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Katrin Silva discusses contact

Published: 8/17/2016
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We welcome new guest columnist, Katrin Silva!
Silva grew up riding dressage in Germany before moving to the United States at age 19 to learn to ride Western. She’s been riding both disciplines for the last twenty years.

Silva has competed successfully through fourth level dressage on quarter horses, Morgans, Arabians, Hanoverians, and many other breeds. Based in New Mexico, she enjoys improving horse-rider partnerships of all sorts and firmly believes that good riding is always good riding, no matter which type of tack a horse is wearing. Check out her blog here.

By Katrin Silva

For years, my relationship with contact  - the kind that happens between the rider's hands and the horse's mouth - was uneasy. When I took dressage lessons as a child, one of the phrases my instructor kept yelling was "Shorten the reins!" I was ten years old and loved horses more than anything in the world, so I refused. Like the little girl I used to be, many Western riders believe that riding on contact hurts the horse's mouth. Like my former instructor, many dressage riders think contact is essential for good riding.

It's a gridlock situation.
[Top two photos at right illustrate examples of bad contact.
Bottom two photos of Silva illustrate examples of good contact.]

I now think each party in this standoff is partially right and partially wrong. It is, of course, possible to ride without contact. Many horse-rider pairs communicate effectively on a loose rein.  But that's only half the story. There's bad contact, and there's good contact. The difference between them is like the difference between Velveeta from a can and a chunk of aged, artisanal cheddar from happy cows. Learning to ride with contact - the real kind, not the cheap imitation - is a challenge, but at the same time it's one of the biggest favors you can do your horse.

The wrong kind of contact can be an ugly sight because horses are good at self-preservation. They can resist in all sorts of ways, like clenching their jaws, lifting their heads, or tucking their noses behind the vertical. Imitation orange-cheese contact happens for a number of reasons:
  • a rider's hands are too rigid or too unsteady
  • the horse has not yet learned to go forward
  • the bit is not the right type or size.

The "almost-but-not-really" contact many well-meaning riders end up practicing belongs in this same category. Like the little girl I used to be, they hear they should ride with contact, yet shy away from it because they don't want to hurt their horses. Trying to keep the contact extremely light can have the opposite of the intended effect: The horse feels a contact that comes and goes in a loose-tight-loose rhythm which, just like a constantly active leg or spur aid, soon becomes meaningless. Most horses will tune it out and become dull instead of soft.

So many things can and do go wrong with contact that riders wonder whether proper contact is a goal worth pursuing. The many horses I have worked with over the years have taught me that, yes, it is. The real kind of contact is a wonderful thing.

Correct contact feels like an open frequency between you and your horse. Your sensitive, giving hands feel what the horse is thinking, then send almost invisible signals back the other way. The two of you are connected, talking to each other constantly, without interference. Real-deal contact refines communication. It feels amazing, and it's beautiful to watch. Far from causing pain, it makes a horse's mouth softer, not harder. It can take any horse-rider partnership to the next level.

Also, correct contact can keep horses sound longer because it makes gymnastic riding much more effective. Horses become suppler and more balanced.  Contact is a stepping stone to collection, which allows the muscles of the topline to develop. That, in turn, allows the horse to carry weight more comfortably.

Real contact is the kind the horse steps into with eagerness, energy, and trust. It’s elastic, not rigid. This kind of contact requires an independent seat and quiet hands that follow the horse's mouth all the time, except for very brief moments called half-halts.

Above all, real contact requires that the horse has learned to move forward. I start young horses without contact.  A young horse needs to learn to go forward from the leg, to stop from seat and rein, and to turn left and right. Only then does it make sense to think about contact.

One more thing to keep in mind:

Riding on contact and riding on a loose rein are not mutually exclusive.  Any horse that has learned correct contact will still go on a loose rein -- better than before it knew correct contact. In fact, giving up the contact serves as a useful reality check: How correct was my contact?

Is it more difficult to learn about the good kind of contact than to just throw the reins away? Absolutely. Is it worth the time and effort? Absolutely. Your horse will thank you.

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