The Role of Contact

I’ve been doing some fall clean-up work around Willowtrail Farm, including skidding with one of my ponies.  An article I’ve just written for Drivers Digest Magazine has been on my mind while I’ve been working. (1)  The article is about my friend and colleague Doc Hammill’s Gentle Horsemanship.  In particular, I’ve been pondering the rhythmic pressure-release driving system Doc advocates, and I’ve been trying to put it into practice with my skid pony.  I wouldn’t recommend learning when skidding; it’s much easier if you’re riding in a cart or wagon rather than walking behind.  Fortunately Torrin and I have been working together so long that he’s amenable to some experimentation while we work.

I love when several seemingly disparate topics converge.  My first dressage lesson, for instance, converged with reading I’d been doing about wild horse herds.  Now Doc’s driving system converges with both of those as well as the Game of Contact that Linda Parelli has developed for higher levels of riding. (2) They all are based on the fact that horses are in constant communication with each other, and for humans to be the ultimate partners for our equines, we must strive for constant communication, too.

When we’re driving, the only contact we have with our horses is via the bit.  It makes sense, then, to want to take maximum advantage of that situation while at the same time respecting our relationship with our horse.  Doc contrasts his driving system with loose rein driving or constant pressure driving.  Instead he talks about a rhythmic massage of the horse’s mouth via the bit that with skill becomes a way to communicate not only about our constant presence but also about speed, direction and anticipating changes.

From experience I know that how the lines are handled is something horses pay attention to.  In an article I wrote for Rural Heritage magazine about horsemanship, I tell a story about having someone else take Torrin’s lines from me and not being able to get him to drive. (3)  Horses know who is on the lines and when there’s been a change.  I also have come to understand that Torrin prefers me to be on the lines at all times, rather than letting them go slack.  He likes the constant communication, and he does seem intrigued by my use of Doc’s system so far.  Doc has been able to help many students overcome problems with their horses by having them use his rhythmic pressure-release system.

When I first heard about Linda Parelli’s Game of Contact, it wasn’t a light bulb going off; it was like an explosion.  A bit in a horse’s mouth shouldn’t be about gross communication; very refined information exchange is possible.  For people interested in classical riding and dressage, the Game of Contact can help get past many problems, from short strides to being off the vertical.  It’s easier to see than imagine; a video by Amy Book-Bowers offers a great illustration of the changes that are possible. (4) Amy is one of Linda’s students, and the video shows before and after sessions with her horse.  Amy is married to Nate Bowers who is developing Parelli’s natural driving curriculum.  I look forward to seeing where Nate has taken his father Steve’s work.  The video of Amy was shot at the Bowers’ facility, and I recognized a round pen where Steve worked with me and one of my Fell Ponies many years ago, another strange, wonderful convergence!

Now whenever I take up the lines to do mundane work around the farm, I realize how much more responsibility I have than I ever imagined before.  How I use my hands can influence my relationship with my ponies on a continuous basis in ways I was never conscious of before.  And when I pick up the lines, I also realize how much I have to learn, despite more than a dozen years of experience.  I think being on the lines in a way that utilizes appropriate constant contact will be especially important for Fells who are so keen to be mentally stimulated.  What a journey I am on!  And I am thankful for the ponies who are on this journey with me.

  1. Morrissey, Jenifer.  “Practicing Gentle Horsemanship,” Driving Digest magazine, publication pending, November, 2012.
  3. and Morrissey, Jenifer.  “Neither Carrot nor Stick,” Rural Heritage magazine, February/March 2011, p. 100.

© Jenifer Morrissey, 2012


About workponies

Breeder of Fell Ponies, teamster of work ponies, and author of Feather Notes, Fell Pony News, and A Humbling Experience: My First Few Years with Fell Ponies. Distributor of Dynamite Specialty Products for the health of our planet and the beings I share it with.
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