There is no universal ‘right’ amount of contact, as every horse likes and responds best to a different weight on the reins. But the weight is not the whole story; its the elasticity that makes good contact! Some horses like to take a lot ‒ sometimes too much ‒ and others go to the opposite extreme and curl to avoid it. Sometimes the horse may like more contact than usual for support during challenging stages of training.
Without using an exact ‘weight’ to describe good contact, what is good contact?
What Makes Good Contact?
1. Consistency. It is stable and consistent rather than heavy/light in varying degrees. Like holding a coffee cup upright while walking, you don’t drop it, let it tip over, hold it way out in front of you or too close to your body.
2. Just enough. This is the amount of pressure the horse needs/wants/takes. Neither the rider nor the horse should take more or less than the other. Like holding onto that coffee cup, you grip just enough to hold onto it without white knuckles or too loosely to risk dropping it. A heavier mug may need more grip than a dainty teacup.
3. Elasticity. It is squishable like a bungee cord, where both you and the horse are able to move with the connection without either of you dropping it. Like holding onto two full cups of coffee while sitting in the passenger seat of a car driving on a gravel road, you need to be elastic in your elbows, shoulders and fists to avoid spilling.
Contact is a partnership; the line of communication is like the old game of telephone with two tin cans and a string. Both parties have equal responsibility to maintain the line of communication by each holding onto their tin can and keeping the string taut. If one pulls to hard, the tin can could be pulled out of the other’s grip and conversely, if one drops the tin can, the line of communication is lost. Each party holds onto their tin can “just enough” with the same amount of pressure to keep the line taut without pulling too hard.
Elements To Good Contact – The Rider
The rider has three important elements for good contact: Hands/fist, position of hand/wrist and forearm, and the elbow.
Hand/fist: How the rider holds onto the reins is key – holding onto the reins without letting them slip through your fingers and without a tight grip or white knuckles. The most common way to hold onto the reins is through the ring finger and pinky coming out the top of your hand with your thumb locking the rein in position against your index finger. Making a teepee with your thumb is the locking mechanism, to hold your rein in place without having to squeeze your fist tightly. Your fingers should touch the palms of your hands, so that they are not too open. Nick Holmes-Smith always said “open fingers are broken fingers”; bend your thumb back or catch a finger and you will remember to protect them with a closed fist!
TIP: Find reins that fit your hands – wider and fatter is not always better. Your reins should fit comfortably in between your metacarpal joint and the first knuckle of your ring finger. This will enable you to close your fist comfortably as well as making it easy to lock your reins under your thumb. Smaller hands may prefer thinner reins.
Holding onto the reins with a softly closed fist allows you to ‘squeeze the sponges” and provides your first line of quiet and, often, invisible communication.
Alignment of hand, wrist and forearm: Proper position of your hand, wrist and forearm also allows for proper function. With thumbs up, rather than ‘piano hands’ with palms facing down, the rider is protecting the wrist from too much force as well as being able to be moveable in the hands and joints. The classical straight line from elbow to bit creates a direct line of communication where all parts work in harmony.
Not only can you “squeeze your sponges” more effectively with proper position, you can also use the mobility in your wrists. This is possible when your two forearm bones, the radius and ulna, parallel. This position provides you have the best mechanism for an elastic, consistent and effective contact.
TIP: Have gloves you like that grip to the reins. Some gloves stick to some reins better than others, and find reins and gloves that also work when wet.
Elbows, the swing joint: Contact should be elastic and breathable with the motion of the horse. Both horse and rider are responsible for having elasticity while in motion. It is the rider’s elbows that create the elasticity in the contact on the rider’s side of the equation. Again, the proper position with the elbow slightly bent with arms sitting just in front of the hip bone allows the elbow to move smoothly with the motion of the horse., with the upper arm staying close to the body, rather than elbows out.
TIP: To help remember proper position of your hands, imagine you are holding onto coffee cups upright so you don’t dump out your coffee.
In the trot there is less visible motion in the contact, except in the posting trot. It is the elbows that move to make the hands/contact stable. However, in the walk and canter, there is a lot of motion in the horse’s neck, so the elbow must follow the motion to maintain consistency in the contact.
Elements To Good Contact – The Horse
The horse also has three important elements to a good contact which match the three parts in the rider: bit, poll and neck.
The Bit: The bit is the equivalent to the rider’s hands. This is the first point of connection for the horse to the rider’s first point of connection, the hand. The bit should fit comfortably in the horse’s mouth. The noseband should also be comfortable enough to allow the horse to chew the bit and move the jaw. The horse should be able to move the jaw in the same way the rider should be able to ‘squeeze the sponges’.
The Poll: The poll is equal to the wrist in this equation. Like the wrist, it has a more limited amount of mobility in the equation but still needs to move. A good contact doesn’t require the horse to be perfectly “on the bit” but it does require the horse to be “on the contact” while softly yielding in the poll. To finish the process of “on the contact” to “on the bit”, the horse allows the poll to soften with the motion of the movement. As a result, the horse drops their neck and falls onto the bit. The rider can then finish the scope and shape of the frame.
TIP: Carl Hester says ride the walk like you are rowing a boat. Your arms/elbows have to move as much as the neck moves. Big walk = big motion.
The Neck: The horse’s neck is the swing section equal to the elbows of the rider. Elasticity of the contact comes mostly from the horse’s neck and, secondly, from the horse’s poll. If the neck is stuck, then there is limited elasticity in the contact. Both the horse’s neck and rider’s elbows need to match in elasticity and range of motion.
The String Between Two Tin Cans
The reins themselves are the conduit, the conductor, the string that allows the whispers to travel between horse and rider. Hand to bit, wrist to poll and elbows to neck in one fluidly moving conversation between the two.