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Stretching at Walk-2

Stretching at Walk – part 2 – Common Problems

“Not being tense but ready. Not thinking but not dreaming. Not being set but flexible. Liberation from the uneasy sense of confinement. It is being wholly and quietly alive, aware and alert, ready for whatever may come.” ― Bruce Lee, Tao of Jeet Kune Do

What faults can occur?

  • If the horse does not respond by moving its nose forward and down within the first few attempts, then either the horse and rider do not have a good steady connection in the first place, or there has been a problem co-ordinating the aids (usually due to the rider not giving correctly in step 4), or the horse has not been taught to soften to the particular rein signal used. Double check all the different components then ask again. If the problem persists then get an instructor to help diagnose what is going wrong.
  • If the horse lowers its nose but then brings it straight back up again then the most common cause is that the rider gave away too much of the rein in step 4, and the connection has been dropped. The horse may also raise its head if the rider’s connection is too strong.
  • If the horse lowers its nose and keeps it down for a number of strides but then lifts it up, then you may need to re-ask for the lowering, or check that you haven’t let the reins go slack, or both. Sometimes moving the hands wider apart can allow you to regain the connection without having to shorten the reins again. Check that the horse is not too tired, going too fast, or losing balance by drifting to one side.
  • The horse may drop its nose but shorten its neck and tucks its nose toward his chest instead of reaching down and forward. This occurs when the horse doesn’t have confidence in the connection with the rider and tries to drop the contact. It can also be called getting ‘behind the bit’.
  • The horse pulls downward and snatches the reins out of the rider’s hand. This is usually due to one of the following: an inconsistent connection between the rider and horse normally; or because the horse doesn’t understand the aids; or because the horse is desperate for a stretch; or has learnt bad habits.

Some of these faults and some solutions are covered in more detail below.

Common Mistakes

  1. The horse tucks its nose in toward its chest

The horse has lowered its head, but the movement is not correct as the horse has not stretched its neck. The front of the horse’s head is ‘behind the vertical’, with the nose nearer to the chest than the ears (you may need someone on the ground to look for this, as it can be hard to feel if the horse is only just behind the vertical). The horse is not relaxed, and loses a lot of the benefits of the movement.

What the rider usually feels:

  • The horse is still short in the body, the ears seem close to the withers and the reins have not lengthened (or are flapping loose).
  • The connection between the horse’s mouth and the rider’s hand has been lost, or if there is still some connection then it is often with the inside hand only.
  • The steps are short and may be fairly brisk.

What the rider usually does:

  • Because there is no connection with the reins and the horse’s neck is short, the rider usually gives with the hands and moves them forward in the hope that the horse will choose to lengthen its neck by itself. Alternatively, they worry about not having a connection and suddenly grab hold of the mouth again (making the horse either tuck its nose in further or throw its head up).
  • Because the horse is taking short quick steps, the rider stops using their legs as they think this will make the horse go faster.

What the rider should do:

  • The rider must re-take the rein contact in the outside rein. There must be a light connection between the horse and rider.
  • The rider must use their legs to achieve the contact. The horse must go ‘forward off the leg and into the rein’.
    • If the horse does not take up a contact when asked then the inside leg is used to encourage this.
    • If the horse shows any reluctance to go forward when the contact is taken, then both legs are used to insist the horse goes forward.
    • Once contact is established, then alternate leg aids can be used to encourage a longer stride.
  • The speed of the horse is controlled by the circle size and the rider’s seat (rather than the reins).
  • Double check that the horse has a correct connection when walking normally. If there is normally a good connection, then the horse might just be unsure about the new movement (remember that horses mostly learn by trial and error). If there is a weak or non-existent connection then work on this first.
  1. The horse stretches out and up, or level, instead of stretching down.
    The rider has no control over how high or low the horse’s head is, as the horse has decided this for itself.

What the rider usually feels:

  • There is either no connection with the outside rein, or the horse has pulled on the reins in order to make the rider let go of the connection. The horse is usually taking longer steps but the movement feels a little flat through the back, without power (although speed may be present). Some of the swinging movement of the stride is lost, particularly at trot.
  • When the rider goes to re-take the connection and move into the next pace (or back to a medium walk) they feel like they have to ‘reel in’ the reins and the horse will often throw its head or show some other sign of resistance to having a contact again.

What the rider usually does:

  • Nothing, because it doesn’t feel too bad and the horse has actually put its nose further forward. From the ground it doesn’t look too bad (compared to some of the other faults) and some dressage judges at the lower levels will still mark it generously.

What the rider should do:

  • Re-establish a correct connection with the outside rein.
  • Use the inside leg to encourage this.
  • Practice asking the horse to soften and drop its nose on request.

If they do this, then they will be able to decide how much stretch to ask for and ask the horse to stretch lower. The horse will use the muscles of its back and push itself forward with its hind legs, instead of going hollow and pulling itself forward with its front legs.

  1. The horse snatches at the reins and pulls the reins out of the rider’s hands
    The horse may or may not reach down, but does usually put its nose further out. The horse may have its head in the correct position for a period, while it stretches, but will be able to end the stretch whenever it wants i.e. the horse is making the decision as to how much it lowers its head and how long a time it stretches.

What the rider usually feels:

  • There is no contact on the horse’s mouth and it resists the rider retaking a connection before the horse is ready; or the horse leans on the rider’s hand and keeps pulling at the reins to keep its head down.
  • The horse may have a long neck and long stride, and be swinging through its back, but the rider is not in control.

What the rider usually does:

  • Drops the contact and lets the horse have the reins. This is usually based on the assumption that any stretch is better than none, even if the horse has made the decisions, but it is not a good thing to encourage long term. An equivalent would be to just let the horse halt or canter whenever it felt like it, without training it to do so following a signal.
  • Giving away the connection ‘rewards’ the horse for pulling i.e. the horse has got what it wants. Next time the horse wants the rider to let go it will pull harder or sharper, knowing that the rider will at some point will let go of the reins.

What the rider should do:

  • The rider needs to ‘block’ the pull from the horse, but not pull back. The rider resists the horses pull by tensing their core muscles and maintaining their position. Usually one of two things happen:
    A) The rider resists the horses pull and the horse gives à the rider must immediately soften the contact (to reward the horse) but don’t let the connection go altogether.
    B) The rider resists the horses pull and the horse doesn’t give à the rider should give and take as if asking for slowing down, but not give away the contact completely. Think ‘soften, soften, soften’ rather than ‘pull, pull, pull’. At the same time, the rider should use the inside leg and seat aids to encourage a correct ‘leg to rein’ response. In general, the horse should be taught to be more responsive to the riders signals, and the rider should check that they are using the correct aids with an independent seat.
  • DO NOT yank the reins and punish the horse by causing pain in its mouth. This will destroy the trust the horse has in the connection between its sensitive mouth and the rider’s hand, making it reluctant to keep a soft contact; OR it will damage the sensitive cells in the horses mouth and the horse will become ‘dead’ to the rein signals (i.e. it will stop responding).
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If done properly the horse looks like it is stretching the whole of its topline (muscles along the top of its back and neck) and it takes long free strides i.e. not interfered with by the rider. The rider still has a connection with the horse’s mouth, and can ask the horse to increase or decrease the amount of stretch as required.