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Harmony is born out of a genuine empathy for the horse and a compassionate awareness of the mental and physical impact of the work on the horse.



Contact: What it is, How to Create it, How to Improve it.

by Tonja Dausend © 2006


Contact with the bit is a soft, elastic connection between the horse and rider which allows for communication. It is based on mutual participation of both the horse and rider. Forward energy causes the horse to offer contact, which the rider receives and directs.

In order to more effectively communicate with the horse, the rider must have the right frame of mind coupled with sufficient balance and coordination.

Assuming these conditions are met, the rider can then help the horse settle into his natural, relaxed swinging tempo and accept the work.

The foundation for correct contact is set in the warm up which is essentially a brief overview of the training scale (see below), starting from the beginning of the horse’s training and working up to the horse’s current ability.

The warm up begins by 'walking on the buckle’ until the horse is relaxed, his muscles are loose, he is breathing more deeply and he is physically and mentally ready to begin work.

Amy demonstrating 'walk on the buckle'

The warm up should begin on a deliberately sized and placed circle and progresses to figure 8’s or other school figures, as the horse is ready. Appropriately sized circles* can help regulate the tempo. As the horse settles into his natural tempo, his legs swing forward in RHYTHM as pendulums and he often lets out a deep sigh. The objective at this stage is to encourage the horse’s energies to swing freely forward. Simply meandering aimlessly around the school does not help the focus for either horse or rider.

A nice deep sigh is often a sign that the horse is relaxed and can be sent more energetically forward without loosing his rhythm and RELAXATION. When the horse is balanced and relaxed to the point that he takes longer, fuller strides in response to the driving aids, his hind legs send rippling waves of energy forward through his spine, through his forehand and out his neck and poll.  This causes the horse to extended his head and neck forward and down toward the bit. The horse stretches forward though his whole spine, offering the rider CONTACT with the bit. This is the preliminary stage of suppleness that, as contact is carefully developed, will blossom into a more advanced form of suppleness. This classical approach to contact lays a solid foundation for advanced work.

Click here to play video of transition from 'walk on the buckle' to contact.

If the horse does not relax and reach for the bit, it may be a sign that there are other factors involved. The horse may be uncomfortable due to ill-fitting tack, sore muscles, rider imbalance, extreme crookedness, etc. Comfort issues of the horse must be addressed before progress can be made.

The rider can then begin receiving the contact that the horse offers, being careful not to create tension or stiffness in the horse (which would suppress the horse’s reaching attitude). It’s very important that the contact doesn’t develop into a crutch. If the horse finds support in the rider’s hand, he will not learn to carry himself in independent balance. If the rider refuses to provide any support for the horse, he will have to carry himself in his own natural posture and balance. In the beginning, the contact is a ‘following’ type of contact. If the horse becomes tense then the rider must start over and reestablish the reaching attitude. When the horse is ready, a little work in the walk on contact can begin, or work in the trot on contact (for horses new to dressage, work simply on developing basic following contact in response to the forward driving aids). As in the walk, if the horse is rushing in the trot, some appropriately sized circles will help the horse slow down. Then, various school figures can be used as needed to develop the horse’s balance further. The size and shape of the school figures depends on the horse’s needs.

Some horses have legs that swing every which way – like wind chimes blowing in the wind. The goal at this stage is to improve STRAIGHTNESS so that the horse’s legs become more evenly loaded and swinging more correctly forward. Rider position, rhythm, relaxation, contact and straightness are all interconnected. Improving one element will often improve the others to a certain degree. Likewise, when one is out of kilter, the others will also suffer.

If the work has gone well up to this point, the horse will freely allow the rider to direct its energies. Lateral exercises can then be used to straighten and strengthen the horse even more. This improves the even loading of his legs still further and helps develop IMPULSION.



Accurate, well-ridden circles are a wonderful tool to help the horse find its balance and tempo. Smaller circles slow the horse down and relieve the rider of over-dependence on the reins.

Think in terms of turning the horse’s body or turning the horse by its withers without bending the neck. Especially avoid bending the horse at the base of the neck! Steering the horse by pulling it into the turn with the inside rein and bending its neck will only further disrupt the horse’s balance.

It is important that the circle is the right size for the horse, and that the rider sticks with the circle long enough so the horse can settle into it. The sameness of the circle relaxes the horse’s mind. It almost has a hypnotic affect on the horse. With some horses it might help to think of the circle as being a series of mini turns (for example, think “turn, release, turn, release” at each quarter point of the circle). This prevents the rider from holding the horse in the turn. As the horse eases into the work, the tempo will slow. The circle can gradually be enlarged as the horse is able to maintain its balance.

Some horses will improve their balance and tempo within a few circles. Others may need to be ridden on many more circles. It is important to change directions every few circles and give the horse frequent breaks. Keep in mind that repetitive small circles can be taxing on the horse's joints, so don’t overdo it.

The following books have more detailed information about the Classical approach to contact :

Dressage Riding, by Richard Watjen

Horsemanship, by Waldemar Seunig

The Rider Forms the Horse, by Udo Burger and Otto Zietzschmann

Dressage Formula, by Erik Herbermann

A Horseman’s Notes, by Erik Herbermann


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last updated July, 2009