When I look back on my old pictures I can see a progression of how I established contact through the years. Sometimes my hands were way too high and the reins were way too loose, other times my hands were too restrictive and blocking the horse from moving freely forward. I suppose that's why contact is so elusive.
As I become more experienced at teaching i've learned that it's easier to break down certain ideas into rules or categories. I teach a lot of kids, and I have "3 rules for holding the reins" and "3 rules before asking for the trot" etc to help drill the basics into their mind.
These are my "THREE" ways to fix your contact without directly shortening your reins (and you know, if you're riding dressage at a very sensitive level reaching across and shortening your reins might be too much!)
HANDS: Let's start with hands. Every novice rider tries to shorten the contact by pulling backwards behind the saddle. Don't be that rider. One of the "rules" I tell my kid students is to never let your hands go behind the saddle. If your hands are behind the saddle when you stop, then you needed shorter reins!
But without taking a big reach like a kid would to shorten the reins, how do adults shorten them tactfully and quietly without pulling on the horses mouth? First, you can crawl down the reins like a spider navigating a web for certain occasions. Or you can just squeeze your hands really hard like you're squeezing a kitchen sponge - but make sure you release as soon as you do that and your hands return to being soft like holding a baby kitten. Squeezing your hands like a kitchen sponge is more like a half-halt that you apply when the horse is rushing forward. Here's where it gets tricky though! If the horse is running through my hands, then I half-halt with two hands! If i'm just trying to make the horse round I will only squeeze and hold (until the horse yields) with my outside rein (that's just one hand). So sometimes your contact is different within each hand.
Just as you take, you also must give! When I release with my hands I often open just my ring finger to allow the horse to go forward into the contact before closing the door. If the horse is carrying along in a great rhythm and staying quiet and soft I make SURE my hands are soft and inviting.
ELBOWS: They can move wide like a triangle to take up space, or forward and back like a zombie to give or take up space. Your elbows are so dynamic and have to be so soft and feeling in the saddle. So if you need to take up just a few inches of rein but your horse is soft in the bridle and you don't want to disturb the contact by shortening the reins, you can just spread your hands wider than your elbows and that automatically shortens the rein. This isn't forever, or for the show ring, just a quick way to pick up a little contact without disturbing your horse in his mouth.
You can also push your elbows forward to give the horse more freedom and move into the contact, or you can bring your elbows back to your hips (but never behind) to hold when you are bringing a horse into the contact. If you want to keep the contact steady with your horse - pay attention to your elbows.
ARMPITS: This is really meant to say your whole arm, but I like the word armpit better because it makes kids listen up and know exactly what I mean. So, if you have a naughty pony pulling against your hands, you will squeeze your arms to your armpits to strengthen your core and hold. If your horse is being a good pony then you will have a little distance between your arm and your side and they will be soft and not clamped. If your reins are too loose and you need to pick up the contact without disturbing your horse in the mouth you can open your whole arm and take up a lot of space in the reins just by opening the gap between your arm and armpit....and then maybe crawl down the reins like a spider to slow take up the contact and then once it is taught bring your arms back in.
But that is all assuming two reins and the same rein effect, and contact is more dynamic than that!
PRACTICAL APPLICATION #1: Riding on the circle and changing the bend
So in dressage they have this thing where your horse should be in your "outside" rein. So that means if you're traveling on a circle you should have more feel/pressure in that outside rein. Now let's change direction. When you pick up your new outside rein you need to let the old one slide about 1 cm to 1 inch and take the same amount on the new one so the horse can actually bend their head in the new direction. Or if you don't want to do that through your hands you can do it temporarily through your elbows and then adjust the reins a few strides later. See? Contact is tricky and we didn't even talk about the adjustments you make to your seat and leg in that paragraph!
PRACTICAL APPLICATION #2: Making your horse round
When you make your horse round and you start with wider hands/elbows and a longer rein as the horse goes round it will shorten the neck. So don't let the floppy floppy continue! This is when you get to crawl down the reins like a spider and "take" that extra rein the horse gives you as it shortens his neck and goes rounder. You need to be savvy (like in the moment and feeling), soft, and fast, and pick up the slack before your horse sticks his head back up.
So when your trainer says "Hey, it's time to pick up the contact", do you have a plan of how you are going to adjust your body to achieve the contact? Or are you just gonna pull?