporary relief, but it doesn’t solve the true cause of the problem. The contact in the hand is only as good as the balance of the horse behind it, and as such the rider should always interpret what they feel here and be mindful of the bigger picture, as opposed to engaging it directly and bluntly in mortal combat, as we are tempted to do.

The contact on the rein is the telephone line to guide the horse. It tells him how long he should be, controlling the frame. It tells him how light he should be, by advising how much weight he should shift back onto the haunches.

Common misconceptions

“Push your horse onto the bit, rather than pull him onto the bit”

A phrase that we as coaches need to clarify for pupils is the misleading ‘soft hands’ – every time that this is said to a novice pupil the first response is almost always that they either literally soften their hands by opening their fingers, or lengthen the reins. This is akin to the boy dropping your hand when he is meant to be holding it. Immediately there is a loss of confidence on the horse’s behalf, as he no longer has a direct line to the rider. There is a loss of frame, as there is no longer a clear, concise limit to where the connection ends, and this results in the horse either hollowing the spine in an attempt to ‘pull’ himself along rather than ‘push’, or falling onto the forehand to seek the connection again. A better phrase would perhaps be ‘soften the connection’, as long as the rider understands that the primary area of connection actually lies in their elbow.

The alternative is to see riders wrestling the horse ‘onto the bit’. The awful best-case scenario of this is a tense spine and loss of movement, with the nose pulled in to avoid the terrible pressure on the mouth. This is riding the horse from front to back as opposed to back to front, and ensures only that the horse is neither pushing with the hind legs nor in self-carriage. Charlotte Dujardin famously encourages pupils to “push your horse onto the bit, rather than pull him onto the bit”. Energy should be created in the engine of the horse, the hindquarters, and through a supple back this energy lands in the rider’s hands at the end of a good contact, to be moulded or directed as they please.

We want to think of the rein as starting on the bit, in the horse’s mouth, and ending in the elbow. The hand becomes part of the rein, and this connection is adjusted by the suppleness of the elbow. One has only to look at the Grand Prix rider’s hands with their almost straight arm to see this concept in action. The hand is allowed to follow the horse’s movement directly as a result of the elastic elbow, which brings us to the oldest analogy of all.

The full article appears in the November issue of HQ > Shop now

Text: Georgina Roberts