When I think of contact, in the context of riding a horse, I think of it in terms of the horse’s mouth, not in terms of arena rules or sporting expectations. In some arena sports the rider is expected to maintain a taut rein (called contact in that particular sport). They are even judged on their ability to maintain a pull on the horse’s mouth.
Horsemen Beware: Judges at many events are novice riders who have taken a couple of courses to certify them as judges.
Contact, simply means “to touch”, in some manner, either physically or otherwise communicatively. Terms that are commonly used in riding schools do not help with our understanding of what “contact” means to the horse. Here, I am thinking of terms such as “submit to the bit”, this term is often associated with the so called “English” style of riding. sometimes such terms are crass translation from other languages, particularly French or Spanish. The original writer may very well have meant something more like “recognize” or even “feel”.
The snaffle bit, in its various forms, is the most commonly used in both “English” and “Western” riding styles. The bit should never be pulled by both reins at the same time, yet under what has come to be often understood as “contact” that is precisely what is happening. When fitting the bit the bridle is conventionally adjusted to leave “two smile lines” on the horse’s lips. The fact that the horse’s lips are distorted by the pressure on the bit before the rider has even touched the reins is indicative of the beginning of other potential problems – for the horse.
After the rider picks up on both reins and pulls them taut, the bit forms a nut cracker action on the bars (gums) of the mouth. Yet the rider is oblivious, because “that’s the way it has always been done” and “that’s what the judges are looking for”. But are those reasons good enough? Perhaps we should revisit what has become the new normal, and return to the old ways:
Ray Hunt famously said “A horse is a very sensitive animal. He can feel a fly land on him. You folks who have been around horses know that because you put fly spray on him in the summertime. And yet when you ride him, you ride him like he doesn’t have any feeling. You ride him with a chain curb strap, a tie-down, martingale, wires, pulleys, and cables. Why? You’re destroying what Mother Nature put in there.”
Buck Brannaman, echoing his mentor, Ray Hunt, has often said “never in history has a troubled horse been fixed by pulling on by two reins”. A snaffle bit comes in many shapes and sizes, and not all snaffle bits are broken in the middle or have a French link. But the most commonly used snaffle bits are the loose ring snaffle and its variations, with a chain link in the middle.
Riders will seemingly obsess about the overall width of the bit, “should I have a 5” and 5-1/4” or a 5-1/2” bit?”, yet they never look inside the horse’s mouth to contemplate how wide the bars of the mouth are, it is, after all, the bars that are getting pulled on – pinching a cheek is much less of a problem, ask your horse.
Contact, on the bit, at the end of the day, in my view, occurs the moment you put the bit in the horse’s mouth, after that, unless you are asking for something in particular, which your horse either understands or should be helped to understand, you have no business puling on taut reins.