August 2, 2020

I received a question about contact in a bosal.
My answer below explains my thoughts on contact in a bosal OR BIT,  with an exercise for you to try.


I practice Californio/Vaquero style horsemanship where the horse transitions from hackamore (bosal), through the two-rein (bosalita with signal bit), to bridle (signal bit only). Neither Hackamore/bosalita nor signal bit are meant to be ridden with constant contact. Rather, it's OK to have reins just a smidge away from contact, but only want to engage the bosal/bosalita/bit fully for a moment.

Some in WE (Working Equitation) seem fine with this; some want more contact that may be inconsistent with the Californio/Vaquero style. Any recommendations for reconciling the differences in style? Does interpretation of "contact" differ between judges?
Duv Cardenas


This is a great question as it spans the disciplines. The answer will also apply to bitless bridles, and even western and English riders who ride with a snaffle or a bit.

I am quite familiar with the training of a bridle horse. Almost on contact is important, especially when training for a specific movement. It steadies the bosal on the horse. Especially if no fiador (throatlatch) is used. And it allows for minimal movement of the rider's hand to relay the message.

Constant contact on a bosal, as tends to be practiced with a snaffle bit, deadens the nose and gets a horse pulling on you. 
Hmm, I think I've seen that happen in a snaffle bit too.

I remember being asked at a clinic, can you have contact without pressure? There was a large group of us and after much discussion, all agreed it was probably not possible. No matter how light, there would be pressure.

Then the clinician asked if you can you have pressure without contact. Immediately most of the people there said No.
As is common at clinics in North America, just about everyone there was female.

Next the clinician said, imagine you are a in a dark alley in a big city late at night and hear someone near you. Now can you feel pressure without contact? All the heads nodded vigorously.

So what does this have to do with our question? 

Pressure on a horse can be applied in three ways. By pulling, pushing or blocking. Even at liberty. So, if we can have pressure without contact, do we need contact?

In western riding we often see what appears to be no contact in the traditional sense. And in English riding, a lot of contact. And yet in both disciplines, horses can be brought to the highest level.

Certain equipment, as Duv pointed out in her question, is not designed to operate with a consistent contact. Used in this way it can cause the opposite reaction to what we wanted.

But, that also depends on your definition of contact.

Traditionally your bosal and mecate(reins) sizes are matched to each other. This gives the equipment a good balance and release of pressure.

This picture is of a bosal on full contact.

The picture at the top of the grey horse is an example of a bosal in full release.

The bosal works both on the rocking on the nose and the signal of the cheek pieces. If it's already full on, there's nowhere to go.

The same can be said of the vaquero bridle bits, rein-chains and romel. They were designed to work together to give the bit good balance and feel, without the need for a consistent contact.

When the horse starts to stray, the contact is increased by removing slack from the reins. If enough slack is removed it creates a block. But, first there is a signal, which often creates the response we want even before the slack is fully out of the reins.

If you have trouble imagining this, think about two kids with a skipping rope. One can be standing there holding the end of the rope, but as soon as the other kid lifts it free of the ground, the first one can feel it. There is a contact between the two kids, through the skipping rope.

Now, back to the three pressures. Pulling, Pushing and Blocking.

When rein contact is applied, it should be as a blocking pressure. Either blocking excess forward or unwanted bend.

This means, we don't pull right to go right, but instead, we shape the horse's body, with our body and legs, and the left rein allows the horse to turn right. It's actually a release or lightening of contact. 

Any pull back on the reins interferes with one or both of the horses hind-legs coming forward, underneath them.

When we use a steady pull on a horse, we trigger their natural response to move in to pressure. We remind them they can pull on us.

My definition of contact is that it 'can' be as light as having enough slack out of your reins that the horse notices when you change itThere is enough blocking pressure used, when needed, to contain and direct the energy created in the body. Using no more or no less than necessary, for as short a time as you can. 

@trishhyatt Contact can be as light as taking some slack out of your reins. There is blocking pressure if needed. No more or no less than necessary, for as short a time as you can.   Question: Contact in a Bosal or Bit

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Now that doesn't mean that between moments of contact I'm throwing the reins away. If they are too loose there's a lot of noise. As Duv pointed out, you need to be 'just a smidge away from contact' so you are ready to continue the conversation.


You can see here in this video that contact was increased 2 steps before B with a slight lift on the reins. The horse answered by softening and rounding. But then the rider released the rein by moving the hand forward, and leaning forward, into the trot.

The horse hollowed and pulled itself in to trot, rather than lifting and pushing itself in to trot. It happens pretty quick so I slowed it down and froze it at the moment of lift.

This is the kind of feedback you can get on your videos in the  Working Equitation Mastery Online Program.

But whether you're in a bosal, or a snaffle, holding a steady contact is going to give them something to push on. What you need instead is a repetition of the request, the half-halt. In time with the the horses movement, before and throughout the transition.

More thoughts on Contact:

Regarding the question, it's possible that the interpretation of contact 'might' differ between judges. And that some are not familiar with Californio/Vaquero style horsemanship. But what Judges are really assessing is 'how' the horse is going relative to an ideal image for the level being shown.

Contact in itself is not a requirement of Working Equitation. But it is necessary in much of the training. We need to be able to shape the horse's body to achieve a good working balance with weight equally on all 4 feet. And sometimes more weight on the hind feet.
But never more weight on the front feet which is how they naturally travel.

I believe everybody should learn how to ride with all the slack out of the reins and follow the movement. It teaches you to be soft with your arms.

Whether you plan to ride later with no slack, or some slack, following with your arms will be necessary.  If you don't follow, the horse will feel the difference. Practicing on contact is a good test of your ability to follow the movement. 

@trishhyatt Everyone should learn to follow the horse with the reins.  If you don't, the horse will feel the difference. Practicing on contact is a good test of your ability to follow. Working Equitation Simplified  Question: Contact in a Bosal or Bit

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Even in a hackamore this can be done. Lift the heel knot slightly away from the chin groove and see if you can maintain it with the opening and closing of your elbows. See if you can not rock the bosal except those moments when you intentionally rock the bosal for a cue.

And the same applies in a snaffle or shanked bit. Can you follow the movement so closely that there is no interference, no miscue?

At the trot, the head stays still relative to the saddle, but any movement of your body will require movement of your arm to compensate.

And  at the walk and canter, there's definitely movement of the neck and head that you have to absorb.

When you can you follow the movement so closely that there is no interference, no miscue, then the tiniest of cues can be noticed by the horse as a change.

Sometimes the horse needs more contact, like a childs bike needs training wheels.

To show them what's possible.

 But it needs to be a contact that is applied as needed, to get the job done, and then lightened up to a following contact.

With certain headgear and reins, the pressure can be felt through the equipment from a distance, like the skipping rope. And that can be sufficient.

Confusion occurs when someone is told there is insufficient contact and thinks it means they need more slack out of the reins. 
And that may be so.
But what determines insufficient contact varies from horse to horse.

What it really means is there wasn't enough contact, in whatever manner, for the horse to perform their job as well as they should. In the balance expected, for their level of training.

They may need more block, a more consistent following contact, or better timing in the application of the aid. Or a combination of these.

So if you are told you don't have enough contact, look at how your horse is going. Ask yourself, can I improve how my horse performs, by improving some aspect of my contact. Whether that is consistency, quality or timing.

Can I do that in the equipment I am riding in, or do I need a change of equipment while the horse learns their job?

Now back to the comment I made about "Constant contact as practiced with a snaffle bit deadens the nose (mouth) and gets a horse pulling on you."

I'm not suggesting you shouldn't ride a snaffle on contact. But I am suggesting that it can be a lot lighter than we think it can.

It takes two to play tug-of-war.

Close your eyes, feel the mouth, work on maintaining a consistent following contact. One that does not get stronger or weaker unintentionally.
The horse needs to understand what is a cue and what is a release.
If they have to guess they will either get annoyed, or more commonly, ignore it. Then we get stronger, and so do they.

Regardless of the headgear. If your horse is not listening, try to do less.
Feel the movement they generate, and work with their timing.

As we teach in the "Working Equitation Mastery" program, there is a perfect moment to cue the horse. And it's the only moment they can respond.
 We need to be ready to catch that moment.

What do you think about Contact?
You can Share your thoughts below.

Here's some additional homework your horse will appreciate.

Following hands exercise - No horse needed

 You will need a snaffle type (non-leverage) bit with a comfortable set of reins, and a friend.

  1. Stand facing each other with one of you holding the bit by the rings, and the other holding the reins like you're riding two handed.
  2. Both of you close your eyes. because you will feel more that way.
  3. The one with the bit starts to move their hands away from and toward themselves, like they would feel if they were riding except they are creating the movement instead of the horse.
  4. The second person, with the reins, follows that movement. Absorbs the rein as it is given and follows it back as it is taken with relaxed shoulders and elbows.

The goal is to maintain the same feel at all times.

The person with the bit, gives feedback to their 'rider'

Here's some questions to ask yourself

  • Is one side heavier than the other? Is there a loss of contact?
  • Is the rider absorbing the reins, or pulling them?
  • What else do you notice?

When the contact feels pretty good, the 'rider' can try things like rising trot.

  • Are they as good as they were, with the contact?
  • What changed?
  • At what point does it change?
  • What is magnified?
  • What happens to the feel in the bit if the rider clenches their toes? 

You CAN learn how to improve your horse's skills from online courses and tips such as these.
But only if you implement.

So when you read my articles write down the steps as a reminder for what you're going to try in your next ride.
Take them to the barn and try them out.
Come on back when you're done and let me know how it went.

What did you discover as the rider, or feel as the horse? 
Did you make up some  other 'tests' to try?

Before you go to the next article,
I'd love to read your comments and answer your questions below.

Switching Hands in Working Equitation

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About the author 

Trish Hyatt

International Coach and Clinician
National and International Top 10 Competitor
Technical Delegate and Judge of Working Equitation (retired)

Trish's superpower is the ability to give you and your horse what you need, in a way that you understand, so each horse and rider makes progress and knows what they need to work on.

She puts her many skills to use introducing the international discipline of Working Equitation to riders eager to improve their partnership with their horse, with a focus on fun, classical horsemanship and use of the horse for practical work or as cross-training for other disciplines.

  • Interesting view as regards curling the toes with my horse it is a signal to him to stop and he does it nicely and no movement form anywhere else.

    • When one thing tightens, it affects other parts of the body. Which is what your human partner will feel in the reins if you clench your toes.
      And what your horse has noticed as well.

      People don’t always notice that the horse is responding to a (what seems an unrelated) change in our body, because they over-ride the blocking action that happened, with a go cue.

      Good for you, and your horse, being able to use that subtle of an aid.

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    Switching Hands in Working Equitation