by Lorraine Jennings
When you ask your horse to stretch does he seem confused? Can you blame him? Ever since he was broken he’s been taught to shorten, work rounder or slow down. Suddenly along comes a dressage test and he’s expected to understand (and be grateful) that he’s allowed to stretch. Is it any wonder he’s confused?
If your horse is going to understand you need to make sure you understand first. In the same way as free walk on a long rein doesn’t mean walk on the buckle, allowing your horse to stretch doesn’t mean trot around the school with no contact.
The judge wants to see your horse working forward in a balanced, rhythmical trot. That shouldn’t change just because you’re allowing him to stretch. Usually, you’ll be asked to do it on a circle. Read the test. It will probably say ‘circle at A and allow your horse to stretch’ not ‘allow your horse to stretch and then circle at A’. That’s a difference of at least 10m. It’s enough to get him balanced. Wait until you’re on the correct line before you even think about relaxing your contact.
It’s easy to think if you drop the contact your horse will stretch down automatically but imagine you’re resting your elbows on the table and that table just disappeared. What would you do? Initially, your shoulders would drop like a dead weight. Then, in an attempt to save yourself, you’d hollow your back and tighten your stomach and neck muscles. Which is exactly what your horse does when you drop your contact.
The length of your horse’s body is controlled by the length of your reins, not by your contact (or lack of one). Your contact behaves like the lid on a coke bottle when you shake it. It holds back the fizz and the pressure. It doesn’t matter how long the neck of the bottle is if there’s a lid at the end of it the drink will always fizz. Lose that lid and the drink will spill out. Lose your contact and not only will your horse lose energy, but he’ll also lose his balance.
To get your horse to stretch correctly he must trust your hands and accept your contact. If he does that he’ll work into it and look for it. When it moves away from him he’ll stretch out until he finds it. (Like the fizzy drink running up the neck of a bottle) If it’s not there his weight will fall onto his shoulders and his hocks will stop working.
It’s important to understand you have to push your horse to your hand not pull him back to it. If he’s going to reach forward to find it he needs to be balanced and he needs to have energy. (If there’s no fizz it can’t run up the neck of the bottle) Every time you pull back on your reins he’ll tighten his back. That tension won’t go the second you ask him to stretch. At best he’ll stay in the same place, at worst he’ll hollow and rush.
Ride a 20m circle at E/B so your horse doesn’t have the fence to help him. Push him from both legs into an even contact in both reins.
On the circle slow your horse down by using your knee and thigh pushed into the saddle as hard as you can. This means your contact can stay consistent and you can use your lower legs to keep his hocks under his body. Ask him to slow down until he’s almost walking. You’ll need to use plenty of lower leg to keep him in trot. Then keep hold of your contact but release your knee and thigh. You’ll feel him go forward into your contact but don’t relax it. Keep your lower leg on and push him to it.
When your horse is accepting the bit – not leaning on it – the weight in your hand should be a forward pressure – similar to a child pulling you down the street (not hanging off the bottom of your arm!) If there is no pressure in your hand there is no horse on the end of your reins.
Initially trot half a circle as slow as you can get your horse to go and then allow him forward for the other half. As he starts to understand shorten the distance between slowing down and allowing him forward to ¼ of a circle. You’ll be so busy thinking about pushing him forward again you’ll have your legs on as you slow down without thinking about it. That’s what keeps him balanced and in your hand without pulling.
When your horse is happy going into your contact you can start to show him how to stretch. Put your knee and thigh in for a couple of strides to steady him and make sure his weight is back on his hocks. Then push on and release them. As he moves forward relax your thumb on the rein. Allow your reins to slide through your fingers as he reaches down for the contact. DON’T throw him a couple of inches and expect him to find it!
Your horse will take as much rein as you allow him to but there will be a time when he starts to doubt himself. When you feel him hesitate put your thumb back down on the rein to reassure him the contact is still there. (Close the lid) Be happy to accept small changes while he starts to understand the exercise and quick to praise him. With practise, he’ll feel confident enough to reach for the floor.
When you come to bring him up again use both legs and then close your thigh and knee into the saddle. The pressure on his shoulders will slow him down. As he slows down he’ll sit on his hocks and lift his head up. Take up the slack in your reins immediately. Lean forward and take up your outside rein first. Then take up the inside and ride forward thinking about keeping the pressure even on your reins.
When you take up your contact your horse knows it’s time to work. When you give him a loose rein he knows he’s finished. Bear that in mind the next time you allow him to stretch.
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.
Published in memory of Lorraine Jennings