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.
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
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
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 own.
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
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
This article originally appeared in the April 2002 issue of