Contact is light and lively, not heavy or static.
For years, my relationship with contact - the kind that happens in equestrian settings between the rider's hands and the horse's mouth - was uneasy. When I took dressage lessons as a child, one of the phrases my instructor kept yelling was, "Shorten the reins!" I was ten years old and loved horses more than anything in the world, so I refused. Like the little girl I used to be, many Western riders believe that riding on contact hurts the horse's mouth. Like my former instructor, many dressage riders think contact is essential for good riding. It's a gridlock situation
I now think both parties in this standoff are partly right and partly wrong. It is, of course, possible to ride without contact. Many horse-rider pairs communicate effectively on a loose rein. But that's only half the story. There's bad contact, and there's good contact. The difference between them is like the difference between orange Velveeta from a spray can and a chunk of aged, artisanal cheddar from happy cows. Learning to ride with contact - the real kind, not the cheap imitation - is a challenge, but at the same time, it's one of the biggest favors you can do your horse.
The wrong kind of contact can be an ugly sight because horses are good at self-preservation. They can resist in all sorts of ways, like clenching their jaws, lifting their heads, or tucking their noses behind the vertical. Imitation orange-cheese contact happens for a number of reasons: because a rider's hands are too rigid or too unsteady, because a the horse has not yet learned to go forward, or because the bit is not the right type or size.The "almost-but-not-really" contact many well-meaning riders end up practicing belongs in the same category. Like the little girl I used to be, they hear they should ride with contact, yet shy away from it because they don't want to hurt their horses. Trying to keep the contact extremely light can have the opposite of the intended effect: The horse feels a contact that comes and goes in a loose-tight-loose rhythm which, just like a constantly active leg or spur aid, soon becomes meaningless. Most horses will tune it out like static and become dull instead of soft.
So many things can and do go wrong with contact that riders wonder whether it's a goal worth pursuing. The many different horses I have worked with over the years have taught me that yes, it is. Contact, the real kind, can be a wonderful thing. Correct contact feels like an open frequency between you and your horse. Your sensitive, giving hands feel what the horse is thinking, then send almost invisible signals back the other way. The two of you are connected, talking to each other constantly, without static, without interference. Real-deal contact refines communication. It feels amazing, and it's beautiful to watch. Far from causing pain, it makes a horse's mouth softer, not harder. It can take any horse-rider partnership to the next level.
Also, correct contact can keep horses sound longer because it makes gymnastic riding much more effective. Horses become more supple and less one-sided. Contact is a stepping stone on the way to collection, which allows the muscles of the topline - along the top of the horse's neck and back - to develop, which in turn allows the horse to carry the rider's weight more comfortably.
Real contact is the kind the horse steps into with eagerness, energy and trust. The kind that is elastic, not rigid. This kind of contact requires an independent seat and quiet hands, meaning: quiet relative to the horse's neck, not the rider's upper body, that follows the horse's mouth all the time, except for very brief moments called half-halts. Real-deal contact requires above all that the horse has learned to move forward. I start young horses without contact. A young horse needs to learn to go forward from the leg, to stop from seat and rein, and to turn left and right. Only then does it make sense to think about contact.
One more thing to keep in mind: riding on contact and riding on a loose rein are not mutually exclusive. Any horse that has learned correct contact will still go on a loose rein -- better than before. Giving up the contact on a horse you usually ride with it serves as a useful reality check. It answers the question "How correct was my contact?" honestly, every time.
Is it more difficult to learn about the good kind of contact than to just throw the reins away? Absolutely. Is it worth the time and effort? Absolutely. Your horse will thank you.