The Mean­ing of Dehnung­shal­tung

Felicitas von Neu­mann-Cosel ex­plains this Ger­man term to help make your horse more beau­ti­ful through self-car­riage.

Dressage Today - - Content - By Felicitas von Neu­mann-Cosel

The true joy for the good dres­sage rider is found in watch­ing a horse de­velop men­tally and phys­i­cally through suc­cess­ful train­ing. I have seen some amaz­ing trans­for­ma­tions in horses. For in­stance, a horse with poor con­for­ma­tion—one that has an un­der neck and a back that drops away from the sad­dle—can be com­pletely changed by de­vel­op­ing the right mus­cles. Af­ter proper train­ing in self­car­riage, his out­line can be beau­ti­ful.

With the on­go­ing de­bate about the right and wrong of the horse’s neck po­si­tion dur­ing train­ing, the Ger­man word Dehnung­shal­tung stays con­stantly in the back of my mind. There is no English trans­la­tion, but es­sen­tially Dehnung means “stretch” and Hal­tung means “car­riage.” These are the two most im­por­tant el­e­ments in the way a horse uses his neck and body to find a proper con­nec­tion. The horse has to reach or stretch for­ward through an arched and bas­cul­ing neck to the bit. At the same time, he has to stay bal­anced and carry him­self, by en­gag­ing his hindquar­ters, so as not to fall on his fore­hand and look for the rider’s sup­port in a heavy con­tact.

I once heard some­one de­scribe the ideal self-car­riage ( Dehnung­shal­tung) as the fol­low­ing: Think of a horse stand­ing at the edge of a cliff with his neck stretched out for­ward and down to peek over the edge, but he is rocked back on his hind legs so as not to fall. This sit­u­a­tion de­scribes how im­por­tant the bal­ance of the whole body is for a horse to be able to stretch and keep reach­ing and to later carry him­self in col­lec­tion. There­fore, to look only at the neck with­out eval­u­at­ing the whole body of the horse is not suf­fi­cient.

It is im­pos­si­ble to make gen­eral state­ments re­gard­ing how far or low a horse should be able to stretch be­cause all horses dif­fer in flex­i­bil­ity, con­for­ma­tion, strength, de­gree of train­ing and ride­abil­ity as well as tem­per­a­ment. But there are a few el­e­ments that need to be present in the horse’s neck po­si­tion to en­able the use of the topline. En­gage­ment of the proper mus­cles in the neck causes it to arch for­ward with clear def­i­ni­tion of the up­per part of the neck. This muscling is, for ex­am­ple, per­fectly vis­i­ble in a stal­lion’s neck when he goes to the breed­ing shed. It gives the horse

a proud ap­pear­ance that we are also look­ing for in dres­sage. But more im­por­tant, it al­lows the topline to carry pos­i­tive ten­sion as the neck draws for­ward, and with hind­leg en­gage­ment, the nuchal lig­a­ment gets ten­sion that helps the horse’s back stay up and gives the rider a place to sit. The horse giv­ing the rider this place to sit and a soft con­tact is of­ten a strong in­di­ca­tor of qual­ity self-car­riage. Work­ing in this way will de­velop the horse’s topline beau­ti­fully— the neck will fill out with a beau­ti­ful crest, the back will be strong and sup­ple al­low­ing it to swing and the hindquar­ters will be round and pow­er­ful.

Es­tab­lish­ing the Stretch

The best stretch can be achieved on a cir­cle when you feel the horse is bal­anced lat­er­ally and lon­gi­tu­di­nally. Slowly al­low the reins to lengthen and see if your horse will lengthen his neck for­ward and down­ward. This will feel like a clear re­lease and you will be able to see how the neck fills out and gets wide when you look down. The fol­low­ing are prob­lems you might en­counter and ways to fix them:

1. If he flat­tens in his neck, he was ei­ther hang­ing on your hands and lean­ing on the fore­hand or was not bending and pick­ing up his rib cage be­fore the stretch.

2. If the horse flat­tens and loses the bend, spi­ral in on a cir­cle and then spi­ral out, try­ing to es­tab­lish a give in the rib cage when you in­crease the cir­cle. Make sure your horse yields in his mid­dle and does not throw his haunches out. He has to bend and stay on one track with his legs.

3. Should your horse fall on his fore­hand, make sure he is not rush­ing. Think of bal­ance be­fore the stretch— some­times you have to help with a bal­anc­ing sup­port of your hand and not let the neck stretch down right away. Try to first let the neck grow longer and then down at the end of the stretch. This way the horse will have to sup­port his neck right in front of the withers. Once you feel the bas­cule, slowly shorten your reins just un­til you have con­tact with the horse’s mouth. Con­tinue to ride for­ward and up to your hand.

4. In or­der to pre­vent the horse curl­ing away from your hand or pulling down on you, imag­ine that you are rais­ing his long neck slightly. As the horse arches his neck up­ward, the rein gets a lit­tle slack and you feel an in­vi­ta­tion from him to shorten your reins. As soon as you feel any brac­ing or curl­ing in the neck, stretch the horse again, long enough for the neck to bas­cule but ready to pick up the reins as soon it does. Again, if you feel any brac­ing as the reins get shorter, you should stretch im­me­di­ately and be ready to take the reins shorter just as soon as the horse re­leases his neck.

Af­ter sev­eral rep­e­ti­tions the horse will start to an­tic­i­pate the stretch and re­lease his neck on a much shorter rein. He will stay softer in the neck and keep bas­cul­ing as the reins get shorter. Re­peat this un­til “stretch and take” are as close to­gether as rid­ing a half halt and give. The horse learns to carry him­self by mak­ing his neck longer on the top even with a shorter rein and learns to arch his neck up­ward, which we need for beau­ti­ful col­lec­tion. It should feel like your short rein is still stretchy. This will also keep the horse will­ing to stretch at any time,

which can be a won­der­ful re­ward af­ter a well-done ex­er­cise or used to quickly re­lax the horse again if ten­sion arises. It is crit­i­cal that the horse main­tain the stretch with­out a back­ward-work­ing hand. Good con­tact feels like hold­ing hands, with the horse reach­ing to the con­tact and the rider re­ceiv­ing it.

To de­velop a horse with this knowl­edge re­quires a rider who can truly keep the horse on her seat so the hands are not used for steer­ing, tempo con­trol or tran­si­tions. The con­nec­tion should help the horse to bal­ance, stay in align­ment and flex lat­er­ally in the poll. The con­tact is part of the cir­cle of aids that the energy flows through, and in con­junc­tion with the rider’s body, the power gets chan­neled and di­rected.

Rid­ing half halts with the small­est give af­ter each while the horse gets rounder and lighter but still reaches for the bit has been my tool to de­velop the ba­sic gaits. The half halt leaves the horse in bet­ter bal­ance, which is the per­fect mo­ment to cre­ate more ca­dence and longer, pow­er­ful strides when ask­ing for more im­pul­sion.

Es­tab­lish­ing En­gage­ment

All the things men­tioned above are only pos­si­ble if the horse en­gages his hind legs. Car­ry­ing power be­comes as im­por­tant as propul­sive power. All the joints of the hind legs have to bend, so the horse ro­tates his pelvis enough for his hind legs to step close to his cen­ter of grav­ity. With that

Ton­ico do Top, a 15-year-old Lusi­tano stal­lion owned by Linda and Joe Den­nis­ton, shows bas­cule of his neck in the trot ex­ten­sion.

Florenz, an 8-year-old Bavar­ian Warm­blood, is stretch­ing, but his lack of en­gage­ment makes him look heav­ier on a fore­hand, as if he could fall off the cliff. Florenz now has more en­gage­ment so the stretch looks bal­anced. Florenz is owned by San­dra Smith.

It takes a lot of ef­fort for Ton­ico to sup­port his neck. The fur­ther he has been trained, gain­ing strength in his whole topline, the bet­ter he is able to stretch. Here he shows a beau­ti­ful neck in the half pass.

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