The aim of a correct contact is to create and maintain a connection from your leg to your hand, and from your horse’s hindleg to his mouth. With that connection in place, you’re able to position his neck where you want, whether that’s up, down, left or right, and control its length.
However, if your horse’s mouth lacks sensitivity, it can be very difficult to develop this connection. Instead, he’ll feel wooden and unresponsive, often with his nose above the vertical. This makes it very difficult to develop the coveted self-carriage that will propel your dressage marks towards being competitive.
Luckily, there are things you can do to develop these qualities, earning you a horse who’s sensitive, supple and more capable of producing a harmonious dressage test.
Get a feel for the connection
The feeling of connection depends on the individual horse and rider. Some horses like a really light contact, while others prefer a slightly stronger one. The main thing, though, is to have enough of one that you can always feel your horse’s mouth at the other end of the rein. Most riders are afraid of developing a contact because they’re worried they’re being too strong or rough, but it’s very difficult to channel energy from your leg to your hand and ride forwards up into a contact with long reins and your hands resting above the pommel of the saddle.
Exercise: Give and retake
With a horse who prefers a slightly stronger contact, there’s a danger that you can end up holding him in that frame and balance, rather than him maintaining it himself. You should always have the feeling that you can release the reins and your horse doesn’t change his way of going. Giving and retaking the reins is a really reliable gauge of this.
How to do it…
There are lots of different ways to give-and-retake, but the most obvious way is how it’s done in a dressage test. The rider pushes one or both of their hands forward in a way that clearly releases the contact, demonstrated by a loop in the rein. This is held for two or three strides before the contact is taken up again.
If you’re struggling to give with your hands, try patting your horse instead. This creates a definite loop in the rein, which is what you’re trying to achieve.
Check out July Horse&Rider, on sale 30 May, for more great advice from Spencer Wilton on how to refine your contact.