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.
By Joy Congdon
FEI rider Tom Noone shows a horse stepping with good energy.
© Carole MacDonald
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?
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
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.