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Understanding Contact, Part I

Published: 7/7/2015
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Editor's Note: Amy Skinner is a regular guest columnist and a horse gal since age six. She runs Essence Horsemanship, rides and teaches English and Western. Skinner has studied at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art in Spain, with Buck Brannaman, and many others.

Read more about Amy here.

Read more Journals & Journeys here

By Amy Skinner

The subject of contact is a touchy one, no pun intended. There are many opinions on just what it is, how much is necessary, and what purpose it has.  My hope is to clarify its definition and to help the rider understand how much is necessary and when to use it. 

Opinions vary from teacher to teacher, but this is the article I think a horse would write for his riders to read and understand him better.
I've seen this at dozens of horse shows: tense, gripping riders, desperately trying to keep their upset horses under control. Gaping mouths. Flopping tongues. Tilted polls. Hollow backs. Grinding teeth.

It all amounts to backward riding. Yet, these riders probably fit somebody's idea of the word “contact.”  Each of these riders had plenty of contact, but the benefit to the horse, and in many cases the rider too, was nil. 

    So what is contact?

     The dictionary defines contact as:
    •    1. A coming together or touching, as of objects or surfaces.
    •    2. The state or condition of touching or of immediate proximity.
    •    3. Connection or interaction; communication.

  • A horse and rider standing near each other have contact. 
  • A rider sitting on his horse's back has contact with his seat and legs. 
  • A rider who communicates with his horse through seat, leg, voice, or hand aids has contact. 
The notion that a rider must have a tight rein all the time to have contact in my book is flawed. If contact is a touch, or a proximity to, or communication with a horse, it seems we can have contact all the time, and in many different ways.

There are progressions of contact and each may change at a given time.  A horse must be prepared to understand the types of contact we expect, such as a leg cue or vertical flexion in the bridle. 

To ride all the time with tight reins sends the message to the horse that there will always be pressure on his jaws.  When a rider finds himself needing pressure on a horse's jaws or needing those tight reins to be meaningful, such as stop, slow down, or turn, this meaning is not always available in a horse ridden in this way. 
Many of those who have ridden green horses may have found that kicking to go and pulling to stop or slow are not intuitive notions to the horse. But seat orientation and intention are. 
As I have gone through the years learning to better start young horses, I have found that as I got more clear in my intention and body, kicking or pulling was not necessary. The horse could pick up on the feel I intended and respond.
 I find it interesting, then, that a horse begins his life with his sensitivity in tact and “training” often becomes a systematic dulling to the kicks, driving legs, and pulling hands or “holding” hands he must bear through his life as a riding horse.  Horses find the most meaning in our seat, legs, and hands when they are used only when necessary, which is different for every person, horse, and situation, and released after the desired result took place. 

What makes a horse dull to these cues is the endless onslaught of contact without release. Constant kicking, constant pulling, and the ever present “contact” with his mouth make him heavy and numb to your requests.  Contact that offers no release is the enemy of lightness, and this also can be found in gadgets like martingales, tie downs, side reins, or hands or legs that grab and take without giving.

In this article I will talk a bit about the progressions of contact I find to be the most useful and conducive to lightness.  With a young or green horse, contact may be just being able to be in the same corral as them.  Through feel and release, you find your way up to them where you can touch with your hands, your equipment, and finally someday you hop on. 
There you have contact with your seat, legs, and your whole presence.  At this stage, your horse is not prepared for the confining feel of bit contact, and it saddens me to see young horses being lunged around in side reins or equipment designed to make him submit to this feeling all his life.  The young horse can be prepared for each of these things: saddle, bridle, and learning to follow the feel of the bit. 

Coming next week: Contact Illustrated.

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7/9/2015 Dr. Steve Peters
Amy, very well said. If the horse were writing this article, I think they would want to express the same thought. Communication and being forced and confined are quite different. Softness and feel are not to be found in restriction. As usual, nice job!

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