Horse training learning theory

Boost Your Dressage Scores Part 8: Contact

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Do you want to score 8’s in your next dressage test? Read on… In Part 8 of this series, Manuela McLean continues to explain dressage judging against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science shaping scale, helping you develop clear training strategies to boost your test scores.

Dressage judges play an important role in the education of both riders and their horses. The marks and comments they provide can inform rider and coach of the level of training achieved and any areas that need more work. But, can you turn them into clear training strategies and boost your dressage scores?  

In this series, Dr Andrew and Manuela McLean, founders of the Australian Equine Behaviour Centre (AEBC) and Directors of Equitation Science International, explain dressage judging against the backdrop of learning theory and the equitation science training scale.  

Part 8 – Contact

Want to score 8’s and above?

In the previous articles in this series, I have talked about making your horse responsive to your aids, that he is ‘Obedient’, meaning that he responds from light aids immediately and in two steps. Your horse learns this through the timely release of the pressure when the desired response is achieved.

From here, he develops a ‘Rhythm’ that becomes self-maintained, he keeps doing what you have asked him to do without the constant urge of the reins, seat or legs.

Training him to be ‘Straight’, where he is even in the rein and leg contact, produces an even stride length, and allows you to sit evenly on both seat bones, and in the middle of the saddle.

Now, it is time to address his ‘frame’ or outline, his back, neck, and poll position, this is training ‘Contact’.

Contact: The road to 8 and higher marks…

A rider’s control of his horse is shaped progressively to achieve the qualities described in the German Training Scale.

Obedience (Durchlassigheit) to the aids leads to Relaxation, as well as Rhythm – the first elements of the German Training scale.

The manoeuvrability of the shoulders (Straightness) produces Looseness (Lossgallassenheit) and allows Impulsion from the hindlegs to develop.

Straightness of the shoulders, coupled with control of the hindquarters, then develops the Contact and Suppleness of the horse.

Obedience, Rhythm and Straightness are the prerequisites of Contact – a stable and secure feel of the horses’ body through the reins, legs and seat. A rider is in control of the entire horse and can place or position him wherever he wants.

When a steady following contact is achieved and the horse is consistently ‘on the bit’, dressage test marks will improve to 8’s and above.

‘On the bit’ – What does it mean? 

A horse that is ‘on the bit’ is really one that is ‘on the aids’ – meaning he is responsive (responds consistently and immediately to light aids) and in self-carriage (he carries himself without the constant urge of the rider). This is a ‘light’ horse that has begun to respond to positional and seat aids. The end result is that the combination of horse and rider are harmoniously connected.

The posture of the horse should be that his face (the profile of his face from between the eyes to the nose) is more or less vertical but definitely not behind the vertical.

Judge’s comment: ‘Behind the vertical’ and ‘tight in the neck’

A horse that is ‘behind the vertical’ can easily become ‘closed in the gullet’, (the throatlatch area) and his breathing could be severely compromised in this situation, as the windpipe is restricted.

The underline neck muscle – the brachiocephalic – will be tense whereas it should be relaxed. If the underline is ‘tight in the neck’ and protruding forward, the horse cannot use the muscles of the top line of his neck. He will also appear hollow in the back, and be restricted in his knee and hock action.

When judges make such comments, the rider needs to check the self-carriage of the reins. A horse that is ‘too short in the neck’ or ‘tight in the neck’ is not there of his own will, he is generally held there.

Checking the self-carriage of the reins will tell the rider if the horse is comfortable in these positions and in a rhythm. If the horse lengthens his nose forward, then it is just a matter of positioning the hands more forward to maintain this frame or to allow just a bit more length of rein.

If the horse is ‘behind the vertical’ and light in the contact, the rider should aim to lengthen the stride to keep the nose on the vertical position, because a horse’s length of stride is related to the vertical flexion of the head.

The poll should be at the highest point of the neck and the neck arched in a smooth curve from the wither. The trapezius and splenius muscles should be visible as a thick band at the top and sides of the neck, all the way from the poll to the wither.

A horse is not correct in the neck posture if only the splenius muscle is visible closer to the poll. He will appear to have a dip in front of the wither and will appear on the forehand.

A horse that is ‘too low in the poll’ is also likely to be on the forehand. A rider would need to elevate the poll during the shortening aids by raising the hand position and then asking for longer strides. The shortening aids would need to be repeated when the poll lowers again during the lengthening.

The long back muscles – longissimus dorsi – are important in developing the correct neck posture as they extend from the sacrum into the vertebrae of the neck. They appear to raise the back under the saddle and sacrum area. A rider needs to be able to feel the movement of the long back muscles through the seat to feel the movement of the legs. Horses that are ‘hollow in the back’ are not using these muscles – they are contracted; lengthening the stride will improve this.

The abdominal muscles influence the lifting of the back. They need to tighten, so the horse engages his core to allow the long back muscles to relax, or be soft and elastic. The engagement of the horse’s core allows the hindleg muscles to push the horse forward with energy. When a horse is using the correct muscles of his body, his legs articulate evenly in all the joints; he appears loose and supple.

The harmonious connection between a rider and a horse where they ‘look as one entity’ can only be truly achieved if the there is a correct contact of the reins, seat and legs.

What is a perfect contact?

Horses generally tell us ‘contact’ is not perfect and the length of rein is not correct for them at the time or stage of their training, by becoming anxious in one way or another. Testing for self-carriage by moving the hand forward and releasing the contact slightly is critical to developing the adequate length of rein.

Training Tip:

To achieve the correct length, begin at the halt on a loose rein. Position your hands where you would have them when riding, gradually gather your reins – a bit like knitting – until you can feel his lips. If there is a reaction in his neck or he moves, you need to stop gathering more rein as this is the point of discomfort. If he moves forward, step him back, if sideways with his hindquarters, yield him back to the original position, and if he snatches or reefs the reins forward, wait until he settles before gathering more rein. The aim is to have a light connection with his lips and a straight line of the reins with no loops.

Rein contact

Ideally, the rein contact should be approximately 200-300 grams. This is the neutral contact (a very slight rein tension the horse does not interpret as a rein aid) that a rider should have in between applying any rein aid.

A ‘stronger contact’ should not be needed between aids, but a stronger contact can occur if the horse does not respond to a rein aid. As mentioned previously, rein contact is similar to holding hands; at times, horses lead us where we don’t want to go, maybe faster than we want or in a direction we don’t want to go. In these situations, we need to resist his pull with our position and core, and apply the appropriate aid to regain our speed or line.

We need to ride our horses at our speed and on our line to be in control.

Our position and core effect

Rein contact is affected by our shoulder, arm and hand position, as well as the stability of our core. Our shoulders should be directly above the middle of the pelvis for them to be stable, the elbows should be above the front of the hips and there should be a straight line from the elbow through the hand to the horses’ mouth. There should also be a straight line from the side of the elbow through to the knuckles for the wrist to be relaxed. Positioning these correctly will lead to a steady hand position.

Holding the reins softly, but with a boundary to the length of rein, is not always easy. Some riders ride with open fingers, thinking they are being soft, but the contact varies between too open and no contact, to closing for a rein aid. The effect for the horse is that from no contact comes an aid often causing the horse to shorten its neck and go ‘hollow’ (shorten its neck upwards and backwards) because of the backward action of the rein.

Conversely, some riders will have a gripping hand where the fingers are always clenched. This will cause horses to pull ‘against the hand’ and tense the under neck muscles because the aid does not soften. Horses can appear to be ‘offended’ by the bit. Riders often hold too much when horses are ‘too short in the neck’. It may be necessary to lengthen the rein. Remember to test for self-carriage frequently to find the best length of rein for your horse.

Ideally, the reins should be held between the thumb and forefingers, and go through the palm of the hand, and between the ring finger and little finger. The action of the thumb on the index finger is important as this limits the length of rein. The tip of the thumb should press on the index finger and the thumb knuckle needs to be bent. If you are constantly being told to gather the reins, then chances are you are not holding them with your thumb.

Pressing down on the thumb in this way and closing the fingers keeps the forearm muscles soft. When the thumb is positioned without a bend in the knuckle, it causes tightness in the forearm muscles and the muscle of the thumb itself. Good hands relate to this – the fingers are clenched for aids, but the arms stay soft.

In this position, the contact of the rein to the horse’s mouth becomes ‘elastic’, as the riders hands and elbows follow the forward and backward movement of the horses neck in the walk and canter, and stay still in the trot. An aid is given by closing the fingers; they soften back to a neutral contact so that it is not so much ‘give and take’, but rather ‘take and give’ upon the correct response.

Helpful Hint

An unsteady contact where a rider’s hands are not independent and they’re using them to keep balance also shows up in the horses’ frame. It becomes unsteady too. Needless to say, the horse is getting all sorts of messages as the rider pulls and tugs here, there and everywhere, keeping his balance by using the horse’s mouth.

If this is the case, use the horse’s neck and mane for balance by positioning the hands on his crest in front of the wither. This also helps the rider to learn how to use their core, pushing down on the neck gives this feeling, it is like a ‘crunch’ at the gym or think of blowing up a balloon. When your hands begin to leave this position, either you have lost balance or the horse has caused you to – you will need to adjust first of all your horse’s speed and secondly his line.

Rigid elbows and arms can also lead to an unsteady contact. Holding the reins like a beginner rider holds them, where the thumb and forefinger are closest to the horse’s mouth is a good way to learn to have soft elbows and arms. It is quite a unique way to ride and teaches you to use your ‘lats’ and back.

Leg contact

The leg contact of the rider should also be consistent and even (symmetrical) on the horse’s ribcage. The inner and front of the thighs should be in contact with the saddle, but not gripping with the knee. The inner calves should also be in contact, and the rider’s feet pointing forwards and relatively flat. This is so the rider’s legs can deliver appropriate leg aids. Riders with turned out feet or too much pressure in the heels, where the heels are pressed down hard, will have too much tension to apply precise leg aids.

The stirrups are a footrest, not something to push down on. Even in rising trot, a rider should rise mostly from that muscle against the saddle above the knee (the one that is ticklish) rather than from their feet. Only 20% of the rider’s leg weight should be in the stirrup.

Horses have a tendency to displace a rider’s leg position by bulging the ribcage or by hollowing away from the leg. A rider that allows his leg position to be displaced will have issues with straightness of the horse’s body and hindlegs and, if the thighs are displaced, will have problems with straightness of the shoulders. This displacement directly affects the contact through the seat as well.

Positioning the lower leg back or forward can alter the position of the hips – this directly affects the seat position. Sensitive horses will often yield away from the leg or run and may need to be desensitised with leg rubbing at the halt first. If the horse moves forward, step back, and if he moves sideways with the hindquarters, yield him back. When desensitising, it is important to keep the leg in the same position. Horses learn through the removal of pressure or contact in this case.

Helpful Hint

Try standing up in the stirrups, making sure the ball of your foot is evenly on the stirrup tread. Let the weight of your body go down through your knee to the ball of your foot, then relax your ankle to let the weight drop a little into the heel. Elevate your hips up and forward above the pommel, so that you are standing almost vertically.

As an extra challenge, you can do your stop, go and turn aids in this position. You will need the stability of your core to achieve this and to stop yourself falling back into the saddle. This exercise helps you to find the correct position of your legs and feet; the stability of your core keeps you upright.

Once your hands and legs are under control, you can start to think about your horse’s back movement, so you can then influence the legs through your seat.

Seat contact

As mentioned previously, riders need to sit in the middle of the saddle with their seat bones evenly spaced either side of the middle. There are three seat bones – the pubic bone and the two pelvic bones – all of which need to point directly downwards to feel ‘plugged-in’.

The pelvic bones are the important ones when it comes to feeling the horse’s back and legs; they should feel flat on the saddle in a neutral position. Leaning forward at the top of the hip puts a rider onto the front of their pelvis and pubic bone, whereas, leaning back puts a rider on the back of the pelvis and onto their tail bone.

Riders that are leaning forward will cause horses to go on the forehand through the extra weight on the horse’s shoulders. The shoulders become restricted in their movement, and the strides are short and choppy. Some horses stall to relieve the pressure, whereas others can run away. Hinding the neutral pelvic position puts you back closer to the horse’s center of gravity.

Similarly, riders that lean too far back can cause the same problems, including hollowness in the back and sacrum through the increased pressure in this area. The hindleg action becomes restricted in this case, and the horse does not ‘step under’ and is restricted in its ‘overtracking’.

The front of the pelvis feels the movement of the horse’s shoulders and front legs; they lift alternately as the horse lifts and drops his forelegs. The back of the pelvis and gluteal muscles feels the upward and forward motion of the hindlegs. When a rider’s pelvis is in synchrony with the horse’s movement, there is a forward and backward movement of the pelvis with the forelegs and hindlegs.

To be able to influence the horse’s movement and to feel the back movement correctly, a rider needs to be aware of his seat movement.

Helpful Hint

Begin at the walk and look at one of the forelegs or shoulder movement to feel the rise and fall of the front of the pelvis. The front of the pelvis is lifted up as the foreleg is in the swing phase and drops down as the foreleg touches the ground.

When you can consistently feel one foreleg, then aim to feel the other one. Only then can you start to begin to feel both at a time. We can’t multi-task either, and cannot concentrate on the hindlegs until we can feel and have control of the horse’s forelegs and shoulders.

Learning to ‘feel’

Horses move their legs in diagonal pairs.

In the walk, as the left foreleg is moving forward, the right hindleg is about to leave the ground. You will feel the back of your pelvis and bottom on the right side lift as that hindleg is going forward.

If you find difficult to feel the movement, then aim to feel the back of your left pelvis lift with the left hindleg as the front of your left pelvis is down. Don’t forget to move your arms with the movement of the neck, it moves forward a little as each foreleg goes forward (swing phase).

In the walk, the pelvis only moves about a centimeter. An extreme movement of the pelvis (bottom pushing) is a sign of a hollow back and a lack of connection, as well as symptomatic of a horse that is not forward.

Sitting trot can be the bane of our lives, especially if we have a problem with our position. In your walk/trot/walk transitions of eight steps, sit the little or rhythm trot – which feels a bit like a jog. Watch the outside front leg as it goes forward and touches the ground. Aim to keep that beat with the front of your outside seat bone (pelvis). Feel as if you are sitting on that diagonal.

Again, in the beginning, do not try to feel both forelegs, as it will make your body confused – just stick to one. When you are in synch with the beat, you will feel the hopping motion of the trot, and your body will follow that up and down and forward motion. It is then time to change the rein and onto the other diagonal.

Once you can feel the front of your pelvis in the sitting trot, you will be able to feel the lift of the opposite diagonal hindleg as it goes up and forward with your other seat bone and gluteal muscle. You will then find it easier to apply an aid in the swing phase of the foreleg or hindleg of the sitting trot. This is important when lengthening, shortening and turning.

This also helps in the development of the saying that the ‘outside rein controls speed’. In reality, it is both reins that control the speed, but the outside foreleg and inside hindleg can be targeted more effectively (with better timing) if you can feel your seat.

The canter is often the easiest as both forelegs are almost in the air at the same time and the hindlegs are also almost forward at the same time; it is like a rocking horse motion. You will feel the front of your hips elevate and touch the ground as you begin to feel the hindlegs come forward.

The problem with the canter is that we tend to move our shoulders forward as the hindlegs come forward, and it is the back of the pelvis and bottom muscles that need to feel the hindlegs. You may have to lean back with your shoulders to feel the hindlegs – they should move slightly backwards during the lift of the shoulders and at the end of the swing phase of the hindlegs.

Your arm motion needs to follow the forward and backward movement of the neck in the canter too.

The forward and backward movement of the pelvis and shoulders in the canter helps in the timing of the aids to lengthen and shorten. Lengthen as you feel the back of your pelvis go forward and, shorten as you feel the front of your pelvis go up, or when your shoulder’s are back. This helps to elevate the forehand and engage the hindquarters.

Although, I am mainly mentioning the forelegs in the swing phases with your posture and reins, the aid for shortening should not be released until you feel that the hindlegs have also shortened. Only then will you have control of the horse’s entire body and four legs – your horse will then be connected from back to front, and front to back and will feel square.

Learning to feel all four legs in all three gaits, will enable you to have better timing for the delivery of your aids.

Aim to shorten the stride evenly on both reins to feel all four legs shorten.

The running pair of legs (see previous articles on rhythm and straightness – parts 6 and 7) will have the effect of pushing (during the stance phase) or pulling (during the swing phase; the horse sideways). This can also happen when lengthening if he becomes irregular or uneven. In this case, target your lengthening aid to coincide with the shorter hindleg during or at the beginning of the swing phase.

Corners or turns and circles can be improved by feeling the lift of the inside foreleg as the first leg to turn – targeting your direct rein aid to that moment. The outside foreleg lifts and turns secondly, and this will be felt through the thigh and front of the outside seat bone.

In a leg yield, the control of the shoulders is felt through the front of the pelvis, whereas the back of the pelvis or gluteal muscles feels the yield of the hindlegs.

Moving forward

Contact of the reins, legs and seat allows you to develop more engagement. To do this, we need to be able to lengthen and shorten the stride without a loss of tempo and quicken or slow the tempo without a change in the length of stride. More about this and half halts next time.

To read Part 1 of this series click here.

To read Part 2 of this series click here.

To read Part 3 of this series click here.

To read Part 4 of this series click here

To read Part 5 of this series click here

To read Part 6 of this series click here

To read Part 7 of this series click here

To find out more about Equitation Science International and the work of Dr Andrew McLean and Manuela McLean, visit the ESI website.

Download the illustrated version of this article which includes helpful diagrams and images as a pdf file – click the link below.

Manuela McLean
Equitation Science International | Website

Manuela McLean is the wife of world renowned Equitation Scientist, Dr Andrew McLean. Together they authored “Horse Training the McLean Way” and more recently “Academic Horse Training”. With Andrew’s focus on training and Manuela’s focus on getting the message across to riders, they have developed a rider- and horse-centred systematic training of horses according to the principles of learning theory. Manuela’s specialty is improving the rider’s posture and balance to enhance the delivery of signals. Manuela trained Joanne Formosa and Worldwide PB in just 8 months, to win a gold medal at the London Paralympic Games in 2012.

She holds an NCAS Level 2 (Dressage Specialist), a BSc (Biology) and Dip Ed.

Dr Andrew McLean

Dr Andrew McLean brings together a rare combination of academic and equestrian achievement. In the early 1990’s Andrew determined to explore the science of horse training. He found very little was identified or described, leading to his PhD on the topic. A prolific author of books and journal papers on the science and ethics of horse training, he also represented Australia in Eventing, ridden to Grand Prix in Show-jumping and Grand Prix in dressage.

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