In Fantastic Elastic equine flexibility International Dressage rider Sarah Rogers gives you valuable insight. Stretching your horse should form an essential part of you. Stretching your horse should form an essential part of your training and everyday schooling but getting your horse to stretch correctly is an art. In this feature, our fabulous sponsored dressage rider Sarah Rogers riding Dr & Mrs Bechtolsheimer’s Vincent, a 17.2hh homebred gelding by Vivaldi to demonstrate the art of stretching your horse and how to encourage your horse to stretch correctly.
Why Stretch Your Horse
Stretching your horse offers several benefits to both horse and rider:
- Helps improve flexibility and range of motion (ROM) thereby enabling the horse to perform to the best of their ability
- Helps prevent injury by strengthening supportive tissue and helping to guard against muscle tightness and tendon shortening
- Helps reduce post-exercise soreness, stiffness and muscle fatigue
- Helps improve disposition by relaxing the horse
- Helps the rider bond with their horse
How To Encourage Your Horse To Stretch
Your ultimate ‘stretch goal’ is to get the horse’s back to rise and for him to seek the contact forwards.
Take your hands a little wider to encourage your horse to take his nose down and forwards and play on the contact until your horse softens. It’s essential that the sponging of the reins is only a subtle movement with your fingers as your hands need to remain steady to give the horse the confidence to seek the contact forward. As soon as your horse softens and takes the contact down and forwards, keep a light leg aid on to keep him moving forward.
Always check that you have your horse between your leg and your hand, never the hand to the leg. As soon as you feel your horse start to stretch down, you need to be quick enough to gently give your hand forward so that you don’t block the stretch. Don’t throw the reins at your horse; just follow his contact, as he stretches out and down and keep your rein contact elastic and not blocking.
Your horse should remain balanced, in rhythm and have a consistent forward movement while he is working in the long and low way, whether in walk, trot or canter. As shown below in the trot.
Where To Introduce Stretching
If stretching is new to your horse, then riding your horse on a large circle to start with is often a good starting point on which to ask for some stretch and to allow the horse to seek the contact out and down. This exercise can be hard for horses that have short or ewe necks and also for older or stiff horses, so take your time and reward even the smallest attempt to stretch. Another way to encourage stretch is to ride the circle in trot and ask for a little counter bend for a few steps and immediately afterwards, focus on pushing the trot on a little and allowing the hand forward a little to encourage the horse to seek forward the contact. Once your horse understands what you are asking, you can start to ask for stretch work on straight lines and incorporate changes of rein and incorporate transitions within your stretch work. Your aim is to have the horse confidently in a long and low frame with active paces and to work over his back. If your horse has been working correctly then he should naturally want to stretch out after his work, so try short and sweet sessions in-between your dressage work to establish the essence of your stretch work.
When To Ask Your Horse To Stretch
I think it’s essential to allow your horse to stretch at different moments within your training sessions. Particularly at the start and the end of training. Also, at moments throughout your session. If I have asked something of my horse, perhaps a more complicated movement or something new, I will always reward my horse and then stretch. If my horse has tried to answer a question, I will often reward with a stretching break. A stretch break in walk, trot or canter is a tremendous physical and mental break from work for the horse too.
The importance of walk breaks. In the picture above I demonstrate walking on a longer rein. Walk breaks in training are SO important. Monitor your horse. Walk breaks aim to allow his heart rate and breathing to recover and mentally take a moment to digest the training elements and relax the brain again.
- You must always use a balanced amount of leg and hand – too much leg, and you won’t be able to control the energy; too much grip on the reins and you will block the energy from being turned into something useful.
- Riding with the ‘handbrake’ on will make your horse strong in the contact, stiff and resistant. Think about getting your horse forward into a nice rhythmical active pace before asking for stretch work.
- Make sure that you have an independent rein contact and that you use your core and seat to keep the pace and rhythm you need to have energy in the stretch work, but it needs to be controlled and not to turn into an opportunity for your horse to turn up the speed.
- After riding your horse up and together, use your stretch work as a ‘breathing gap’ to relax the muscles and mind.
- Remember the stretch has to come from the backend and travel over the horses back and through to his contact – all your energy and softness needs to come from the horse’s engine. Focus on this and don’t be tempted to block and get busy with the hands: this will have the opposite effect and won’t encourage your horse to stretch correctly.
- After your horse has worked he should naturally be more inclined to want to stretch so take advantage when teaching your horse how to stretch correctly.
- It can be challenging to teach a horse to stretch correctly. Some horses naturally seek to carry themselves curled up and behind the vertical. With these horses, I push the walk or trot forward for a few paces and put my hands slightly up and forward to encourage the horse to propel himself forward and use himself which should encourage him to push his nose out and away. Then, I can then ask again to try and get a better positioning of the neck.
- Don’t expect miracles! All horses are different and some will show better stretch than others so don’t ever try and force your horse to stretch, allow him the opportunity to develop this element of his training slowly and carefully. It should be a reward to the horse, not a punishment, so take your time in teaching your horse and refining his stretch work.
- Keep In Mind: A break won’t work as a reward if your horse isn’t enjoying the break. If he doesn’t like it, it will not increase the desired behaviour you thought you were rewarding (in fact it may decrease it!).
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