What Is Rein Contact?

The question of what is contact gets argued on dressage forums all over the world. Amateur and professionals have different opinions. Even many of the gurus of dressage can’t agree. With that in mind there is no chance that what I am going to say is going to sit well with everybody.

I think in order to understand what contact is you have to understand what is its purpose. Why do we want to have contact? If you can understand the purpose of it, you will be able to know when you have it or not by how your horse responds. If you have correct contact you will get the result you want (or closer to them). So here is my take on what is the point of contact in training and riding.

Contact is a line of communication between the rider/handler and the horse. You can have contact in the saddle and on the ground. You can have contact through your seat, your legs, your hands, your voice, your whip etc. All these open a line of communication whereby you can convey your intent to a horse. Contact is nothing more than communicating to a horse.

The appropriate contact is never constant. It is always changing. It needs to change because the availability of a horse’s mind to listen to the contact is always changing due to his changing focus. The contact a rider might need to convey a meaning to a horse may have to change in a moment-to-moment fashion in order for the horse to get the message. The amount of feel you might need to apply to the reins or seat will change many times during a ride. It’s no different to be a teacher in a classroom. Sometimes the teacher can speak softly if the students are listening and other time he will have to shout in order to be heard.

Now that we know what is the purpose of contact, we can then define it. When riders and coaches talk about contact they are almost always referring to the feel on the reins. So for the purposes of this discussion I will confine my thoughts to how a rider might use the reins to achieve contact.

I want you to look at the photos and think about what they all have in common. It might surprise you if I tell you that they all have the same contact! This is why.
Stacks Image 14
Stacks Image 17
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“Contact is the minimum amount of feel on the reins required to evoke a change in a horse.”

I refer here to contact as being correct contact and by change I mean a change in a horse’s thought (which is the only change worth having).

So if you look at the pics again you’ll see each rider is using different rein pressure, yet each has the correct contact because that’s how much rein pressure is required to get a change in each horse. So they all have the same contact because they all have the minimum amount of feel on the reins to achieve a change in their horses.

In the world of dressage horses are taught to “seek” the contact. In other words they are trained to push into the reins. In some horses it is a simple holding of the bit at the end of the outstretched rein. In other horses it is a bearing down onto the bit – a leaning into the reins. It will differ a little from trainer to trainer. But what dressage people almost universally criticize is to ride a horse on a rein with slack in it. It is widely considered to be incorrect because they think that slack in the rein means no contact and no control.

But let’s again look at the purpose of contact. It is a means of communicating a rider’s intent to a horse and the correct contact is the MINIMUM amount of rein pressure needed to evoke a change in a horse. So if riding a horse with a rein that is not taut can achieve both these criteria, then the rider must be using the correct contact. In fact, I would argue that to ride such a horse with more rein pressure than that is incorrect contact.

The purpose of riding – any sort of riding – is to achieve as close a unity with a horse as possible. To me, this means that the means of communication we use to talk to our horse should be quieter as we approach that unity. The more advanced a horse becomes the more subtle our aids and the less pressure we need to transmit our intent. It would seem that the ultimate goal of every rider would be to have a horse that can be directed by the smallest change and the least amount of pressure. It just seems logical therefore that a horse that can be ridden correctly with slack in the reins is more advanced than a horse that requires anything more than that in order to be correct.

But I want to emphasize the importance of being ridden CORRECTLY. Correctness is key here. I would not want to sacrifice the correctness just so I can say my horse does canter pirouette on a loose rein if it is a poor canter pirouette. If taking a stronger feel on the reins would help my horse find a better quality canter pirouette, then I would. There is nothing to be gained by letting a horse flounder in mediocrity so you can ride on a loose rein. This is one reason why I don’t like most of the liberty riding that I see. Most horses ridden at liberty perform very poorly and correctness is forgotten just for the sake of showing that the horse can be ridden without a bridle. To me, that has no merit. And I say the same thing about contact. There is no merit in riding a horse with hardly any rein pressure if he needs more rein pressure in order to help him be correct.

Contact is not one thing. Contact is the minimum amount of rein pressure a rider needs to evoke a change in a horse. On some horses that might be 10kg and on others is might be the weight of a carbon atom. Both are correct for those horses. But to ride a horse with a stronger feel on the reins than is needed is incorrect use of contact. Likewise, too little feel on the reins to help a horse change his thought is also incorrect use of contact.

I think to argue that a horse that can be ridden correctly with slack in the reins is either evading the bit or falling behind the bit is to forget the purpose of contact. I believe once you appreciate what is contact and why it is needed, that idea seems backward and counter to what our ultimate goal should be in riding. I believe it comes from a reading of the books and not a reading of the horse.