Stretching at Walk – part 1 – Why, How & What
“Learning to let go should be learned before learning to get. Life should be touched, not strangled. You’ve got to relax, let it happen at times, and at others move forward with it.” ― Ray Bradbury
Why teach a horse to stretch?
Everyone knows that horses’ stretch whenever they want, either in the stable or paddock, but it is also important to teach them to stretch when asked by the rider.
- loosens the muscles
- acts as a reward for the horse
- gives the rider (and horse) a moment of calm
- relaxes the horse, both physically and mentally
- can add swing and expression to the horse’s paces
So, we can use it as part of our training to help prevent stiffness and to help the horse understand that it is doing the right thing. If the horse is stiff or confused then it will become tense and resistant, but we can relax and soften the horse through stretching. We can also use it to help a horse accept strange situations and keep calm (ditto for the rider!). It is a valuable tool that most riders under-use.
What is meant by a ‘connection’ with the horse?
The term ‘connection’ is used here instead of ‘contact’, which tends to make people grab hold of the horse’s mouth. Ideally, you just want the horse to be ‘on the end of the phone line’ so that it can immediately respond when you ask it something, rather than having to ‘dial in’ (getting the contact back) before you can ‘say’ something. It is very hard to have a smooth conversation with a person if you keep hanging up the phone, and it is very hard to have a smooth conversation with your horse if you keep letting the reins go slack.
Another way of thinking about it is this: if you wanted to give someone a signal by squeezing their hand then you get a much softer smoother reaction if you already have a light hold on that person’s hand. If you grip too hard then they will resent it; their hand will become sore and numb; and they may not ignore your signal or not even feel it! Or you may have to give an even stronger signal to get a response.
On the other hand, if you don’t keep hold of the person’s hand then you have to grab it every time you want to give a signal, which may startle them or cause them to snatch their hand away, but will at the least mean a time delay before you can give the signal and they can respond.
The connection between you and your horse only needs to be a light connection (with the amount depending on the horse and rider’s softness) but it must be there at all times, even during a stretch. One of the most common fault by riders is to give the horse a loose rein and lose the connection — they have hung up the phone or let go of the ‘hand’, and also given the horse complete control over the way it holds its head and the pace it goes. The horse should be on a ‘long rein’ and not a ‘loose rein’.
How important are the correct aids?
Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion about what aids should be used and how to achieve a stretch. To add to this confusion, it is also possible to achieve a good stretch by using more than one method!
The method given here is the one I use (based on other more skilled riders’ writings and advice) and works for me and the type of horses I ride (mainly Thoroughbreds and other hot-blooded breeds), but this does not mean that other methods won’t work equally well or better for someone else. It also depends on what the horse as been taught. So, as with any method: if it isn’t working or if the horse is getting upset then seek further help!
Asking for stretch
Firstly, there are some things that need to be in place before the horse will respond to a request to stretch.
- The rider needs to be able to keep a constant connection with the horse’s mouth while it is walking. This means following the movement of its head, without the reins going slack-tight-slack.
- The horse also needs to keep the connection and not duck behind the contact (in which case the connection will be dropped) or take too heavy a contact (in which case the horse will lean on the bit).
- The rider needs to be able to use their hands ‘independently’. This means they need to be able to give a signal with one hand while the other stays still.
- The horse must have been taught to soften to the bit when asked. This means that when the rider gently gives a signal with one rein, the horse will soften the contact and drop its nose lower. At which point the rider MUST immediately stop the signal, and follow the connection down, so that the connection stays soft and constant.
What steps should you take?
- It is easiest to ask for stretch if you slow the walk down beforehand, and begin on a small circle (about 10m diameter). Try bending over and running yourself (without the horse of course) and you will soon find out how hard it is to lower your head and stretch your back if you are going too fast!
- Be prepared to keep using your inside leg to ensure the horse is working from your inside leg into your outside rein contact while working on the circle. But only use as much leg as is needed, as otherwise the horse will either make the circle larger or just begin to ignore the leg aid.
- Ensure you have a connection with both reins. Then increase the pressure slightly with the outside rein to help ‘block’ the forward movement. This is a constant aid i.e. increase the pressure and hold it (don’t pull backwards). Think of taking a firmer squeeze on someone’s hand and maintaining the pressure, but don’t hold on so tight that it hurts!
- At the same time, ask the horse to ‘soften’ with the inside rein. This must be a distinct signal and is performed by an increased pressure followed by GIVING IMMEDIATELY Think of it as giving someone’s hand a quick squeeze to send them a message. If the horse has been trained to respond, then he will drop his nose lower.
Note that it is one signal – don’t ‘ask, ask, ask’ before the horse has had time to respond. You can always repeat the aid in the next stride, but ask then wait for a response first.
- AS SOON AS the horse drops his nose, then yield with BOTH reins to lighten the contact, but DO NOT LOSE THE CONNECTION COMPLETELY. The horse will stretch forward and down to regain the original connection pressure.
- Follow the horse’s mouth down and forward, with the same soft constant connection you had on the circle to start with. Once the horse has been taught to stretch then you can do this by letting the reins slip through your fingers – the reins will become longer but you will still have a connection. However, in the early stages just move your hands forward a few inches (5-10cm).
- If done correctly then the horse will respond by moving its own nose forward and down to keep the connection with the rider’s hands. The connection will then end up the SAME as it was before you gave the aids, but the horse’s neck will be a little bit longer and lower.
- The amount to which you extend the reins is the amount of stretch that the horse should give you. In a trained horse, you should be able to ask the horse to stretch down to any point that you want (within reason, as the horse has to keep its balance) e.g. with its nose a few inches lower than the withers, or at the level of its knees etc. (but always stretching forward, not pulling the nose back toward the knees).
“????But how can that work????,” you ask.
From the horse’s point of view, it is very simple. The horse has become used to the connection with the rider and when that connection is ‘lost’ the horse reaches forward to find it again. This is a bit like a child re-taking its mother’s hand if she lets go.
When the horse’s neck has lengthened, the connection is ‘restored’ and the horse continues as it was, but with a longer neck. In reality, the connection is not thrown away, only made temporarily lighter, but the horse will try to restore it to the same amount it had before. So long as the horse is not rushed or hurried, it will soon associate stretching with the set of signals given.
From the rider’s point of view, it is not so simple. Riders get hung-up with either throwing away the connection (so the horse cannot find it again, and starts ‘doing its own thing’) or not wanting to give with the reins in case the horse takes off! Note that if the horse really did want to take off, then it wouldn’t matter if your reins were several inches longer or not, but if you are worried initially then just give by moving your hand forward, rather than by letting the reins go longer.
In the beginning, just about ALL riders have trouble keeping an even contact between the hand and the horse’s mouth while achieving the stretch movement, so don’t beat yourself up if you have problems – just keep working at it, and get the help of a trainer if you have ongoing problems. See Part 2 for common mistakes and some corrections.
What it should be like.
- The horse stretches its nose forward and down, with the face remaining near the vertical (i.e. not with the nose tucked back or poked way forward).
- The horse’s neck and back are rounded (not hollow).
- The horse takes long regular strides with a swinging back (not short or fast steps) and stays relaxed throughout.
- The rider maintains their position without leaning forward (or back) and, hopefully, remembers to look up (the author’s worst fault).
- The rider maintains a constant connection with the horse’s mouth (i.e. there are no loops in the outside rein, although the inside rein may give occasionally to check that the horse is working from inside leg to outside rein).
- The rider keeps a straight line between their elbow and the horse’s mouth i.e. their hands are not held too low or too high. The hands will be lower than normal, as the horse’s nose is lower, but the rider must not try to lower the horse’s head by pulling downwards with the hands.
- The rider uses their legs as appropriate to maintain the chosen movement, especially the inside leg to ‘send the horse into the outside rein’.
Can I do it at trot and canter too?
Horses can also be asked to stretch at trot and canter, but it requires more muscle power by the horse. If the horse is not strong enough to maintain a lowered and stretched posture at the faster paces, then it cause sore muscles and/or anxiety in the horse, which gives the opposite effect to the relaxation and calmness that is a key objective of stretching the horse at walk. Because of this, horses should be introduced to stretch at trot slowly, and for short periods only, and stretching at canter with a lowered head should only be asked of more advanced horses.
Teaching a horse to lengthen its neck and lower its head when asked is a key skill that can be used in many circumstances, but it requires a proper connection between horse and rider, and both the horse and rider need to give the correct responses.