Written by: Anne Gage
Anne Gage shares tips for encouraging horses to stretch their necks and backs under saddle.
Do you think going long and low is only for hunter, dressage or green horses? Horses of all disciplines and levels of training can benefit from stretching their necks and backs as a regular part of their training because it:
Creates relaxation. Work done with tension is not beneficial and does more harm than good for your horse’s long term well-being.
Supples and strengthens the horse’s back and core muscles, making riding more comfortable for you and your horse and keeping him healthy.
Helps the horse who goes behind the contact become comfortable with taking the contact.
Loosens and strengthens the horse’s back and core muscles, encouraging the horse to move more freely and gracefully which enables him to carry the rider more comfortably and without stressing his back and joints.
When you first get in the saddle, your horse may contract his back muscles and hollow his back away from your weight. As you pick up the contact, your horse may stiffen his neck and poke his nose forward. In this posture, his body is stiff and he takes short, tight steps with little or no swing through his back.
Before starting this exercise, warm up your horse by walking on a loose rein for at least five to 10 minutes before picking up contact. Always give your horse as much time as he needs to relax physically and mentally before starting the working part of your ride.
On a large circle (at least 20 metres), establish a forward working trot (posting) with your horse’s hind quarters engaged (stepping well underneath his body). Encourage your horse to bend around your inside leg rather than tightening or pulling the inside rein. Keep his nose lined up with the centre of his chest by softening your inside rein and supporting with your outside rein.
Your horse must take good contact on the rein before attempting the stretch circle. If he goes behind the contact, he will not be able to stretch properly. Soften your hands (imagine holding a baby chick in each hand) to encourage your horse to soften his jaw and poll. Keep your elbows slightly in front of your midline. Carry your hands in front of your saddle at a height that creates a straight line from bit to elbow. Allow your horse to take enough rein to go comfortably into the contact and poke his nose slightly out in front of the vertical.
Give through your elbows and keep your hands soft. Control the release of the reins by using pressure from your thumb on top of the rein instead of squeezing firmly with your entire hand. If any part of your arm (from the shoulder to your fingers) holds tension, your horse will carry tension in his jaw and poll causing him to either go behind the contact or brace and pull against the contact.
When you feel your horse is traveling in a forward and balanced trot, allow him to stretch by opening your hand slightly and relaxing your thumb pressure on the rein. Release just a bit to begin with so that your horse continues to work off his hindquarters while stretching. Be careful not to lose contact by dropping the rein or releasing too quickly as this will cause your horse to fall on the forehand. As your horse stretches, follow the motion by giving through your elbows and moving your hands forwards slightly.
Keep your upper body tall so that you don’t lean forward and throw your horse off balance. When your horse raises his head, just follow that movement with your arms by raising them to maintain contact. Opening both reins when his head comes up and then closing them when he lowers it again is an effective way to maintain the contact without having to continually fuss with the reins.
Your horse is stretching correctly when he is able to stretch his head and neck forward (nose poked out slightly not tucked in) and down while maintaining his balance and rhythm – neither getting faster nor slower. His strides feel longer and more fluid. His back and shoulders remain lifted, and his hind legs step actively underneath his body. The further under his hind legs reach, the further he can stretch and the more rein you will release to him.
If his hind legs stop stepping underneath his body he will simply fall on the forehand. He will feel unbalanced, heavy on your hand and will not be building the correct muscles. To correct falling on the forehand, ride frequent half-halts. Momentarily, close your hands (like squeezing water out of a sponge) while lifting and opening your chest and send your horse forward off your seat and leg. Repeat the half halts until you feel your horse has regained his correct balance. Do not ask him to stretch until he has done so.