How to Use Self-Carriage to Improve Your Horse

Understand the German term "Dehnungshaltung" 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 self-carriage, 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 hind-leg 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.

The Horse’s Conformation

One should not underestimate how much strength it takes to carry a long neck and hold it with a bascule. My Lusitano stallion groans in the warm-up when he has to make the effort to support his stallion neck in a long frame and a big trot. The further he has been trained, gaining strength in his whole topline, the better he is able to stretch. It seems backward, but not until he reached Grand Prix level was he able to warm up with a very long, deep and round neck. I have another young stallion who has a beautiful neck that is almost as long as the rest of his body. So it is no wonder he has a hard time stretching it! He has not developed the strength in front of the withers or behind the saddle to support it.

Horses who are too light in the hand can make it challenging for the rider to lengthen the neck enough. We often find this in some Arabian and Iberian breeds. However, only when that is achieved with positive tension in the topline can the horse’s back swing, and this is when the rider is able to enhance the basic quality of the horse’s gaits. The swinging back will give the rider a place to sit, indicating that the movement goes through the whole body and the horse is able to suspend his strides. It is a sign of relaxation—one of the basic pillars in the Training Pyramid. Only when the rider has developed a feeling for the horse’s balance can she decide how low, long or round he can work. For example, a horse that is very athletic and built uphill might be able to carry a very deep and round frame. But the downhill horse with a stiffer hind leg would fall helplessly on his forehand if worked in the same frame. Length and outline of the neck as well as how and where it is connected to the horse’s chest play an important role.

It can also change throughout the horse’s training. The stronger the horse gets in collection, increasing the ability to carry weight on his hind legs, the more he might be able to lengthen his neck without losing balance. If that is achieved, with the horse reaching and basculing his neck, the crest will become more defined and, in turn, the neck will start to develop, creating a beautiful curve upward out of the withers. This allows the horse to carry his neck with the muscles on top versus below with a bracing under neck.

Without the ability to ride the neck long and round with engaged hindquarters, it is impossible for a horse to be supple. A horse that moves with self-carriage, or Dehnungshaltung,always looks harmonious, with a beautiful outline. Pirouettes, piaffe and half passes might often improve when ridden with a little longer, stretching neck, allowing the horse to unlock his back behind the saddle more. This also enables the horse to bend laterally and engage the hind leg more.

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 rotation of the pelvis, the horse also creates positive tension in the nuchal ligament, causing him to step more under in downward transitions, lowering the croup and raising the withers. In this situation, self-carriage is easy to establish.

Frequently horses work with the poll at the highest point and the line of the forehead in front of the vertical, but all the muscles in the neck are working wrong. The tense lower neck supports the front in a bracing way, never allowing the horse to use his back and often creating negative tension. When this happens, the withers are down. The nuchal ligament is attached to the individual spinal processes that make up the withers. The ligament splits in a fan shape to connect individually to every vertebra in the neck as well as runs along the crest. The forward-arching neck and the engagement of the hind leg create opposing forces on the withers that help to draw the spinal processes of the withers apart. With this positive tension in the nuchal ligament the horse can raise his withers. If the horse raises the neck and engages his under neck, the nuchal ligament will carry no tension and the horse will not be able to raise through his withers. Some horses are still able to move in quite a spectacular way—moving their legs but unable to swing in the back with relaxation. Less talented horses will appear very flat and on the forehand, with the neck appearing longer on the bottom than on the top.

During training it might be necessary to ride the horse lower than the ideal frame to help him find the bascule in his neck and reach toward the bit. Once the horse stretches, his nose ends up behind the vertical because his neck is low. A slight upward adjustment of the long basculing neck can then place the horse in a perfect frame with his nose in front. When the horse goes extra deep and round, it is most important that he stays aligned through his body and neck to maintain straightness on long or curved lines and that there is no backward restriction from the rider’s hands. A rider capable of teaching a horse to carry himself that way will be able to help his horse develop the right muscles in the topline for a beautiful outline.

The training of engagement progresses logically in a traditional approach through more challenging transitions. More difficult exercises can be helpful. I like to play with the following:

1. Vary the length of stride in the trot: half steps, extended trot and every nuance in between on straight and bending lines.

2. Do the same in canter.

3. Do transitions from trot or canter to one stride of walk, back to trot or canter. If these transitions are possible in self-carriage with the horse reaching toward the bit, he will build strength systematically, resulting in more cadence in his stride and in the development of his topline.

4. Remember that transitions can also be ridden in a lateral movement within the gait or between gaits. Walk, trot or canter transitions in shoulder-in or half pass can be very productive.

Some horses need more help, and it is important to be creative in your training approach. For instance, a horse that flattens in his croup and trails his hind legs in the trot might stay more connected in the canter. Therefore, a lot of strengthening can happen in the canter. Maybe a collected canter with a lowered croup to a few collected trot strides and then back to canter can help the horse to keep the same engagement in the trot as in the canter.

The rein-back is particularly important for a horse with a trailing hind leg. Teaching a very good rein-back in which the horse raises his withers, chest and rib cage and steps straight back, engaging both hind legs, can help the tilt of the pelvis a lot. A prompt strike-off after the rein-back can help the engagement of the trot. Sometimes backing up on a curved line can be a good challenge. Being able to go forward and back smoothly can be helpful to keep the weight shifted back onto the horse’s hind legs.

In-hand work, where you touch the horse with the whip to encourage him to engage, get quicker or lift more, can be tremendously helpful. This detailed work helps a horse with his body awareness. Equally helpful could be someone helping with the whip from the ground while you are riding. You also can do a lot of work on gentle hills. Riding half halts on a slight decline can teach the horse a lot about raising his chest and lowering his croup.

Teach the Horse to Carry Himself

When the horse is first ridden, he should learn to stretch as much as possible for his conformation and physical condition. A rider with exceptional feel will know how long and how deep the young horse can go before losing his balance. 

Üeberstreichen and stretching are important tests to make sure the horse supports himself (see sidebar on p. 63). These exercises require a rider with a balanced, independent seat, who is able to enhance the horse’s movement. With a strong core, the rider not only has to absorb the shock but also encourage the horse to push more strongly off his feet. Not only do the horse’s hind legs push forward off the ground, his front feet also push off, creating spring. A feel for the right tempo is crucial so the horse can develop cadence. I like to think that I am trying to ride the horse’s front legs longer, as in a slow medium trot, with his nose pointing to where I want the front feet to step. One gets the feel that the front of the horse is turning like a wheel. The neck will come up, out, forward and round from the withers just like a wheel, while the front legs are landing and pushing off with springs so the stride gets cadenced and rounder—also more like a wheel instead of a shallow oval.

The horse will have to use his core to raise his chest. When he does this, it might feel like he has a little too much energy—similar to how he might feel on a cold day. It takes a lot of power and positive tension for the horse to carry himself. Sometimes, the moments of too much energy or a little negative tension can actually show the horse how to use his body, and a clever, confident rider can turn the negative moment into a positive, newfound feeling of self-carriage with power. 

Many top trainers tell the story of their horse’s first piaffe on the way home from a hack or after a spook. This feeling can be very intimidating to a rider who is not experienced enough, because it feels like the horse is ready to explode. The tendency to hold back and flatten a big-moving horse is a common occurrence. It often results in a horse getting more nervous, tense and spookier or dull, losing impulsive power and falling on the forehand instead of gaining strength. To make up for this lack of longitudinal balance, a horse may brace his neck if he is unable to carry it in a basculing way. The under neck prevails and, at the same time, one can often observe a hollow area behind the saddle.

Self-carriage is only possible if the horse is balanced without leaning through turns. I like the feeling that all four legs of the horse have equal length. If the horse leans into the turn, the inside front leg feels shorter and the opposite hind leg longer. If that happens the horse will often brace in his neck to make up for the lack of lateral balance. Without powerful movement and a laterally and longitudinally balanced body, the horse will have a hard time maintaining an honest stretch through the neck. Here are some suggestions to encourage the horse to stretch:

Half Halts and Stretching to Increase Self-Carriage

I loved recently reading Robert Dover’s sentiment of “a half halt away from perfection.” Clearly, the good rider and trainer understand how balance has to be constantly reestablished. Riding half halt–stretch to half halt–stretch in a pirouette, piaffe, passage or half pass is a wonderful way to improve collection and bend. The longer, deeper neck keeps the topline soft and enhances the horse’s ability to bend and sit. As described previously, if your horse expects a little stretch after a half halt, this is not too hard to achieve. The requirement is for the rider to be able to collect the horse on her seat and ride the mentioned movement off her seat. Again, steering and tempo should not be controlled by your hand.

For example, when you come into a half pass ask the horse to collect a couple of steps by transferring more weight to his hind legs. There will be a moment of increased contact on the half-halting rein to help balance the horse. The moment you feel him shift his weight back, give the rein a couple of inches. You will feel how long the horse can reach with his neck and still hold the collection. Your horse will remember the give after the half halt and lengthen his neck in a stretch. It will not be a full stretch but the horse will bascule and stretch as far as the balance of his body will allow.

Often you can feel how the full use of the neck allows the horse to use his whole body even better. You have to reestablish the connection before the horse becomes unable to carry himself any longer. Remember how strong he has to be to carry that longer frame in collection. Then you can repeat the half halt to the stretch. Be mindful of how many repetitions you do. The lighter and easier it feels because your horse is so well balanced, the harder he is working. Be quick to reward a good feeling with walk breaks and praise with your voice and touch. 

In a pirouette you might only be able to do it once or twice before you have to stop and reward or come out of the movement. In piaffe or passage the horse might not be able to lengthen his neck that much, but even a couple of inches of a longer or lower neck can often make a big difference.

Know When You’re Successful

A basculing, reaching neck stabilizes the horse’s posture so his neck, poll and jaw can be soft. This makes the reins unnecessary and instead allows you to focus on your horse’s neck as a lever that helps balance his body.

The whole goal is to train the horse to carry himself beautifully in collection. All good trainers talk about the ability to ride highly collected exercises with a deeper and longer neck. An engaged hind leg is the foundation that allows you to stretch the horse at a moment’s notice without him falling on his forehand. A horse that is trained to carry himself like this will be beautiful to watch. His movement will flow through a soft and round topline with the most power possible.

Thoughts on Üeberstreichen

Üeberstreichen is a release of one or both reins for several strides during which the horse should carry himself. After the half halt–stretch exercise, your horse will be used to lightness after a half halt. The horse has been taught to carry himself. I think it is most useful if you ask yourself if you could release one or two reins at any time during your ride. If you can, then you are on your way to self-carriage.

Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel has lived in the U.S. for 30 years working out of First Choice Farm in Maryland as an international dressage trainer and competitor. Encouraged by her mentor and employer Gene Freeze, she went back to Germany and completed her master degree as an instructor (Reitlehrer FN). Her current mount, Tonico do Top, won the BLM Grand Prix Championship for the past three years and the BLM Grand Prix Freestyle Championship the last two years. Felicitas has trained numerous horses to Grand Prix.

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