Ok riders so let’s talk about that dreaded, often misunderstood, elusive, frustrating thing we all struggle with…. CONTACT. As an instructor I find that contact is one of the most common misunderstood pieces of a rider's aids. To ride a horse in balance and actually be able to affect his balance we as riders need to be able to use the contact, in addition to our other aids, to adjust the horses balance point. We need him to either raise his shoulder, or shorten his frame, or to make any number of other adjustments to his balance so that he gets there the way we want him to. Sounds simple enough right? We all struggle and yearn for that perfect contact but what about the contact from the horse’s perspective? Is he born knowing how to respond to the contact? How does he know when the rein aid means just give and soften his jaw, or to move his shoulder over a bit or to just slow down? I hate to break it to you readers but guess what…he has no clue! He didn’t read the book. He wasn’t born knowing the difference between direct rein aids, indirect reins or anything whatsoever about how to respond to the human putting pressure on his mouth. He needs to be taught what contact is and then how to respond to it!
Over the years I have taught many horses to understand the contact using the following method.
Step 1…Side Reins. Now before you get all judge-ey about how cruel it is to use an artificial device like side reins just keep an open mind here. Remember that the horse isn’t born knowing that when we put a bit in his mouth he is supposed to give to the pressure. Often, they will in fact do the exact opposite and lean into the bit with all of their strength.
When you first apply side reins they need to be quite loose, just tight enough that the horse will hit them when he sticks his head out almost all the way. If you make them too tight too quickly it can really panic the horse and he could go back or up. So we begin to lunge the horse in side reins walk, trot and eventually also in canter in both directions.
Over time we will shorten the side reins enough that he has to come into a frame with his neck. Think Training Level here and not shorter. The horse needs to learn that no matter how he tries to pull it away he will not win this fight.
Here is a clip of Brio lungeing in side reins. You can see that he gives to the pressure of the contact but he doesn't stay in the connection. He drops behind it or wiggles around it. Shortening the side reins in this case would only teach him to shorten his neck further.
So now we have taught our horse to give to the contact. Step 1 complete. Celebrate. This is a big day. Unfortunately here is where I will deviate from the methods of most trainers. Time to get on right? Hell no! Next we want to teach the horse how to actually use and understand the contact before we climb on him. I want him to take a half halt, and to steer, and to follow the rein so that we live through those first rides. So here is what I’ve been leading up to. The big secret! How are we going to teach him this? LONG LINES!
Here is a clip of Brio in approximately his 6th session in long lines. He’s starting to actually stay in the contact of the lines for parts of the circle. What he is not doing yet is following the contact. On this circle to the right I have to keep him bent way to the outside to keep him out on the circle. This will change as he continues to work in the lines.
Here’s a clip of Bogey after 6 weeks of work in the long lines. You can see that he stays steady in the contact and will accept and use contact on both reins. I can move him in or out on the circle, adjust his pace, and even turn him in a new direction with the lines. This horse is now in my opinion ready to start work under saddle. He will be at an advantage because for his first rides he just needs to learn to carry the rider and to start to understand the leg and seat aids of the rider. He already understands his voice commands and he already understands the contact. This horse is much more likely to progress quickly and to have his first rides be a positive experience than if he had not already had the benefit of work in long lines.
I offer long lining training for horses and riders at Friendship Equestrian Center in Hudson NY. This method is invaluable for starting young horses, restarting horses with balance or contact issues, and even for rehabbing horses after injury. Please reach out for more information about how I can help you and your horse with long lining.
Friendship Equestrian Center - Jess Riley Dressage
91 Courts Lane - Hudson, NY - 12534 For FEC and Jess Riley Dressage - call (518) 859-6423 Jess@FECdressage.com