Everyone is familiar with the terms “On the bit”, “Through the neck”, and “Riding within the connection”. But what do these phrases really mean and at what stage of a rider’s development is it fair and appropriate to expect them to become part of the ride on a regular basis?
The first thing that the rider must grasp is the understanding that there is a certain environment that has to be present in the training session that enables the rider to establish a connection between the energy that is created by the leg and the ability of the hand to receive, recycle and balance that energy. The rider must possess three elements that will be combined in an infinite number of combinations to create the environment that will allow the connection to happen. They are: 1) an immediate forward response to the leg,
2) the ability to balance and/or regulate the forward response with the rein and
3) the ability to move the horse’s body left or right to help them find a channel between two hands and legs. It is only when the horse allows you to influence him in all three areas with equal success that the training can begin in earnest.
If you think of the horse’s hindlegs as the engine that propels him forward and the reins as the steering wheel that directs the energy, then the horse’s back must be the transmission that allows the energy to flow freely forward toward the hand. The hand receives the energy and volleys it back toward the hind leg, thereby capturing that energy in a perpetual cycle to be repeated over and over throughout the ride. The horse’s back cannot bridge the hind legs to the reins unless the horse travels with his hind legs following the exact path that his shoulders travel. Therefore, the rider’s legs must stabilize the hindquarters so that the shoulders can be mobilized and placed in front of them. Straightening an animal with an inherent crookedness built in due to the hindquarter being wider than the shoulder, is an incredibly difficult task. Given that the horse’s balance can change with each step he takes, the concepts of controlling the forward thrust, directing the energy and keeping the horse moving down a corridor between the hands and legs, have to be negotiated every few strides. It is very much like juggling to keep all three elements available at a given moment.
This is a degree of sophistication that escapes the rider until their own seat is so firmly established that their balance can remain in tact in spite of what the horse does. The rider must serve as a point of reference that the horse must always return to after even a small breech in his balance. The ability to affect the horse in such minute detail must be earned through many hours in the saddle, preferably on many different horses. Some riders will go through their entire riding lives and never capture all three elements simultaneously for more than a few strides at a time, while others will be able to produce the “connection” at will on any horse they ride.
Does this mean that one can’t progress out of Training Level if they are unable to master the concept of “riding through the connection”? Absolutely not! In fact, many riders perform anything from shoulder-in to tempi changes without a good connection. It is all a matter of perception. If the first bottle of wine that you ever tasted cost $10.00, you might well enjoy the bottle and buy more in the future. However, once you had the opportunity to taste a $100.00 bottle of wine, you would realize that there are many layers of taste that enhance the wine tasting experience. The same will prove true with you riding. As your skills improve, your ability to maintain the connection during the shoulder-in and the tempi changes will dramatically enhance your experience of being in a harmonious partnership with the horse.
You will find that there won’t be much new information once you master the basic skills of riding a horse, only a greater depth of understanding. Most riders reasonably accomplish riding a movement such as half pass. Riding the half pass while controlling the flow of energy, keeping the horse in front of your leg but not past your hand and keeping him well balanced between the inside leg and outside rein is the challenge! Making the connection and keeping it is what enhances the colors and emotions of riding.