Some rider’s struggle with understanding the term “contact“, what it means in terms of riding and it’s importance. Experienced riders will be familiar with the classic image of a correct contact – a straight line from the rider’s elbow, to the hand, through the reins down to the horse’s bit. However, this can be a tricky concept to come to grips with for learner riders – and some seasoned ones too! Whether you’re a riding instructor or a novice rider or struggle to keep your horse from drifting hopefully these few tips will help with your understanding of contact.
Make a few checks to start…
1. Get rid of the Tension
Although the rider is holding the reins in their hands, it is important to understand that contact starts from the shoulder blades. Tension in the shoulders, the arms, or the wrists will cause a negative effect on the contact with the horse, blocking them from going forward. This in turn adds to rider frustration as they have to work harder to get their horse to move.
If you feel your shoulders are tense try rolling your shoulders forward and backwards. Allow the shoulders to drop, take a deep breath and exhale all the way down into your seat bones. Relax.
Remember that you are guiding the horse by “holding his hand” -not pulling him around the arena! I always explain to my riders holding the reins is like holding a little bird – squeeze too tight and you’ll hurt him but if you don’t hold him firm enough he’ll fly away.
2. Your hands should be level
Both your hands should be at the same level. Imagine you’re holding a tray of drinks. If one hand is lower than the other your drinks are going to slide off the tray.
Also, keep those thumbs on top of the reins. It helps to keep your hands/wrists in the correct position. Imagine your holding two cups of coffee. If your wrists tilt, you’ll spill those too!
3. Make sure you have sufficient contact on the reins
Make sure there are no loops or slack in your reins. There should be a light tension on the reins – but no restriction.
Be sure that as you move off your shoulders are relaxed and that you allow your arms to move with the natural movement of the horse.
4. Understand what each rein does
It is so important to understand what each rein does. This explanation is definitely not technically correct – but for an uncomplicated, basic instruction I think this works:
The inside rein simply shows the horse where you want to go by showing them the direction of where you’re going. However, you wont get there smoothly unless you use the outside rein too.
The outside rein controls how you get to where you’re going by A) Regulating and balancing the degree of the bend (the turn) and B) by controlling the speed in which you get there.
I cannot stress enough how important the outside rein is. With out it, you will not get through the tunnel – which I’ll explain next.
So now you’re ready to move off….
5. Ride through the tunnel
As an instructor I regularly see riders struggle to ride into their corners, make correct turns for their jumps and struggle to stop their horses from falling in or out on a circle, this is generally because they may not be following steps 1 through 3 or don’t have an understanding for what the reins do as explained in step 4.
If you can relate to any of the above try to imagine your hands and the reins as a tunnel, with the end of the tunnel leading to the horses bit and the destination you want to reach. If you drop one rein lower than the other, or do not have a sufficient contact on the reins to begin with, you are essentially opening an exit door and the horse escapes from the tunnel.
You’ll understand this if you’ve ever rode a horse that drifts out on a circle no matter how hard you use the inside rein. If you don’t have a sufficient contact on the outside rein the horse essentially falls out through his outside shoulder and drifts towards the track.
Now your legs have a big part to play in this as well but I’ll explain that in Part Two of Riding through the Tunnel for another Tuesday Tip…
Tuesday Tips are short answers to help with the most common issues novice riders and horse owners experience. Your input, suggestions and experiences are welcome in the comment box!
Also feel free to ask questions or make suggestions for further Tuesday Tips!