“Connection” is one of these modern dressageisms that I don’t especially like, because they are essentially meaningless inventions that do not take the traditional terminology into consideration. The classical oral and literary tradition provides all the necessary technical terms with very specific definitions and explanations, and I would much prefer to adhere to the historically grown terminological conventions instead of trying to invent new terms.
The old masters used the terms “Verbindung” and “Anlehnung”. “Verbindung” refers to an adjustment of the rein length that allows the horse to reach the rider’s hand. The literal translation of the word is connection, but it is only an extremely rudimentary kind of Connection that is established when the rider first picks up the rein. It is the precursor to “Anlehnung”, which is usually translated as rein contact, although the French term “mise en main” is probably a much closer approximation. You could say that correct riding transforms the “Verbindung” into the “Anlehnung”.
What does the Connection connect, anyway? And what does it connect it to? The rider’s hand to the horse’s mouth? The hands to the hind legs? The seat to the bit? The seat to the hind legs? The hind legs to the mouth? I can never shake the suspicion that the term means a variety of different things to different people. I would therefore like to explore the concept of connection(s) as I understand it and as I experience it in practical riding.
The premise is that there are energy impulses that travel through the horse’s body and the rider’s body, which are transmitted from muscle to muscle, bone to bone, muscle to bone, etc. For instance, the thrust of a hind leg against the ground sends an energy impulse forward through the horse’s body. It is transmitted from vertebra to vertebra and creates a forward stretch of the spine which eventually reaches the bit and the rider’s hand. You can compare it with the ripple effect that a pebble creates when it is tossed into a pond. Conversely, the rider can send an energy impulse backward along the spine into one of the horse’s legs by squeezing the rein. If this rein impulse is directed into a grounded hind leg, it can flex the joints of this hind leg, which is referred to as a half halt.
In order for an impulse to reach its destination, there has to be an unbroken chain of transmission from one body part to the next. This is where things often become complicated in practical riding, because the chain of transmission can be interrupted by stiff muscles that limit the range of motion of a joint and by so-called “false bends”, i.e. areas of hypermobility that are difficult for the rider to control. Muscle blockages along the spine are often associated with subluxations of vertebrae. Stiff muscles that limit the range of motion and block the energy transmission can occur basically around any joint in the horse’s body that is surrounded by muscles, such as the poll, the neck, the shoulders, the back, the hips, and the stifles. Although the rib cage is not quite in the same category, it can become blocked as well through tight muscles and fascia.
Typical false bends occur longitudinally around C3 (overflexed with a broken top line) and laterally at the base of the neck (neck wagging).
It is the rider’s task to find all muscles in the body that are stiff and to make them permeable through specific suppling exercises. The rider also has to recognize false bends and to stabilize these areas through the framework or network of aids. When all these problem areas are repaired, the energy can flow unimpeded in all directions within the horse’s body, as well as from the rider’s body through the horse’s body into the ground and back. The end result is traditionally referred to as Durchlässigkeit, indicating the horse’s permeability for the rider’s aids.
The connection of the hind legs to the rider’s hands that I mentioned above is only one of very many possible connections. It is one of the more frequently discussed ones, and it is the one where the impulses have to travel the farthest distance. But there are many others. The rider’s aids all have to be connected to specific muscle groups in the horse’s body, and the different parts of the horse’s body have to be connected to each other. Let me give you several examples.
The rider’s calf has to be connected to the horse’s abdominal muscles, which means that the horse has to expand his rib cage into the rider’s leg, so that the calf aid can trigger a contraction of the abdominal muscles, which in turn lifts the hind leg on the same side higher or engages it more.
The rider’s pelvis has to be connected to the horse’s pelvis, so that a lateral rotation of the rider’s pelvis results in a turn of the horse’s body.
The rider’s pelvic floor has to be connected to the hind legs in order to flex the haunches vertically.
The rider’s upper thigh can be connected to the horse’s rib cage so that a nudge from the upper thigh on the inside of the bend creates a yielding of the horse’s rib cage, which results in an improved bend.
The rider’s knee can be connected to the horse’s shoulders, so that a nudge from one knee creates a better turn of the shoulder.
The rein can be connected not only to the hind legs, but also to the horse’s neck, to a shoulder, or a front leg.
The connection of the reins to the horse’s shoulders allows the rider to frame the shoulders and to position them precisely on the line of travel in front of the hips. This is a straightening aid that prevents the outside shoulder from falling out. It prevents the inside shoulder from falling in, and it prevents the development of a false bend at the base of the neck.
Another important function of the rein is to flex the poll and neck laterally to check for stiff muscles and to remove any blockages that it encounters.
Within the horse’s body, the rider has to connect the shoulder to the base of the neck by framing and stabilizing the area, and the poll has to be connected to the neck by suppling it. Head, neck, and shoulders then have to be connected to the horse’s hips, so that the joints of the haunches can be flexed through the weight of the forehand and the rider.
The rider’s aids also have to be connected to each other and to the ground through the horse’s body. For instance, the rider’s inside calf aid has to be connected to the outside rein, i.e. the impulse of the calf has to arrive in the rider’s outside hand. The inside calf aid also has to arrive in the inside hand. Conversely, the outside calf aid has to arrive in the inside rein and in the outside rein.
The bending rein has to be able to support the engaging calf on the same side by bringing the lateral leverage of the horse’s head and neck into play, and the inside calf has to support the bending rein by bringing the inside hind leg underneath the horse’s body and keeping it there.
The engaging calf aid can be connected to the rein of the same side in lateral movements, so that this rein utilizes the leverage of the horse’s head and neck to support the crossing of the hind leg.
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