You may have read several articles about the value of your horse being able to stretch down and out, into the bridle, but have you read any that tell you how teach your horse to do it?
That is what this week’s post is about.
As a starting point here are the directives from lower level dressage tests about the Free Walk and ‘Stretchy Trot Circle.’
Stretchy trot circle: Forward and downward stretch over the back into a light contact, maintaining balance and quality of trot; bend; shape and size of circle; willing, calm transitions
Free walk: Regularity and quality of walks; reach and ground cover of free walking allowing complete freedom to stretch the neck forward and downward; straightness; willing, clear transitions
The directives in dressage tests are very helpful to review. They provide the goal of that particular part of the test. So, with those directives in mind, let’s get started!
Well, let me interrupt … In all of these exercises it is vital that your legs and seat activate first, and your hands do very little! The hands, i.e. reins, do not create the positive outcomes. Hands should be giving and allowing. If any ‘closing of the door’ is needed, it should be a resisting effort with your fingers, not a pulling effort with your hands, wrists or elbows.
In the above image, the horse is relaxed through his topline, nose a bit out (could be out further), see the neck muscle bulging … the topline muscles are working and not the underside and the mane could flop from side to side (the nuchal ligament), good reach with right hind leg and swing of the hips which means softness through the body.
Ok — let’s get back to it!
Step 1: Start with walking forward with a steady tempo. Begin a counter-bend, thinking of pushing your horse’s nose out. I find that visualizing this actually happening helps me feel where my legs and seat need to be. (Your hands need to be ‘willing and giving’; not restricting or rotating back.) Then straighten your horse again (coming out of the counter-bend). If he offers to keep his head and neck out in front, then allow that, if not slowly and gently close the contact back up and engage with forward aids to resume a nice marching walk. Repeat this exercise until your horse is comfortable, confident and reaching forward with his neck in the counter-bend. At this point most of the contact should be in the outside rein. Practice this in both directions. The side that you and your horse are most successful should be repeated until it is a comfortable exercise, then start more practice on the difficult side. Doing this allows your horse to get the right answer more often.
Step 2: At the walk you have light contact with the outside rein and start to take light contact with the inside rein. Start a counter-bend and if your horse offers to get a little heavy in your hands, softly let the reins slip just a little while you add a little push with your seat and legs. Staying in a counter-bend can help you push out his head and neck. Still pushing, and still in the walk, ride your horse straight.
In Frame 1 – This rider is sitting quietly, pushing her horse forward into the light contact. Notice the tension in the reins, her hands could be more giving, but she is allowing him to go forward. His body shows the allowing forward by the diagonal pairs at the trot, the mane looks as if it could start flopping left and right (that nuchal ligament). She could let him have more rein and he would keep ‘seeking’ the contact down and out.
In Frame 2 – Energy and the horse is reaching forward and down.
If your horse raises his neck back up, just ride forward. Same if he curls, ride him forward WITHOUT attempting to do anything with your hands.
Through these exercises and calm practice, your horse will learn to follow the bit down and out with confidence.
These exercises can be done on straight lines or on circles. Having a boundary, like a rail, can be helpful to help you keep your hands less involved.
Additionally, these exercises can and should be practiced at the trot and canter. It usually takes longer for a horse to successful with these exercises at the canter. In all cases be cautious that you are conveying the right message to your horse. They should find comfort and relief in the stretch – even at a competition!
During your riding sessions, if your horse offers to stretch, then interrupt what you are doing to allow him to stretch. It may only be a step or two but take that opportunity.
- Rooting is not stretching – counteract that with a leg yield (not a hand yield).
- If your horse curls his neck and hides from the contact, you cannot achieve the stretch. Either he does not understand, in that case start from the beginning and go slowly to ensure he understands the right answer, and/or your hands are involved, and you are lying to your horse. You may not be aware that you are using your hands. (I cannot change something that I am not aware of. Once I become aware, I can take steps to change.) Have a friend video your ride for you, as you may be doing things that you are not aware of.
- Through (push) — hind feet moving, back swinging, balance
- To go forward in contact — need to be able to stretch properly
In Frame 3 – See the hind leg really stepping up and under the horse, and the neck stretching out to the contact (forward and out). Hips really in a swing and softness through the horse’s body.
In Frame 4 – Contact, in both reins, down and out! The rider should have her hands closer together and even more at the withers. The horse continues with a soft, swinging back and hips.
- Once your horse learns to reach for the bit and stretch over his/her back then all sorts of magic can happen… You can push and go forward. You can ease up with your seat and legs and your horse slows his/her step.
- Once your horse learns this then you can start and end your riding sessions with a good stretch.