Need help ?

Technique Dressage : The quality of contact


Discover the fundamental role of contact in dressage and how it contributes to the harmony and communication between rider and horse. Learn about the indicators of good contact, such as balance, suppleness, and equal rein tension. Explore techniques for improving the quality of contact through exercises that promote balance, engagement, and acceptance of the aids. Gain insights into assessing and refining contact through exercises that allow for variations in contact intensity and the horse's response. Understand the significance of the rider's position, nuancing the reins, and the horse's self-carriage in achieving a harmonious connection. Enhance your dressage journey by developing a refined and responsive contact that fosters trust, communication, and partnership with your horse.

Camille Judet Cheret is a french Grand Prix rider and trainer. Thanks to her 5 European Championships, 1 World Championship and 6 French Champion's title, she has developped a strong dressage expertise. 

Each month, she writes an article called Technique Dressage in the french magazine Grand Prix. This is a translation of the french paper.


The Importance of Contact in Dressage: Achieving Harmony and Communication


The Quality of Contact: A Fundamental Principle of Dressage


One of the essential foundations of dressage lies in the quality of contact without resistance, an indispensable element that should never be overlooked during training. The quality of contact is part of the goals and principles of dressage, as analyzed in the Progression Scale updated by the French Equestrian Federation in 2014. Contact is defined as the "relationship that exists between the horse's mouth and the rider's hand when the reins are adjusted. It should be an expression of a confident, stable, symmetrical, and supple connection."


It can be described as a connection, a line of communication that starts from the horse's mouth and extends to the rider's hand, a conversation between the horse and its rider. "The contact should come from the energy of the hindquarters transmitted to the hand through a supple back, with the horse seeking contact with the hand while maintaining a supple neck and poll. Pulling on the reins to correct the contact has the effect of blocking the back and counteracting the activity generated from the hindquarters." The challenge lies in reconciling the concepts of contact and lightness without artificially forcing them. The rider should never seek to create lightness in the horse through excessive actions with their hands. On the contrary, they should create the necessary conditions for the horse to find stability in a consistent contact.


The Balance of Lightness and Weight Distribution in Contact


According to Isabelle Judet, a 5* international judge, "the horse must trust the rider's hand, which, through contact, accompanies and reassures the horse, like the hand of an adult closed around that of a child, guiding step by step." Lightness should not be associated with a release of rein tension by the rider but should result from balance, weight distribution onto the hindquarters, and support obtained when the horse is engaged and collected. The quality of contact cannot be dissociated from the overall functioning of the horse. According to Alain Francqueville, a 4* international judge, it is necessary to convey a less localized notion of contact and describe it rather as a result of tension through the back. As this tension is elastic, it allows for a "correspondence" from the hindquarters to the forehand. "The term 'connexion' should reflect the muscular harmony of the horse." Alain Francqueville explains that "if the hindquarters-to-forehand connexion is good, then the horse should be able to push its spinal column up to the neck above the bit."


Isabelle Judet explains that "lightness is the product of the distribution of the horse's weight between its hindquarters and forehand. Imagine a balance scale with two pans: balance is achieved when there is an equal distribution of weight. If a horse has too strong a contact, the primary objective should not be to make it pull less but to gradually change the weight distribution toward the hindquarters."


How to recognize a good contact


A good contact is lively, neither too heavy nor too light, with reins that are neither too loose nor too tight. It is equal in both hands, although flexion or bending may slightly and temporarily modify this perfect balance. The Progression Scale lists four indicators for assessing the good contact of a horse:


"A horse that confidently seeks contact with the nose slightly in front of the vertical."

"A calm and relaxed mouth allowing for a soft and light contact."

"A supple neck, which generally represents the highest point of the neck."

"A neck that easily adapts its position according to the length of the strides."


These indicators serve as a guide to evaluate and maintain a harmonious and effective contact between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth. It is important to strive for a balanced and responsive connection that allows for communication and harmony throughout the dressage training process.


Improving the Quality of Contact


The rider must first and foremost demonstrate great discipline in their position: fingers closed around the reins, wrists aligned with the forearms, palms facing each other, and thumbs above. By consistently maintaining this position, simple exercises can be used to work on the overall balance of the horse while refining the contact. This includes transitions between and within gaits, which can be utilized limitlessly.


During a conference organized by British Dressage in November 2012, Olympic champion Carl Hester explained that by asking the horse to alternate between longer and shorter strides while maintaining or even increasing the activity of the hind legs, the rider encourages the horse to maintain its neck and balance. The use of numerous volte movements, particularly in canter, while maintaining activity and rhythm, also encourages the horse to improve its balance, engage its entire body, and thereby produce a higher quality of contact. The same applies to lateral work, starting with leg-yield exercises, which help to supple the horse's back while ensuring acceptance of the rider's aids.


By incorporating these exercises into training sessions, riders can gradually enhance the horse's suppleness, balance, and acceptance of the aids. This, in turn, leads to a more refined and consistent contact between the rider's hand and the horse's mouth, contributing to the overall development of a harmonious partnership.


Assessing the Quality of Contact


The rider should be able to adjust the intensity of the contact at will and obtain an immediate response from the horse. To ensure the rider's ability to reduce the contact to a minimum, the International Equestrian Federation and the French Equestrian Federation have included two key exercises in their dressage tests. The first exercise involves advancing the hands and breaking the contact, while the horse must maintain its posture and gait with visibly relaxed reins. The second exercise, on the contrary, requires the rider to allow the reins to slip, prompting the horse to stretch forward and downward while still seeking and maintaining contact, regardless of the rein length.


These exercises serve as valuable tools to assess the horse's understanding and obedience to the rider's aids, as well as the rider's ability to communicate effectively through the reins. They also test the horse's self-carriage and balance, as it learns to maintain its posture and connection with the rider's hand even when the reins are lengthened or contact is momentarily released. By incorporating these exercises into their training routine, riders can evaluate and refine the quality of contact, ensuring a responsive and harmonious partnership with their horse.