Contact (or: I've Been Doing it Wrong my Whole Life)

This blog starts with a play along exercise so first, find a friend and a rein. Doesn't have to be a horsey friend. Go ahead, I'll wait.

Got your friend/spouse/random stranger to play with you? Awesome!

Each of you grab the rein. Both of you pull until you get the tension you normally think you should have when you have 'good contact'. For most of you, it'll feel pretty strong. Probably a couple pounds of weight. Ahhh yes. Contact. We has it. (If it's not a couple pounds shut up, you're special and you don't need this exercise).

Now we're going to pretend your hand is the horse's mouth. Have your innocent bystander roll their knuckles, like the inside hand here:




Pretty intense, right? That's a lot of force. On your horse's bars and tongue. If the friend you convinced to play along is also a horse person, do the same to them so they can feel it. Or do it to your poor unsuspecting SO if you want to pull them off their feet. I mean, what?

Anyway, now let's reset.

Both of you hold the rein but neither of you pull. Hold just enough tension that there's no or very little slack between you. Hold the rein firmly but without clenching your hands. Ask your partner to close their fist. You can feel it, right? If you can't feel it you're still holding too much tension between you. Try again. Ask them to close and open just one finger on the reins. You can feel the movement of just one finger.

That is contact.

My whole life, I've been told that contact is weight. I've ridden in pretty massive bits, with draw reins, and kicked the horse up into my hands until I've gotten the weight I felt I was supposed to have. But that's not contact. That's not 'on the bit'.

I think of it now like a telephone made out of two cups and some string. You need to hold it taught enough to get tension that will transfer vibrations down the string, but if you pull it too tight the string will rip out the bottom of the cup (ask five year old me how I know).

Horse, this is person. Requesting trot.

That's what the double bridle is really for. It's so you can have that feather-light touch and send more complicated instructions. It's like the difference between writing in binary and using the modern alphabet.

Human this is horse, trot command acknowledged.
Thanks for not ripping my shitty cup phone out of my hand.

Horses are nice, so they go along with whatever terrible shit we throw at them. Unless they're Spicy, in which case they want to go along with it but they're also busy having a nervous breakdown so sometimes they just Can't.

It's been a pain but I've restarted training the halt (again). But now instead of holding on to ten pounds of contact I just take up enough rein so there's no slack. When I squeeze my fingers and sit up tall, he skids to a halt.

Here's the caveat you've been waiting for: I'm not saying bits are terrible and we should all ride bitless. I'm not saying you're a monster for riding your horse in a gag bit with a figure 8 so you don't get run away with on cross country. There are a million ways to ride a horse: ask two horsewomen their opinion and you'll get five answers. Probably more than five answers. So don't go and throw out your running martingales and elevators and hackamores and whatever else you ride in. Those are your tools and any kind of change is just that: change. It will take work and time to get there, if it's even something you want.

All I'm asking is for you to hold the rein gently with a friend and feel what contact could be like. If you're anything like me, your curiosity will be piqued and the rest will take care of itself.

Comments

  1. When I started riding Ernie he hadn't really been ridden on contact at all so I went back and did some rereading and was reminded of this myself. He is particularly sensitive and still has a preference for wanting to hollow and surge forward at times and finding that softness has been so helpful. It's so nice not to have that weight on your hands anyways and gives such a softer feel. I find I struggle with holding too much at the canter currently when jumping (tension from being run away with on Maestro) which then leaks into some crappy downward transitions at the end of my courses. Always more to learn and improve on!
    I enjoy reading about your journey with Spicy so much, you are such a thoughtful person and rider.

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  2. Yaaaaassss! 🙌 Also, contact is consistent, which means light but not bumping loose reins. It's legit hard.

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    1. Ugh, this is my main problem! I tend towards a "light contact" when really my reins are just bouncing because I'm not actually holding enough.

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    2. 🙋‍♀️ also doing that over here. It's hard to retain myself to take a slightly firmer contact without being heavy. But on the plus side, the right contact makes following so much easier!!!

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    3. you have to keep your hands so freakin still which is apparently impossible for my elbows to figure out!!!

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  3. This is such a tough thing to find! I bounce back and forth between too much contact and slack in the reins often because I'm trying to find that "barely touching but still communicating" feel

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  4. Megan, do you have a copy of academic horse training? You would *love* it. I have one extra left.

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    1. i DO actually!! you sold it to me right when i started retraining :P and I do love it. I think working with the cowboy has actually helped me understand it a lot better.

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    2. LOLOLOL funny Nicole with her good memory. (It did seem a bit weird to me that you wouldn't have one, considering all you've been learning lately.) I'm very glad it's meshing with your cowboy lessons. I just got to the section on developing connection and learning about how the stop and go aids develop lateral relaxation and suppleness and connection.

      IT'S ALL INTERCONNECTED 😱

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  5. Not to sounds mean/weird or anything but have you never done this exercise with a trainer before? I have done it with several, and its so weird to me more Trainers do not do it but has really opened my eyes to how kinda really shitty it is that so many people can hang a shingle with no real experience or credentials if you know what I mean?

    I do remember this one quote I think from Bill Steinkraus that said that "snaffle bits are not the be all and end all specifically because people tend to develop 'snaffle hands'" which I interpret as dull bits have the tendency to create dull hands, specifically in dull people LOL.

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    1. me too. I was done this too from 10 years old on in my first year of lessoning by our trainer there and many times since. I honestly think this is why with all my crap riding most trainers say my hands are very quiet and do not yank. (The rest of me is shit so it is okay hahahha). But yes I almost want to try with Mark (nonhorsey) so I can yank him off his feet. Mean that be me :) Thanks for sharing though I had forgotten all about that.......

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  6. I've had multiple different trainers do this exercise with me starting when I was a kid. I can remember practicing it with other kids at summer camp at my riding barn after having our trainer show us it first. I think it helps a lot more if you do it with other trained equestrians rather than random people, but it's always helpful.

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  7. I'm sorry your trainer skipped this with you early on! It's the best way to really feel contact for sure. Better late than never though! Of course, despite my having learned this early on, I still have way too much weight in my hands on certain horses (cough, cough... Eros...) I think some horses have to learn this the same way we have to, and/or remember just likes us. Riding is so hard.

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