Recently I have been trying to teach a client, whom I have taught from the beginning, a bit more about rein contact. It can get a little sticky, so I thought I should do a bit of research.
When people begin to ride I teach them to hold the reins; but with a fairly loose contact, so that any wobble they have on the reins, when starting to trot or generally steering and lose their balance slightly, is taken up by the slack and doesn`t jerk the horses mouth. This client has mastered trot and is now getting to grips with the finer art of control; i.e. keeping the horse at her rhythm and speed. We are also continuing work on school movements, and being accurate.
Last week I explained to her that she needed to shorten her reins to get closer to the ideal straight line from elbow, through the wrist, to the bit in order to more discreetly affect her horse, with the half halts and guidance down the reins to back up her leg aids. My client shortened her reins, but almost instantly they got longer again. Which led me to explaining that the horse relies on the rider`s contact for guidance and support, and it is her duty to provide a quiet and consistent hand. This means closing your fingers tighter round the reins, so they can`t slip through. Not a clenched fist, but a closed fist. At this point, I had to define the contact. For this client at this stage in her riding I called it a line of communication between the rider and the horse; hence why it needs to be consistent and clear.
My rider is beginning to understand this basic concept of contact, but it led me onto thinking of how people confuse “contact” with “outline” and “on the bit”. The contact is the basic form of communication, and only when it is steady, light and consistent with a horse working over his back will it develop into an “outline”. I believe “on the bit” to be an old fashioned term, and rather suggests the horse`s head is ridden from the front end, as opposed from the engine of the hindquarters and through to the poll.
I don`t really teach outlines to any clients, I teach them the correct contact, and how the horse should work correctly from their hindquarters and over their back, in order for the horse`s body to function well and to reduce the risk of injury to their muscles and tendons. This very often results in the horse taking the contact forwards and lifting their back, which means I can then explain this process to the client and they can learn about how it should feel, and what they should do to create it in future (in terms of rhythm, activity of the gait, bending and transitions). Once they develop a feel for working the horse correctly the horse carries themselves and are less likely to damage themselves mechanically.
I`ve done a bit of research into different people`s explanations of contact, and how it is important to horse riding: