The Circle of Contact

Level 3 of the Dressage Pyramid

The third level of the dressage pyramid is contact.  This comes from the horse willingly lifting his back and reaching forward to the bit.  I like to think of contact as a circle that begins with the rider’s seat and travels through the hands.  The rider, through the contact of her seat and legs, encourages the horse to reach forward with his hind end.  This lifts the horse’s back and neck up and forward, bringing him into contact with the bit.  The rider accepts the contact offered through the bit and reins into soft hands and elbows which yield to the motion of the horse’s head as he moves. 

There are many techniques advanced dressage riders use to work on contact, including variations on the half halt, and the core concept of inside leg to outside rein.  For the beginner however, it’s best to simply work on trying to feel  when your horse is offering contact and when he is not.

A horse is not offering contact when she:

  • Is holding her nose higher than the rider’s hands
  • Has hollowed her back (ie, the back appears more u-shaped when seen from the side)
  • Is braced in the neck or back – you can often feel this through choppy gaits
  • Pulls downward on the reins when a loose rein hasn’t been given by the rider
  • Is putting more weight on one rein than the other (this will usually be accompanied by an unasked for curve of the neck or body).

A horse is offering contact when she:

  • Reaches softly forward to the bit, with her poll high and her nose slightly in front of the vertical
  • Is even in both reins, and not bulging to either side with her neck or body
  • Has a relaxed and regular swing in her back and neck
  • Is driving the gait from her hindquarters

The last two points can be difficult to feel on your own at first, so an observer is always useful to let you know when your horse is and isn’t offering these things.

Never try to achieve contact with the hands alone.  It should always come from your leg, which pushes the horse forward into your hands.  When your horse does come forward to the hands, you must make sure your elbows are soft so your hands can follow the motion of the horse’s head, without bumping his mouth.  A horse that reaches for contact only to feel resistance from your hands will soon learn to avoid it.

Contact is often fleeting at first.  Only as a horse advances in his training will he give you consistent contact, and then, only if you offer him consisent contact with your legs and hands.  If you notice your horse giving contact at any point in your riding, give positive reinforcement such as a “gooood girl”, or a softening of your aids (avoid giving a pat at this point, as you’ll lose the contact).  Even a single stride of good contact is worthy of praise.

Your ultimate goal, especially for mounted combat, should be for feather-light contact — sometimes only as much as the weight of the rein. Once your horse is fully accepting of contact, begin lightening the rein contact to see if your horse will maintain engagement. Even if you only get a stride or two in self-carriage, consider it a win!

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