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