When you’re driving your carriage horse, contact equals communication. But I’m often asked, “How much is too much contact, and how little is too little.” The answer often depends on what it is that you’re doing with your horse.
For recreational carriage driving the level of your contact is less critical than it would be for Driven Dressage, Combined Driving or Pleasure Driving shows.
But the question of how much contact you should use goes beyond the specific activity your are doing with your horse. It can change within the course of a single workout. Instead of focusing on “How much contact should I have?” you should focus on “What is the most effective contact for that moment?”
Match Your Contact to the Moment
The right contact often changes throughout your drive. Watch the video here, then read on below.
Don’t forget to share your experiences and questions in the comment section below!
How Many Pounds?
This is the question I get asked all the time. “How many pounds of contact should I have in the reins?”
The answer is: “I HAVE NO CLUE!”
Let’s face it. Unless you have a job in which you are weighing various small objects all day long, it’s really hard to guess how much weight you’re using to move an object.
When I close my car door, I couldn’t even begin to guess how many pounds of force I have to draw on the handle. I know it’s “light.” When I sit in my truck, I know there is a difference in the amount of force I have to use to pull the door closed. The truck door is “heavy.”
Contact on a Scale
The more useful way to discuss contact is on a 0-10 scale.
“0” would represent zero contact with your horse. There is no connection between your hand and the horse’s bit. The reins are loose and sloppy, and your horse is just kind of doing his own thing out there.
“10” would be as much weight as you can possibly carry in the reins for more than 5 minutes at a time. This doesn’t really include the peak pulls that you might make if a horse bolts. It’s the maximum sustained contact that you can manage, and still be able to provide some sort meaningful communication on the reins.
That scale will be a little different from one driver to the next. While “0” contact will be the same for everyone, the medium and high numbers will differ. My “10” may be beyond the scale for a mini driver, but only represent about a “7” to someone who drives hitch horses.
Most people’s comfort zone for driving is their own version of between a 4-6 level of contact. Their personal “median contact” is where they have a good feel for feedback from the horse, and can communicate their requests upon the reins as they drive.
It’s Not Static
As I explained in my post, “Finding Stillness,” your hands should be seeking to flow with your horse in that median contact. You don’t “hold” a contact of 5, you carry it.
But, that’s still not dynamic enough to really accomplish your goals with your horse. The level of contact that you are carrying will have to match the driving that you are engaged in. That level of contact will usually have to change throughout your drive.
At the very beginning of the drive, you’ll probably work on a fairly loose rein. As you warm your horse up, the contact may build to a moderate level, such as a 4 or 5 out of 10. As your work intensifies, the contact may intensify as well, perhaps to a 6 or 7.
As things start to come together for you and your horse, quality of contact begins to improve and take over from the quantity of contact. You’ll likely be able to get more communication with less contact. So the contact may drop back down to a 3 or 4, but what you’re able to communicate in that range is far more detailed the contact of the same level in the warmup.
When you accomplished almost everything you think you can accomplish when you’re in the flow state, you should quit while you’re ahead. You and your horse will learn more by stopping when you’re doing things right, than when things start to go wrong.
As you enter the cool-down phase of your work, your contact will probably toggle between moderately firm contact to very light contact. The firm contact will be used to guide the horse down into a quieter tempo, and the lightness can be used to encourage him to stretch.
The Right Contact For You
Don’t worry about trying to achieve some theoretical “correct” level of contact. What you are seeking is the most effective level of contact for you and your horse to communicate with one another. That will change from activity to the next, and will change over time you and your grow into new skills.
Think about the contact that you and your horse or pony currently share. How would you describe that contact on a scale of 0-10? Does it change with different driving conditions, or over the course of a drive?
If you have more than one pony driving, do they have similar or very differing needs for contact?
Share your experience and questions in the comment section below.
I would like to get some on line coaching for driving a section A welsh i am a beginner
I was very lucky growing up; my parents owned Standardbreds and I got to drive them!
I learned that the phrase “light hands” didn’t describe what was going on. Much more accurate was “soft, sympathetic hands.” And they taught me talk to them by flexes and bumps, not really by pulls. Much like what you describe. Thanks, and take care! JSA
Wonderful video and explanations, thank you for sharing with us! This helps me so much in future shows
Watching from Michigan. Complete beginner to driving. Lucky enough to have friends that drive on Mackinac Island. Playing with my Arabian gelding and Dutch Saddlebred. Trying to learn as much as I can. Thank you!
Thanks for joining us here. Have fun with those horses!
Thank You Andy from Fort St John, BC Canada.
I am a riding coach and teaching a lesson without contact or with too much is easy….
Teaching feel is hard.
Indeed it is!
One of my exercises for getting people to tune into feel is to either close their eyes (when we’re in a safe place to do so) or look more than 90º away from the carriage. It helps people ignore what they see, and pay attention to what they feel.