Stretch for a lifetime

I’ve had the idea of re-visiting my ideas concerning stretch for some time, but a comment made to me by a young ‘up-and-coming’ rider/trainer prompted this post.

He said, and I quote..”It is unsafe to stretch a baby…” which set me back on my butt with a thought of WTF is he saying??

The cornerstones of training require straightness, relaxation, suppleness and compliance. Without any of these, basic training will be flawed and corrections will have to be made eventually which may set the training back while new information is given and time for internalizing the information is provided.

Stretch begins with the first interactions with the young equine. It is encouraged on the lunge and progresses into the mounted sessions. Without stretch, the basic paces cannot be ‘unlocked’. the walk cannot be loose and forward; the trot cannot be long and loose; and the canter cannot be forward, relaxed and animated. So often the ‘stretch’ phase of training is far too short or skipped altogether. The results are seen in compressed frames and a shortened front end, tension and unlevel paces.

While looking at the efforts in the dressage ring of countless horses this past year, it is clear that the concept of stretch is misunderstood, or ignored altogether. Horses are pulled in with strong, non-allowing rein contacts and instead of going freely forward, the horses are constrained; over-bent; over-short and over-wrought.

To begin the process of obtaining stretch, the rider asks the horse to lower his head and stretch forward, taking the rein contact. He is encouraged to engage his hindquarters with ‘thrust’, essentially pushing the front end forward, into an ‘allowing’ rein contact. This allows for straightness and impulsion to be employed at the same time.

Many riders hold the rein too tight which restricts the horses forward impulsion and causes tension and apprehension in the horse; shortens the stride and encourages evasions and temper outbursts.

Horses must learn to go forward on the straight line and in the straight curve (turns and circles) without shortening his stride; allowing the quarters to drift out, or raising his head and shortening the stride. This is accomplished by getting the rider to focus on the horses quarters and not his mouth. Energy is requested and the horse is encouraged to stretch into the hand with the head forward, the head and neck lowered and the head in front of the vertical. Many horses will attempt to go low and over-bent which is an evasion and not to be tolerated. The solution is to provide an allowing hand and adequate impulsion to encourage lengthening of stride. This helps unlock the loin, push the movement up and along the spine and into the mouth. The rider is essentially ‘pushing’ the horse to the bit. Care must be taken not to hold onto the horses mouth and restrict his ability to stretch to the hand. When he shortens his neck and raises his head, he must be pushed back to the stretch with that allowing hand and active leg.

The bit is only required to direct the horse; to give signals to the horse of what the rider’s requests are…flexing, bending, slowing or stopping, etc.

Transitions, then are always forward…forward to walk, forward to trot, forward to canter, forward to halt. Rein contact should be the same weight through all the paces. If the contact is light in walk, heavier in trot and heavier still in the canter, then changes must be made. Simplest solution is to use the trot feel in the walk and then not increase it in the canter, so the weight of rein is the same in all the paces.

Frequently the question is asked: “How long should the stretch phase be”? Essentially the first year of training should focus on stretch, and then is should be a basic part of every workout, such as stretch, flexing and bending, circles, quarters-in and quarters-out exercises on the circle, leg yield, shoulder-in, travers, renvers, etc.

The basic premise of straightness goes hand-in-hand with stretch. With adequate thrust, the horse is propelled forward which helps eliminate weaving and loss of shoulder and quarter control. Rider’s elbows are kept in close to the body and the hands close together and quiet to avoid starting a ripple of movement in the mouth which moves toward the horses quarters causing swaying (a kind of snaking action) and loss of straightness.

This brings us back to stretch. With the young horse, the stretch concept is introduced on the lunge and then translated to the mounted equine. Starting with the walk, the horse is encouraged to lower his head. Hand remains soft…which means ‘elastic’ not empty. Enough contact is required to allow the rider to feel both sides of the bit with equal weight in each hand. Elbow and shoulders must be unlocked and elastic, accommodating the taking of the rein by the horse, and maintaining the contact with the bit.

When the horse is walking with a relaxed, forward pace, he is reminded to keep the head down, as the rider asks him to trot. Rein contact should not increase or be lost (rein falling slack or going loose/tight; lose/tight. It must be constant and consistent. If the young horse is prone to speeding up, or getting heavier in the hand, he is encouraged to steady himself with the half-halt and maintain his rhythm and relaxation. It is important to remember that the half-halt is a steading aid and not a ‘stopping’ aid. The object is not to retard the forward movement, but to steady it. Simple techniques for obtain steading influences include deep-breathing and sitting more upright, without taking the hand back with you thereby restricting the horses forward movement and stretch. Transition into the canter, must again be relaxed, straight and forward. Care needs to be taken that the rein contact does not increase or become a pull in an effort to control the speed of the horse. Training the horse on the lunge for six months or so is very good way to develop the paces and teach the horse the verbal commands for the paces, which is a useful aid when the mounted sessions begin.

Once the horse is confident with the stretch and freedom it implies in the horses ability to move freely forward without impediment, the frame will begin to develop. The horse can be encouraged to engage the quarters without running off, raise the head while maintaining his stretch to keep the head in, or in front of the vertical, and preserving his relaxation and suppleness. Hurrying this process or employing devices to obtain false frames will result in set-backs at some point, including sourness, temper tantrums, lameness and irregular paces. The most perfect examples of all these traits are seen in Valegro, probably the most perfect Dressage horse produced in the last century.

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