Keys to a light-mouthed horse. Part 3

What does contact really mean?

A happy mouth isn’t dependent on loose, “skipping rope” reins. A supple connection to your horse’s lips is a connection to your horse’s attention – he’s tuned-in to each message you transmit. Moreover, contact affords a connection to your horse’s legs. As you generate and funnel energy with your legs and seat into elastic contact, your horse’s body is round and ready to respond, like a coiled spring

 “Soft contact” is the standard set in most equine association rule books. As a judge, I’m required to penalize lack of contact in equitation and some western classes.

Of course, rein contact varies across riding disciplines. Western riders operating with leverage bits will have more visible rein relaxation as shanks return to neutral. Nevertheless, as AQHA horsemanship rules specify, “reins are adjusted for light contact with the horse’s mouth. At no time shall reins require more than slight hand movement to control the horse.”

Neutral rein contact is an amount your horse doesn’t recognize as a signal – think of child’s hand resting in her father’s as they walk to the mailbox. The aid happens when Dad squeezes the child’s hand to cross the street or to guide around something yucky on the sidewalk.

A bit about bits

Most horse people have collected a tack box of bits in the quest or to solve every bit evasion. Fat snaffles, plastic mouthpieces, bits labelled “happy’ or “humane” and naturally, going bitless, are answers and anecdotes for a kinder solution.

 When meeting a rider in a clinic or for a lesson, I typically ask why they’ve chosen their bit or tack.  Responses vary: it’s the bit that came with horse when I bought him; it’s what everyone’s using;  honestly, I just like the look of it.

Technology allows researchers to peek inside the equine mouth, noting movements of the bit in relation to the horse’s tongue, teeth and palate.  Now, with a wealth of evidence available to us, we can make wiser bit choices – by analysis, not accident.

Before heading to the tack store for a different bit, ask yourself:

  • Does my horse completely grasp my system of signals and associated responses?
  • Am I delivering my message skillfully?
  • Do I understand the mechanics of how this bit works and on which parts of the horse’s mouth?

 If the answer is yes to these questions, only then explore a different choice of bit.

Stepping up the bit level for a horse who hasn’t mastered the basics, is only amplifying signals he doesn’t fully understand. It’s is like using a megaphone to communicate a foreign language. Louder isn’t clearer – it’s just scarier.  Regardless of the bit, our ultimate goal is to use a whisper – the lightest of pressures.

Bits have found their way out of stable tack rooms into the idioms of common culture: Chomping at the bit, clenching the bit and stiff-necked paint a powerful picture in literature and evoke emotion in art. But they’re not the picture we hope for in our horse and rider partnerships.