Shortening and lengthening strides
By Anne Wilson
Shortening and lengthening a horse’s stride is a good exercise to intersperse, along with transitions, to help the horse to balance and to engage the hindquarters and to build up the weight carrying ability of the haunches. To begin with the lengthened strides do not have to equate to extension or even to a medium trot, but literally just lengthening compared to the normal stride.
When to Introduce Shortening and Lengthening
I am a strong believer in not starting these exercises too soon, especially in walk. At the beginning of training the main aims should be – forward, straight and rhythmic. Many young horses find rhythm something quite hard to retain and can be quite erratic. A good energetic, rhythmic walk, forward going without rushing, is something to be treasured and nurtured. Many a good walk has been spoiled by people ‘messing about’ and changing the length of stride too soon in the training process. Many people spoil both the walk and trot, by pushing the horse on too fast. This seems to be particularly prevalent in the competition sector, as some judges seem to mistake ‘forwardness’ and ‘impulsion’ for speed, which is not at all the same thing. Many big horses have a natural walk and trot which may appear to some to be lethargic, but as long as they are stepping through from behind with impulsion and are not just ‘slopping along’, then it is much better to concentrate on the desire to go forward willingly from the rider’s aids, with straightness and rhythm. If pushed on at a faster speed then all that is accomplished is a horse who is running onto the forehand, which is obviously most undesirable, although not always recognised even by experienced people.
Later on in the horse’s training, when he is confirmed in the adage of ‘forward, straight and rhythmic’ is the time to begin to ask for one or two shortened, then lengthened strides.
Shortening the Stride
The shortened strides will be the beginning of the horse learning to collect, and will be easier for him to learn if he has begun some of the basic exercises described earlier in this series. This shortening should not consist of a shuffled stride, nor of a lack of impulsion, but the steps are made shorter by the horse lifting each foot a little higher off the ground. At first no more than two or three strides should be asked in walk, then the horse is asked to walk on in normal walk again.
The Aids for asking for a Shortened Stride
To request shortened strides the rider will need to possess a good classical seat. In short, an upright torso with head, shoulder, hip, heel in alignment; combined with equal weight on both seat bones and a small amount of weight on the front of the seat (this means the upper inner thighs). The chest should be open and expanded with toned (but not tense) abdominal and back muscles; shoulders relaxed back and down; elbows relaxed against the rider’s sides and a straight line from the elbow to the horse’s mouth, with thumbs on top of the reins.
When asking the horse to shorten the stride, the rider advances the waist towards the hands whilst closing the knees and thighs, which has the effect of arresting the forward movement. This combined with a slight ‘feel’ on the reins, gives the horse the idea that he may be being asked to halt, but this is counteracted by the gentle and very tactful use of the inner calf muscles, requesting the horse to keep the forward momentum. Since he is being asked not to move faster, the only way for the impulsion to go is up, so his steps should become a little higher, hopefully with a little weight transference to the haunches.
Obviously these aids need to be applied very tactfully and in unison with a split second give and take, especially the feel on the reins. As soon as the horse is responding, then the feel on the reins should be relaxed and only reintroduced if necessary. There should be absolutely no force involved. If the horse does not understand at first, you can always try again and be prepared to congratulate him if you feel just one stride of what you are seeking. These aids, if applied gently and tactfully should not be conflicting. As Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg (former Chief Rider of the Spanish Riding School of Vienna) says, the aids should be thought of as a carefully constructed symphony with one complementing the other.
Once these shortened strides have been established, they can be expanded to say six strides, then the aids neutralised and the horse is asked for a normal walk again.
The aids are exactly the same for shortening the stride in trot, and in fact in canter. However, I would leave shortened strides in canter until quite an advanced stage of training.
Lengthening the Stride
If we look at the ultimate lengthened stride, i.e. extension; we should be aware that a good extension involves the horse extending the whole body, not just the forelegs. The hind legs should be brought more forward underneath the body as well as the head, neck and forelegs being extended. EXTENSION SHOULD NOT MEAN SPEED – a fast, rushed trot will put more weight onto the forehand and leave the hind legs trailing behind. An extended trot will cover the ground faster, but the criterion here is that the stride is lengthened, not necessarily quickened.
Exactly the same criteria apply to the slightly lengthened stride that we are looking for in the beginning of training this exercise, but to a smaller degree.
It should be borne in mind that true extension cannot possibly be attained until the horse is able to collect properly. Likewise the lengthened strides will be much easier if the horse has begun a modicum of collection, as described in the exercises previously covered in this series.
The Aids for asking for Lengthened Strides
It is often helpful to request lengthened strides immediately after the shortening of the stride.
After the closing or arresting aids of the knees, thighs and advanced waist as described above, the horse will immediately feel the difference when these aids are released, and together with the opening of the fingers to allow the slight forward stretch of the horse’s head and neck, he will be ready to go forwards. At this moment, the rider gives encouraging forward aids with the inner calf muscles, a touch further forward than normal. A gentle but quick ‘on and off’ aid is usually best. The rider should sit very tall with shoulders back, but be careful not to lean back nor to allow too much weight to be transferred to the seat bones and the back of the saddle. Pressing down with the seat bones onto the back of the saddle only serves to hollow the horse’s back and impede the impulsion and forward stepping of the hind legs.
Just one or two lengthened strides, whether in walk or trot, should suffice to begin with; then the horse should be brought back to an ordinary gait.
Never over-do these changes of strides but use them with discretion interspersed with other transitions and exercises. They add another dimension of interest to your schooling programme and can be gradually built upon to eventually, over the months and years, result in true collection and extension. Don’t forget to give your horse plenty of rest periods of walk on a loose rein and be liberal with your praise. You will find he is much more willing to work for you if you do this, than if you ‘keep his nose to the grindstone’ for too long. You will also be building up his strength without putting strain on his muscles or joints.
Anne Wilson is a freelance classical riding trainer, based in Bedfordshire; trained with Sylvia Loch and holder of the Classical Riding Club Gold Award Certificate – Phone 01234 772401 or email:- firstname.lastname@example.org
See Anne’s book ‘Riding Revelations – Classical Training from the Beginning’ available from www.blacktent.co.uk