“Connection” is a big word in the horse-training world. Everybody gets a piece of it. The trendy “natural” trainers use it in the context of “joining up,” which basically means the horse does what the human wants. The psychologically minded talk about it in the emotional or spiritual sense. Dressage trainers usually mean a physical connection–rider’s hand or horse’s mouth to bit, horse’s back end to his front, and so on in infinite variety.
The icon here is a “connection” exercise in hand (person on ground in control) while rider sits quietly, this being the first time the horse has carried one. She’s working hard to keep her back end working in collaboration with her front, and to balance the brand-new weight in the middle, while following the ground person’s guidance. She has a lot to keep track of.
So does the rider, who may have been working with the horse for months or years, but this is a brand-new experience with a brand-new set of paramters. There’s no sure way to tell what the horse will do until she does it. All rider and trainer can do is help her stay balanced, keep her connected physically and mentally, and trust her to make the right decisions.
Connection is important. The body has to work together as a unit in order to move comfortably and do whatever it’s ask: whether it’s to walk or trot beside a handler, or carry a rider, or for that matter pull a cart. When there’s a human in the mix, the human has to connect in some way, through reins and legs and seat or guiding touch or mirroring movement, or voice or clicker signals, or whatever else works for the situation.
Same applies to the rider–there’s a theme here. The rider has to plug in to the horse’s communications. She can’t just kick or pull or push or otherwise manhandle the horse. She may try, and the horse may surrender to it, but the best results come from a more mutual agreement.
Horses are not one size fits all. (Which is why the movie or book version with the insta-horse who shows up when needed and gets shut in the garage otherwise, is so far removed from reality.) Besides issues of relative size, weight, and experience or expertise, if horse and human don’t connect, it’s that much harder for both sides to work well together. Different temperaments, different personal styles, different ways of moving, make it that much harder or easier to meet productively in the middle.
An easygoing, phlegmatic horse is a great mount for a timid rider, or a rider who just wants to relax and enjoy the scenery. That same horse is hell for a rider who wants to go faster, jump higher, enjoy more of a challenge from a horse with his own mind and opinions. The former rider will be frustrated and intimidated by the livelier horse, and may be put off riding altogether, whereas the latter may be able to manage the calmer horse, but it will be more of an academic exercise than an honest pleasure.
When horses were the main means of transport, as often as not both sides had to take what they could get. Now that horses are much more of a companion animal, it’s both more possible and more advisable to aim for a compatible match. Trainers of course, like the old drovers and post riders, are obliged by their occupation to succeed with horses who might not be their own dream animal, but for the amateur rider and handler, a good connection makes all the difference.
It matters for the horse, too. Horses have opinions and preferences. They like some people and dislike others. Many learn to tolerate whatever’s done to them, but even those will perk up just a bit when someone comes along who understands their particular wants and needs.
It’s all in the connection. A bad one, full of static and conflict, can end with the rider eating dirt and the horse threatening mayhem. A good one, even if there’s disagreement on details, makes for a harmonious interaction and happy horse as well as a happy handler.
As a trainer said to me once after watching me quietly and comfortably saddle and ride a horse she’d seen, just days before, standing on her hindlegs trying to batter down the person who was trying to handle her, “It’s not the horse. It’s the connection.”