I wanted to talk about contact. In my opinion, contact is one of THE hardest concepts to grasp and establish. More than that, contact and our awareness and knowledge of the term changes and develops as we ourselves become more educated and more established. So, what is contact?
Contact is on level three of the 'Scales of Training'. The ideal contact is termed a light, even and elastic feel in both reins. This is achieved not through the reins as one might imagine but rather from our leg aids and weight aids (including the seat). Sounds complicated right? Well, to be frank it is a little. This feeling in the contact only comes after systematic training and working the horse correctly. Initially the contact may not feel like this. I dislike the way many training plans identify that the rider must apply a "driving aid" which causes the horse to step under and work through his top line. This implies a forcing of the horse with your leg that you then "catch" the energy with your hand. This in fact does not create a light contact with the horse on the aids, but rather the opposite.
At the very beginning of a horses' career they should be shown what contact is and means through extensive work on the ground. This work should comprise of lunging and long reining. This shows the horse how to move forward in a relaxed manner, creating balance and suppleness through work in straight lines, on a curve and through transitions between gaits. Once this work is established we then move on to classical in-hand training, where we show the horse the very beginnings of lateral work in-hand. This work initially comprises of shoulders-in on a circle and then travers. Through this work we are establishing so many things. Confidence in the handler, suppleness, contact, balance, rhythm and a work ethic. For the handler, we are creating a very solid understanding of what contact means through both the work in long reins and in-hand. By educating both horse and rider in this manner we allow both to make mistakes and learn from those mistakes without any added pressure of being on-board. The rider is able to start to understand about an elastic contact, and about an inside leg/outside rein connection and how this influences the horse (more about this in another post).
This is by far the easiest and most effective method for learning about contact. In this way the rider never learns to pull back, mistakenly thinking that this creates "connection" with the horses mouth.
If done consistently the rider's feel and understanding can develop fairly quickly. In my mind this is something that every child learning to ride should experience and learn. Unfortunately, we are all taught to first pull and then have to relearn how to ride off of our weight aids and leg aids. It seems so back to front to me! If the younger generation were to engage and learn how to lunge, long rein and work horses in-hand as well as ride, they would have an amazing understanding about the biomechanics, work ethic and developmental stages of the horse which would stand them in good stead for the rest of their lives.
As you finish reading this blog I'd like to ask you to consider what contact means to you. What does it feel like? How do you achieve a good contact? What is a bad contact?
From one seemingly insignificant word, comes a whole host of interpretations, feelings, emotions and time. Words are indeed powerful.