Developing Correct Contact in Dressage

A USDF-certified instructor gives a three-step process to encourage your horse to step with good energy into the contact.
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A USDF-certified instructor gives a three-step process to encourage your horse to step with good energy into the contact.

Question: I have read articles and discussed with my instructor how to get my horse to step with good energy into the contact. But I'm still not sure I understand what I'm supposed to do and when. Can you help?

FEI rider Tom Noone shows a horse stepping with good energy. | ? Carole MacDonald

FEI rider Tom Noone shows a horse stepping with good energy. | ? Carole MacDonald

Answer: There is a three-step process you can use to encourage your horse to step with good energy into the contact. First, check your position. Before mounting, stand behind your horse to make sure the saddle's gullet is centered over his spine and that the stirrups hand evenly on either side. Once mounted, sit squarely in the saddle so you are in a balanced position over your horse's center of gravity.

Have your instructor or a friend stand behind you to verify that the seam of your britches is centered over the gullet and that your knees and feet hang down evenly. If you are riding on your own, check that the zipper of your britches is centered on the pommel of the saddle and, if possible, ride directly toward a mirror to make sure that you are squarely over the center of your horse.

Your legs need to drape down around your horse's barrel in a relaxed manner -- if you grip with your thighs or calves, you will restrict your horse's forward movement. If you squeeze with your legs to balance yourself or constantly urge your horse forward, he soon will become dull to your aids and tune you out. You will need to learn to ride with a quiet leg and seat so that the horse can easily tell when you are asking him to go forward.

Your hips need to follow your horse's back motion, while your arms remain relaxed and elastic so that you do not restrict his desire to go forward. You are now in an effective position -- one that allows the horse to carry you with energy.

Second, you must learn to loosen your horse's body. Specifically, you want the large muscles of his belly, hindquarters, back and neck to be relaxed before you ask him to step, with good energy, into the contact. Depending on your horse's age and degree of suppleness, you will need to take 20 minutes or more to loosen him up.

Loosen your horse by riding forward in walk, trot and canter on large figures, in both directions. Use half halts to encourage your horse to reach into the contact so he lifts his back and begins to "swing" in his muscles. Your horse's back is the bridge between his hindquarters and the bridle. His belly and hindquarter muscles must lift this bridge before you can achieve a good flow of energy into a steady and elastic contact.

Develop a sense of feel for this looseness. It can be counterproductive to continue with your work until you have achieved it. If needed, have your instructor ride you horse and develop this looseness in the warm-up so you can learn to recognize it. Then have him or her help you to develop a warm-up routine so you can achieve it on your own.

Once you are sitting correctly and your horse is properly warmed up, you can request a greater degree of energy through transitions. Start with basic walk-trot transitions on a 20-meter circle. Close your calves lightly and close to the girth to ask for the upward transitions. As soon as your horse responds, make sure to relax your legs again and let him carry you forward. If you don't get a prompt response to a light leg, reinforce your leg aid with a quick tap with your whip behind your calf. It is important that your timing be correct so your horse associates the tap from the whip with your leg aid.

Trot a circle, then ride a downward transition to walk. Repeat your upward transition to verify that your horse will move off from a light leg aid; if he does not, repeat the same process of reinforcing your leg with a tap from the whip. Depending on how sensitive your horse is, tuning him to a light leg aid may take one or two transitions or five or six.

Once you feel you horse moving easily forward from a light aid, continue around the arena at the trot and start to add transitions within the gaits. First, ask your horse to cover less ground through more engagement and collection in the trot. You want to feel as if you are coiling a spring by decreasing the trot steps while maintaining the energy. After five to 10 meters of decreasing the trot, use your light leg aid and sit into the saddle a bit more firmly. Your horse should "uncoil" into a bigger, springier trot.

Now you are not only tuning him to a light aid but also increasing his elasticity by asking him to contract and then lengthen his muscles. This will develop more suppleness through his body and improve his desire to step into the contact. The contact will become more alive and malleable. You are unlocking your horse with these transitions between and within gaits and releasing the strength of his hindquarters. You can ride these transitions at all three gaits, both decreasing and increasing the stride. You will develop more power and elasticity through these transitions and your horse will now stepp with good energy into contact.

Joy Congdon is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) certified instructor through Fourth Level and a graduate of the USDF "L" program. She trains students and horses of all levels at Apple Valley Farm in Harvard, Mass., and competes at Grand Prix on her horse, Gershwin.

This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of Dressage Today.