The next item in the Scala of Dressage is the contact. Also a matter that causes a lot of confusion. With contact in riding we mean the elastic connection between the hand of the rider and the mouth of the horse. The connection is made by the rider but -and this is where it gets difficult- accepted and sought by the horse. So it means that the rider should take up the reins, but the horse then has to reach for the contact and be soft and light…
Why on earth would he do so? Well, it is not just a simple matter of the front end and things you do with your hands. Oh no, contact is so much more. It means you are inviting the horse to step more under with his hindlegs, so he works his back upwards, his neck goes forward and down and this motion ends with the bit in his mouth which you are holding. If you do this in an elastic way, moving with the horse, it will be a nice feeling for the both of you. As if you walk hand in hand with someone you love. If you try to force anything, a posture or a movement, it won’t feel so nice and the horse will tighten his muscles because you hurt him.
So if you start riding and you make the horse move forward, but his head goes up instead of forward and down, what can be the problem? That’s hard to say without seeing it happen. Are you making the horse uncomfortable by being too firm in your hands? Do you have an independent seat, so you don’t pull the reins to steady yourself ? Are you sure his hindlegs move under? Sometimes it just takes a while to get a horse there. If you are sure you are doing it the right way, be patient. It helps to ride circles.
A good contact doesn’t mean the feeling is light all the time. Go back to walking hand in hand with someone you love. A firm grip can be quite nice. As long as your partner doesn’t pull your arm, but moves with you. Same goes for the horse. If he is capable of carrying more weight with his hindlegs, he won’t need you so much to support his balance, so he’ll be lighter. As soon as he does -which means he is capable of collecting- it feels like heaven.
So when a rider is making the connection with the mouth and forcing the horse into an outline, it’s not a contact in de dressage sense. A good contact flows through the whole body and starts in the hindlegs. You can’t force a horse with your hands into that light feeling. He will let go eventually, but he won’t accept the bit. It will be a bit like an old fashioned telephone with the wire cut. Or a whip that has been broken, but the end is still dangling on. If the contact is not correct, pulling and lack of engagement are the most common causes.
The bit needs to be quiet in the mouth of the horse. So don’t jiggle, play with fingers or do whatever makes the bit move. Move your elbows and shoulders according to the movement of the head, so the bit is steady.