Your Horse is Not a Steering Wheel: Tips on how to make Contact more Complicated
Did you ever drive stick shift growing up? Riding your horse is like driving a stick shift car because your hands and legs act independently of each other. You have one hand on the steering wheel, one hand shifting, one foot letting your clutch out, and one foot pressing down on the gas. Did you know that your seat bones can work independently of each other too?
How do you steer a horse? Well, you don’t whip it like a steering wheel doing donuts on a snowy day in the school parking lot! And if your first reaction was to say the reins then it’s time to go back to the ABC’s. First you steer a horse with your seat, then your leg to support, and lastly with your reins for some extra finesse.
Lately i’ve noticed a lot of riders use their hands as a unit, and this is the wrong way to communicate with your horse. Your hands are not a steering wheel, instead they act independently of each other. Your inside rein might be giving and your outside rein might be holding, but they don’t turn together as a unit. In general, your inside rein helps with lateral flexion and the outside rein helps your horse’s balance and for longitudinal rounding. If you need to use a rein to help support a turn, use just one, and make sure it opens up and out like a hitchhiker’s hand instead of pulling backwards on the horse’s tongue. You will only have equal contact with each rein when your horse is straight and through.
I repeat, you will only have equal contact with each rein when your horse is straight and through. This is why trying to pull a head down on a horse to make a pretty frame doesn’t work because you’re boxing a horse up into a crooked position. Contact is the connection between you and your horse and your horse should seek it when he is properly swinging through the back. You only get that when your horse is comfortable and in good balance. This is why I sometimes ride around with a horse’s head up! Yes, I let them have their head while I am straightening their shoulders and once they get straight they naturally want to go round and into my hands without me pulling them in. You need to create that suppleness before you go for the round, and forward doesn’t always mean a horse is coming through the back.
I teach a lot of hunter/jumper and event students that like to dabble in dressage and their first question is always how do I develop and feel contact? Contact isn’t just the reins, it is your WHOLE body; your elbows, shoulders, hips, and legs. When you are coordinated through your body then your horse will trust you.
Contact is like a triangle. Contact is like a square, and sometimes it changes to a rectangle or a parallelogram but if you are using your hands to make contact then it’s not good contact.
Contact comes through your elbows. I don’t ride with my hands, I ride and create contact through my elbows. Imagine a pvc pipe running from your elbow to your horse’s mouth. It is straight. That means you shouldn’t do weird things with your hands and wrists like drop, break, twist, or pull back with them. You shouldn’t turn your pinkies up to turn like you’re drinking tea either, and you shouldn’t flap your elbows out like a chicken either! Your elbows never go behind your back, unless you’re on an exceptionally naughty horse and need to save the situation, otherwise you’re just pulling.
Your hands are just a filter that finesses the energy when necessary, but you shouldn’t be using them to hold your horse up or stop, that comes from your seat. As mentioned earlier, your hands work independently of each other, you use them and then put them away!
My metaphor for contact is that it comes in four shapes, square, rectangle, parallelogram, and triangle. In regular/neutral contact your forearms are positioned like a square. There is equal distance between your hands and elbows and a 90 degree bend in the elbow. When contact is like a rectangle it’s when you are allowing your horse to stretch over his back into your hands. You “open” your elbows like you are giving blood to about 120 degrees. Another way to pick up contact without fiddling with your hands is a triangle, which can be wider at the base (taking your elbows away from your hips) or narrorer at the base (widening the hands). A parallelogram with contact is when your shift your hands to the side on a green horse around a turn to help control the shoulder with your outside reins and give direction with the new inside rein. Don’t do this unless you’re really on a green horse and it needs to be supported with seat and leg first.
Connection is necessary for good contact. Connection is the flow of energy from the hind through the back and neck and then into the contact. So if you want to develop and ride with more contact the first step is to feel through your elbows and the second step is to use your hands independently. This is after you are steering with your legs and seat and you have a good flow of energy.
Ashley is a dressage trainer and instructor that loves to train dressage and teach lessons.