By Morag Higgins WESI MRPCH BHSAI BscES
All equestrians will know this word and it immediately conjures up an image of taking up the reins and putting a tension on the horses’ mouth. This tension varies from the slightest pressure to making the horse “smile” with the pull involved.
However, contact means far more than this and should be applied in many more situations. How we communicate with each other, with our horses, even with inanimate objects. You will have met that person who shakes your hand crushing every bone and making you grimace and brace, likewise you may have had the “wet fish” handshake that can make you shudder inside and lose interest in the person immediately. Then you may have had the good firm handshake that does not hurt but immediately instils attention and gives you confidence in the other person. This is very much how the horse feels when you make initial contact with him.
If we then apply this concept with picking up an object, such as a fragile piece of glass for example. If we grip it too tightly it will break and shatter, if we don’t hold it firmly enough it will fall from our grasp and break. We have to apply just enough pressure to keep the object safe from harm both from ourselves and from the floor! Think carefully about how you behave around inanimate objects. Do you for example close doors quietly but firmly? Perhaps you are a door slammer, not caring if the poor thing bounces off its hinges or swings back to clatter against the wall. Or do you insipidly nudge the door which never makes it to the door frame and instead stops half way neither open or shut? How we act around objects, how we present ourselves in our day to day movements is a clear indicator of how we would make initial contact with either a person or our horse.
Contact does not mean just picking up the reins. How we approach our horse when we catch them can set the horse up to be bracey or to be soft and willing. The very act of approaching and putting on the headcollar means a lot to the horse. If you creep up to them and muddle about with the headcollar, not quite putting it on their heads clearly, creeping up their noses and fussing about their ears as you sneak the headstrap over does not instil confidence or respect from you horse. There is a fine line between being gentle and being indecisive and your horse would like to be following a decisive leader. Depending on your horse’s personality will determine whether they pull away and wander off because clearly you are not making the decisions or if they follow you in anyway because they know their dinner is waiting and they have to put up with you to get there, they will probably be shoving you out of the way, moving you around and walking over you because again you are not making any real decisions.
Then you have the rougher approach, you march up to your horse, shove the headcollar on, scraping it up their nose, catching them in the eye with the straps, flicking the headpiece over and slapping them on the side of the head or in the eye, then pulling them about as you lead them up the field. This says quite clearly to the horse that you don’t really care if you hurt them or not or if they get hurt. The horse is looking for a leader to keep him safe and they may well be reluctant to follow in case they get into more trouble. Some might nervously keep up but be on edge to defend themselves because clearly you don’t seem to care.
Then you get the quiet but direct approach. The headcollar is held open and offered to the horse to put their nose through the noseband. The headpiece is gently guided over their heads and fastened smoothly and calmly. The horse is then invited to follow up the field in a calm and respectful manner. This is quite clear to the horse that you are making the decisions but you will also look after them and you care about how they feel or if they get hurt. This will create a horse who is soft and relaxed and willing to follow. This is good initial contact.
We should continue to think about how we have contact with our horses in everything we do, when we groom, how we tack up and even how we get on our horses. In all our actions we need to be clear, confident and careful not to hurt the horse. Think about how you act around your horse and think about how they act around you. It may be that you need to change your initial contact to allow the horse to change theirs and become less bracey. Being softer in our contact and working with the lightest feel can help the horse lose their brace and work lighter for the human. Asking your horse to move over, do you push, shove and nip him to get him to move, to you lightly touch him or do you stand and aimlessly wave in the general direction you hope he will stumble into? How the horse moves around you in the stable is generally a good indication about how they are feeling inside about everything and it is a good way for you to assess how you may need to change to help this horse get it right.
When tacking up try very hard to place the saddle onto the back gently, not thump it down or slide it up and shove it over as you lose balance and fall into your horse’s side. Put the bridle on carefully, ask the horse to lower his head so that you don’t clank the bit off of his teeth, gently push his ears through the headband and take time to sort out his mane and make sure the bridle is even and comfortable on his head. All this must be done with a confident but gently feel from your hand, not insipid or wishy washy nor harsh and rough.
Mounting is one of the easiest ways to make a horse difficult to ride. We have all met the horse who will not stand still or waits till you have one leg in the stirrup and then swings away from the mounting block or wanders off. A rider who carelessly digs his toe into the horse’s side and thumps down on their back will quickly make this horse difficult to mount as they will feel they need to get out of the area fast to defend themselves. Likewise a rider who dilly dallies and isn’t clear about whether the horse stands, or makes sure the horse is standing balanced, will find that the horse, either for pure entertainments sake or because they are bored and want to find something interesting to do, will begin to wander off or will play the chase me with the mounting block game. Teaching a horse to stand to be mounted is one of the most important training tasks that any horse owner must do. Do not chase the horse with the mounting block, make it clear that they must come to you and line up standing quietly. If they move you do not get angry, you do not get frustrated, you remain calm and set them up again, even if this means you take as long as it takes to get it right. This might be your training session for the evening and if you persevere you will prevent years of annoyance building up in both you and the horse. When you do mount it must be done controlled and carefully, making sure you don’t dig you toe in, thump down in the saddle or snatch at the horse with the reins.
All of the above is contact, not just the picking up of the reins. When it does come to picking up the reins then do so in the same manner as the fragile glass object. Firm enough to keep his mouth safe and soft enough not to harm it. You will find that often if you soften the horse will soften too and this is the beginning of working together in harmony. It might take some time, you will have ups and downs and it won’t all go smoothly, but if you make it part of your daily routine to start doing things as quietly, carefully but clearly as you can to get the job done then it will impact not only on your horse but on your relationships with other people. Try, it, even for one day, see if you can make a difference and see if people react to you differently. Remember, how you make initial contact will determine how things will progress.