What does contact mean to you? Whatever your answer, it may mean something very different to your horse – when you first walk out to the pasture or into the barn to commence your exercise you will make “eye contact” with your horse. Most likely your horse made some form of sensory contact with you long before you even saw where he was in the field or which stall he was in.
Horses are very environmentally aware and extremely sensitive to all forms of sensory stimulus. Their mouths are soft and their lips are used to feel and select food items they intend to eat. It has been said that a horse can feel a fly land on its hide during a thunderstorm.
Our reins are intended to be communication devices, they allow us to communicate our intentions gently, hopefully, through one of the most sensitive parts of the horse, its mouth. If we held our reins so that they were in a straight line between our hands and the horse’s mouth then we fed out about eighteen inches of each rein the bit would still have “contact” with the horse’s mouth and if you have developed good communication with your horse you might elicit an appropriate response simply by picking up the reins as little as a few inches.
Now don’t misunderstand the point of this discussion – I am not suggesting that we leave so much slack in the reins when we are riding that we couldn’t get short if we really needed to. The point is that we don’t need to pull on the horse’s mouth to have contact.
When riding with a snaffle bit I like to keep my hands forward so that there a drop of about 2-3 inches from a straight line between my hands and the bit. With my hands forward, I can get short if I have to, but the horse gets relief from a constant pulling sensation in its mouth and can more easily distinguish between me providing a cue and just moving my hands around to adjust my grip on the reins. I find that carrying the reins in the manner allows my horse to work off a lighter signal.
Try this exercise:
Sitting still on your horse holding both reins evenly in one hand point the index finger of your left hand towards the ground and place it inside the left rein, slowly extend your left arm until it is straight but still touching the inside of the rein. Then slowly and very gently make a circle to your left keeping your arm locked straight, as soon as your horse moves its nose, even the slightest bit towards your hand release. Then repeat, each time aiming to be softer and gentler with your movement, until your horse will turn its head easily and softly, and willingly, to at least 45 degrees to the left. You cannot possibly waste enough time doing this type of drill.