When you saw the word “connection,” did you think about just the bit and the rider’s hands? Connection is all that and much more. In this article I am going to describe what connection is, how to get it, how not to get it, and how to know when you have it.
In dressage terminology, connection describes the horse that takes weight on the haunches, lifts his back and reaches into the contact. Connection includes the whole rider too, because the rider’s position has a big effect on whether a horse can connect.
So how do I get connection? Let’s say I’ve just had a great marching warm-up walk to get my horse’s blood pumping to his muscles. I like to start with a circle. I open the inside rein and invite the horse to move into the outside rein. I want my horse to take the outside rein because it will become a guideline that I can use to direct weight to his hindlegs. I use my upper calf to encourage him to lift his back. My leg aid comes as nudge or lift against the horse’s ribs, which I relax and repeat as needed. When I feel like the horse is moving up to the outside rein, I will introduce walk-halts. These transitions allow me to squeeze the outside rein to communicate to the haunches, so the horse shifts his weight evenly to the hind legs as he halts. Through these exercises, the horse will begin to assume a rounder frame, and the rein aids will become connected to the haunches.
From the rider’s perspective, a great contact feels like holding sopping wet sponges. You can squeeze the water out, but when you relax your hand, the sponges refill. This feeling happens because the horse is reaching to the rider’s hands with a relaxed neck. There will be a consistent pressure: no loopy reins or pulling. When the horse reaches into the contact, it feels like holding a sail that is pulling a boat along. The weight in each rein varies moment-to-moment and horse-to-horse, but I would say an average of 2.5 pounds is pretty ideal. It is possible to ride with a much stronger connection, and that can still be correct, but not very much fun for the horse or rider.
What if you try to establish a connection, but your horse resists? The most common problem I see when I am teaching is that riders try to create the connection with both reins at the same time. The horse reacts by bracing, coming above or behind the bit. Remember to use one rein at a time and to be soft in your arms and elbows. You want the horse to trust you with his neck, so that your rein aids can travel through his body to communicate with the hind legs.
Sometimes, in their quest to make a connection, riders get too strong with the outside rein. The outside rein connection should be following, not restricting. Turning a horse is sort of like turning a bicycle, your outside hand advances as the handlebars turn.
The second most common problem I see is that the rider is not in the correct position. A classical position is beautiful and functional. The horse needs you to sit in the correct position so he can do his job. Along the same lines, the rider must make sure she is centered and that she does not grip with her knees or hips. These types of position problems can block or unbalance the horse.
Of course, connection issues can also have physical causes. I am a stickler for checking teeth. I emphasize checking, because I think over-floating can cause problems too. I also believe the right bit is so incredibly important. It’s worthwhile to experiment with different bits, or work with an expert fitter.
Once you feel connection, you won’t want to ride any other way. Your horse’s gaits will become freer and more elastic. You will be able to feel his back lift up underneath you, and the transitions will become more fluid. When you can halt your horse on centerline, keeping him straight with his back and neck rounded, and his weight shifted back onto the haunches, you can be sure— you’ve created a great connection.