“You must move the horse into the contact.”
“The horse must seek the hand and thereby seek the contact.”
“The horse must first accept the bit and then the contact.”
“The horse must stretch into the contact.”
“Don’t give up the contact.”
“Put your horse on the bit.”
“The horse must be on the bit.”
“The horse must be in the bridle.”
Anyone that has ever taken a lesson in dressage, in particular, but other disciplines as well, has heard one or more of the above statements – usually repeated many, many times and all too often without an explanation as to what is meant. We dismount at the end of our lesson wondering how in the world to accomplish this elusive instruction but find it difficult to obtain a real definition. As one considers this question we must keep in mind that contact has very little to do with the mouth of the horse or the active use of the hands of the rider and, in fact, has everything to do with what goes on from the withers back.
The bit, regardless of type, has been utilized as a device with which to control your horse. This statement is true however it is not complete – the bit has more to do with assisting in re-balancing your horse in a manageable manner so that he can better carry a rider. A horse that is ridden without proper balance does damage to his own body. As well a horse that is out of balance is dangerous to the rider as the animal will continuously scramble to retain a certain level of stability despite the rider’s interference – this is often the basis of many resistances which are often misunderstood and declared as bad behavior.
In dressage, or more correctly in classical riding, the bit is only used to achieve a better balance for the horse. But how does this correlate to the above statements especially when shouted as (incomplete) instructions while attending a lesson?
To place your horse “on the bit” simply means that the horse is comfortable with the bit as a place of security. A horse that has been well schooled in the use of the bit will often lean briefly on such in order to understand and work-out the requested change in balance – this request has come from the rider’s leg and/or position. At times the pressure that the horse puts on the bit and ultimately on the rider’s hands may be quite heavy – this varies by individual horse and circumstances – but as long as the rider’s hands do not retract backwards thereby pulling against this pressure the horse generally relaxes this pressure as her understanding and muscling develops. It is the ultimate goal of any tactful rider to ride with only the weight of the rein in the hands and this is the definition of contact in a fully schooled horse.
Obtaining such (light) contact takes a great deal of effort on the part of both horse and rider. The horse must be developed so that the body makes most of the balancing and physical effort. In order for the horse to achieve this goal the rider must never, ever, pull or increase the pressure – nor should the rider release the contact before the horse gives – this would be the same as a gymnastics spotter letting one go just when the athlete needs that little bit of help – the results would be similar – both would fall – the gymnast to the mat and the horse onto the forehand or nose.
Educating both horse and rider to the subtleties of the bit and the proper contact is at the heart of riding instruction but as we endeavor to become better riders, with regard to riding with contact keep in mind not the above statements but instead the following:
“The hand must be steady and in the same plane in front of you.”
“The rider must carry their own hands.”
“Any adjustment that you feel compelled to create in your hand points to a deficit elsewhere.”
“Take the horse’s mouth in your legs.”
These are more appropriate reminders and will begin the proper path to achieving what many attempt but few achieve. We must fight our very nature not to take too strong an approach in the mouth of the horse. Once we stop pulling the horse can then be free to take as much or as little contact as is needed to re-balance.
This is the introduction to a series of articles that will explore, in depth, the ideas presented.