Are You Lengthening or Rushing?
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Don’t you just hate not knowing? It’s the biggest cause of tension in riders. Especially those who ride on their own. It’s amazing how easy things feel when you’re under instruction but the minute you’re on you own everything seems so much harder.
A classic rider confuser is lengthened strides. How many times have you genuinely believed you’ve performed the best medium trot of the day only to find the judge has given you a five? Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a way of knowing without guessing or relying on what you think feels OK?
Try this –
(This post is explained using trot but you can use any pace.)
The first thing you need to do is work out what’s normal. Ride large and count your strides on each long side between corner markers (K – H or M – F). Ride at least three times round so you know what your regular stride count is.
You can use this method for the long diagonals where you’re often asked to lengthen in a test (count from ¼ to ¾ line). Make sure you work out your normal stride count first and ride it at least three times to make sure.
Before you lengthen you should shorten your horse. This is the easiest way to get him back on his hocks and off his shoulder. If his weight is on his shoulder he can’t lengthen. Try walking leaning forward. To stop yourself falling over you’ll take short, quick, heavier steps. He’ll do the same.
To shorten your horse’s strides use your thigh and knee squeezed into the saddle. (See The Other Way of Stopping) At the same time be firm with your lower leg to keep him stepping under with his hind legs. This ‘slowing down but pushing on’ generates power or impulsion. The strides become shorter but more energetic.
To check if you’ve shortened your strides correctly count down each long side again. Your count should have increased by at least one. Check it three or four times before you move on to lengthening to make sure your horse is engaged.
The most important part of lengthening is keeping your horse on his hocks. When he truly lengthens his stride it should feel as if he’s trotting over poles. He should spring upwards and forwards. To do this you have to contain his energy with a steady rein contact. Lose it or offer your hand forward and you’ll not only allow energy to escape you’ll tip him onto his shoulder. From there he won’t be able to lengthen.
Each time you check on a rein your horse tightens his back. That’s okay for a brief half-halt but if you’re doing it every stride to steady or collect him it will have a negative effect. If his back stays tight he’ll be unable to bring his hocks underneath him. Practice using your thigh and knee as aids for slowing down and collecting. The less you rely on your hands the more relaxed he’ll be.
Ride round the short side with your knees tight on the saddle to shorten the strides. Use your lower leg to keep the trot active. Turn onto the long side and get straight. Relax your knee. As your horse feels you release the pressure from his shoulder he’ll swing forward and lengthen his strides.
As your horse lengthens his stride don’t be tempted to ask for any more. It’s important he finds and maintains his balance. Lengthened strides are often spoiled by over riding. In sitting trot the best thing you can do is sit still. Scrubbing your seat forward and back in an attempt to make him relax his back and stretch unsurprisingly has the opposite effect!
At the end of the long side shorten your horse to put him back on his hocks. Ask again when you’re happy he’s balanced. Initially it’s a good idea to ride one side of lengthened and the next of shortened strides. This makes sure you’ve kept him back on his hocks and you’re not unintentionally allowing him to fall onto his shoulders.
Count your strides when you feel they’re longer. Your count should have decreased. A tense horse takes short, quick steps. If you’ve rushed not lengthened your count will increase. Be happy if you reduce your count by one. It may not feel earth shattering but your horse will be relaxed and balanced. This gives you a solid foundation from which to ask for more.
This exercise is brilliant because it’s foolproof. It removes any doubts you may have. You’ll be able to ride on your own and know if what you’re feeling is right. Without confusion or tension from you your horse has a better chance of understanding what you want.
There is very little in life that improves if you rush it. Your horse is no exception. A dressage judge will give you a higher mark for staying rhythmical, relaxed and in balance than they will if you fire your horse across the diagonal on his shoulder!
Good luck and enjoy your schooling.