Touchy About Contact

Question from a reader with a mouth-sensitive green horse: ” …when I watch a video of me riding I worry that I am giving her too much room to interpret what I want, not enough direction. I know you hate a focus on the hands but could you write something about where that balance is? Too tight versus too giving? How do I know what’s right for her?”

Okay, Jill, but I warn you. The only thing harder than writing about contact is teaching it! Our brains immediately have a runaway. We call it a “frame” –that vision of a soft horse with its head on the vertical, but a “frame” is a hard-edged thing that hangs on the wall, and rule number one is that a horse’s poll must be relaxed. As riders, we want round, soft horses. As horses, they want rhythm. The rest is negotiation.

One way to think about contact is the old car comparison. Legs and seat asking the horse to go forward are like the gas pedal. Anything the impedes the horse from moving on, like reins and a bit, are the brakes. It’s a conflicting message to put your foot on the gas pedal and still ride the brake but that’s kind of what we are asking. It’s confusing for horses and riders, so bottom line: Whatever his head is doing, the answer is forward. The more we try to micro manage his head, the fussier his head gets. So, forward with quiet hands. Let the push from his behind straighten him out.

About now, people think a bitless bridle might be the answer. No metal; hooray. But it doesn’t correct your hand problem. A dead pull on the rein is still going to make a horse lose rhythm. I like bitless. You might be able to buy some tolerance from your horse not using a bit but again, if the hands get louder than your seat, it’s like riding the brakes.

Or in your case, since your hands are too light, it probably means that when things come apart, you grab the reins. I’m guessing, but it’s common sense for humans. In other words, your horse might go from no contact to harsh contact and in the end, the threat of being grabbed in the face isn’t much different from a rider with hard hands. I’m guessing that’s where her fussy head comes from. That’s half of it.

Most of us got started on horses by being warned that our hands could hurt our horses. Truth. We learned to lightly rest our hands on the horse’s withers, with the aim being that our hands would be quiet. It’s a good place to start. First, do no harm.

The downside, and what I am guessing your half of this is about, is that in fear of hurting our horses, we lose confidence and do something that translates to the horse as an incoherent mumble on the reins. We think too much and they get confused.

It’s hard to have confidence on a green horse, but it’s the thing they need from us the most. Let the horse walk out several steps before asking for any rein aid. Once that rhythm is established, your hands must follow the movement. (I know you aren’t breathing in this part. Breathe.)

It turns out that it’s nearly impossible for a human to focus on hands, and continue to follow a horse’s movement with our seats… and so the horse loses forward, or even slows to a stop, because we’ve cued it with our seat.

Avoidance of the bit happens just after a loss of rhythm or forward. Some horses twist their heads from side to side, some horses toss their head up, making their back hollow, and some horses evade by dropping their noses behind the vertical. It seems like something should be corrected in his face but the real issue is that he lost forward, so leave the bit alone and ask him to go on while letting the horse feel your hands on the reins.

This is the reason I hate to talk hands. Riding is multitasking –like patting your head while rubbing circles on your belly. It must always be hand/seat together. So as you read words about hands, you must always hear a simultaneous loud chant: Forward, forward, forward.

Now we are at the part of contact that is really crazy-making for riders. Horses are individuals. Temperament and confirmation matter. Some horses will tense to avoid inflexible contact. Some will do the opposite and actually kind of push out with their nose to complete the contact. They don’t want their faces pulled on, but they seek a balance or connection. It gives them confidence. Keep an open mind and close your fingers on the reins and ask honestly for what you want. If you’ve been giving “coyote” cues, stop being a sly predator, and just say it. Use contact but listen closely and adjust yourself. Be ready for a full release if you get the answer you want.

The thing I recommend the most when learning contact, is to use a neck ring. Here’s Jasper with a simple rope, but the Ttouch site has nice ones, too.

Hold the neck ring in your hands along with the reins, and let your horse feel the ring on his shoulders before the rein. The ring can have a firm contact and the ring cues his shoulder –which is actually the part of his body that turns. It’s genius.

Why would we try to control a thousand-pound horse by tormenting a few inches at the end of his nose?

Then, seat and legs, body to body, forward! With elastic elbows and soft wrists, turn your waist and let your horse feel that turn through your body. Remind yourself that we steer with bodies and not reins.

If you feel resistance, release and ask again. Here’s how I describe contact in another blog :

Contact is like holding hands with someone you are so comfortable with that there’s overlap where they begin and you end. It happens when minds and hearts are swept away an effortless beat of rhythm. Contact is the place between individuals where respect and love embrace.

Good contact is moving forward through space without gravity or dependence on anything more concrete than the flow of movement that is oneness.

If my answers about contact all sound too vague and abstract, that’s because one size does not fit all. A rider shouldn’t take control and dominate a horse with hard hands, metal on bone, but rather find a happy medium between that and mushy hands, by asking questions and listening to your individual and unique horse. Partnership means negotiation.

Then trust your horse to be the best judge of your contact.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

24 thoughts on “Touchy About Contact

  1. JKS

    I know you’re going to get a LOT of opinions on here, but in my opinion the best way to start is to learn what proper contact feels like on a well trained school horse. They will teach you what it feels like and how to get there- and they are generally very good at letting you know when you’ve “got it”. Then you can apply it to your green horse- is the horse resisting because of confusion or because your rein is too short? Is your timing with your “give” correct or are you giving mixed signals? So much of that starts with knowing what it feels like in general, so you can seek it in your new horse.

    1. Of course, learning for a good lesson horse is best. As if those exist all over the place… I surely wish they did. On the other hand, horses are such individuals, that the one at home might not respond the same way. I truly wish this was easier. Thanks for this good comment!

      1. JKS

        Very true- I was lucky enough to learn on a horse where you could also hear when you got contact right because she started to lightly chew the bit, as well as becoming feather-light in your hands. She taught me so much about how to judge contact, but those horses don’t exist everywhere!

  2. My SIL is a notoriously lazy rider, though if I accuse her (justly) of being ‘just a passenger’, she would disagree strongly. I could find no way to get through to her that leaving the reins hung loose while she worried about flicking a mosquito off the horse’s neck was recipe for disaster; until disaster happened. I’m still not sure that she totally grasps the concept of contact, but at least the reins are in her hands now instead of hanging slack.

  3. Jill Harris

    It’s a hard balance, especially when you watch all the Western riders going with no contact whatsoever . . . but back to dressage and any English riding really. It’s all based on contact. However I should say that I just read a Mark Rashid book and he discusses the fact that most horses actually want to know what it is you want, and being clear about what you want (rather than only clear about what you don’t want or constantly drilling them on what they already know) creates a better relationship, so being more clear (while giving) with the reins is essential.

    I appreciate this response, Anna. I think you are probably guessing correctly that I let the reins too loose and then when things go south, I grab at them. I am going out to work on it now. Firm but giving at the elbows and shoulder.

    1. IM

      While western riders don’t ride with “tight” rein contact, often they’re using leverage bits and heavy reins/slobber straps, which creates a surprising amount of pressure/contact with the bit.

      I’m personally a huge fan of neck reins/rings, especially the TTouch ones. I use them starting all young horses, and generally have one even when riding my most trained horses, you never know when they will become useful. A spook, stumble, high head carriage, rushy horses, trouble balancing down hills, half halts etc. Not to get into the uses for riders who might not have the best balance/just learning/hands that move and so much more.

      1. I agree, and a neck ring is just a nice break for a horse, too. Agreed; I have no idea how those heavy reins got confused for kind in any way… Thank you, great comments.

    2. Western reins have weight and bits frequently are shanks, so harsher with leverage… They are not kinder. Go slow and it’ll get better. Thank you, Jill.

  4. *sigh* As always, lovely and honest, straight-forward and easy to understand help for all. You have been blessed with your gift Anna. Thank you for sharing with all of us not so gifted wannabes. 🙂

  5. Just thought of something to add. My current horse, the one I’ve been s l o w l y bringing along, rescued at 12, started under saddle at 14, sweet and somewhat stodgy Mustang argues with much contact. I ride him in an eggbutt snaffle. He pulls forward and drops his head so low that I feel like I have no horse in front of me. Both “trainers” I worked with, to help me help my horse, told me the same thing to do in response. I knew their advice was bad, but I didn’t really know how to approach it myself, so I tried and had miserable results. One said to pull straight back towards my belly while pushing him with seat and legs. The other had me bump up quickly and firmly with outside rein until he complied. Both bad ideas. I rode him in a 1-day clinic with Joe Wolter and he said, “don’t worry about that, just ask for more forward and he’ll pick his head up”. How beautifully simple. It worked like a charm. When I stop focusing on his head and trying to fix him with my reins, just ask for more forward, his head always comes up and we move along. Why is it that the right way is always so simple and honest? You’re so right – this isn’t a dictatorship. When we give respect, we always get it in return.

    1. Jill

      I like this tidbit, Lorie. My coach has been telling me to give her a bump with my leg when she divebombs or roots (one of the other reasons she is hard to keep a steady hand with!). I’ve been thinking of this advice as the punishment for the behavior but your Joe Wolter called it correctly: it’s a request to move forward. So a squeeze is as good as a bump and I can stay better balanced. Thanks for passing on this pearl of wisdom!

  6. I have never used the neck ring but I am a big believer in many of the T Touch methods. This is a good post about a very tricky topic. Tricky to write about and even trickier to teach.

  7. Anna, the “Touchy about contact” title right away brought back something wonderful I learned from a book on bitting by an Australian writer (whose name I can’t now remember) way back when Tulle (the 15.1 OTTB I’ve mentioned once before).came into my experience.
    There were no “lessons” yet…only pleasant trail rides…where he was ‘steady as a veteran’ no matter the surprise deer, bicycles, dogs, etc, This was a good thing too because,he carried his neck ‘curled up like a snail’ even with very lightest of contact. He had no ‘head in the sky’ nor ‘down at the knees’ but just perpetually curled up.
    In the book on bitting the author wrote that some horses’ palates are so configured that when a conventional snaffle is used, the snaffle’s joint breaks up into the palate just by being in the mouth, and for these horses one should relieve that discomfort by using a French-link snaffle.
    I could see Tulle’s face relax as soon as that hurt was relieved. Kind of a ‘special case’ but thought perhaps sometimes useful to consider…

    1. Good point, Barbara. I don’t know anyone using a two-piece snaffle at this point. The three-piece or French is just much better but especially for a horse with a low palate. We’ve been told for so long that snaffles are gentle, but when you think about it…not so much. Thanks, Barbara.

      1. Maggie Frazier

        I’m assuming your french link snaffle is the same as the “french snaffle” I used for several years. I know Chico liked it, altho to be honest, I think I could have ridden him in a halter (or even a neck ring) and he would have just fine. I did waste some time going from a long shank western bit (when I bought him) and thru several gentler ones until the french snaffle. The learning curve was long!!!!!!!!!! Which I regret – for his sake.

  8. Pingback: Touchy About Bits. – Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog

  9. Del

    Interesting comment about the French link. I think as riders we want the equipment to be the problem, but horses are individuals. For my mare my first issue was, is and probably always will be my tension, but the other one is that some mouths, hers in particular, are just different. Her bars are 2 inches apart, her mouth is 4 1/2 inches wide. That means that only the middle two inches of bit sit on anything flat, the rest is all fleshy lips and enormous tongue. Her palate is fleshy and flat. Her mouth will only tolerate a Mullen mouth egg butt, no matter how much I want that French link to work, it just folds around that narrow lower jaw and squashes everything. That was a challenge for my hands because you have so little nuance. Every slight movement affects both sides of the bit, pull and her tongue will be squashed. There was some retraining of me via a Pelham with forked reins (it took a brave classical trainer to suggest that) until I learned what correct felt like. A work in progress and currently on pregnancy leave.

    1. I actually have had so much success with Mullen mouth bits; I use them often, and I learned about them because of a horse who was uncomfortable in anything that moved. It gave him some sort of security, I think. Good for you for keeping on the path of figuring it out. Great comment, thanks, Del.

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