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How to Teach Your Horse to Lengthen

How to Teach Your Horse to Lengthen Dressage

Once you reach novice level in dressage, you will be asked to show that you can lengthen your horse’s stride in the walk, trot, and canter.

Those of you who are lucky and have horses that naturally and effortlessly lengthen their stride can enjoy “free” points! However, for the majority of riders with horses that have less than flashy paces, extended paces can be elusive.

If you fall into the latter category of dressage riders, don’t despair!

Every horse can show a difference in all his paces!

Watch your horse playing in the field, and you will see him demonstrate some impressive lengthening. Well, the good news is that you can persuade your horse to reproduce that same length of stride and frame when under saddle.

In this article, we explain how to teach your horse to lengthen his stride, even if his paces are “ordinary.”

What is lengthening?

Lengthened strides are the halfway house between the working and medium paces. Lengthening is used to teach the horse to work in the medium paces without asking for too much that would spoil the rhythm, cadence, and balance of the pace.

The horse can lengthen his stride in all the paces. In dressage tests, lengthening of the steps is asked for in extended walk, medium trot, extended trot, medium canter, and extended canter.

When the horse lengthens his stride, he lengthens his whole frame, and his steps cover more ground. As he lengthens, the horse lowers his back and continues reaching for the bit. The increased freedom of the strides allows the horse to swing through his back and brings his hindlegs more underneath him to create more impulsion.

Throughout the exercise, the rhythm, tempo, and balance of the gait should remain the same.

What the dressage judge is looking for

In dressage tests, when judging lengthening, the judge is looking for:

  • Correct, consistent rhythm
  • Correct, consistent tempo
  • Increased ground cover, equally in front and behind
  • Uphill balance
  • Horse remains round over the topline, stretching through to the bit
  • Clear, balanced, smooth transitions into and out of the lengthened pace

If you can demonstrate all those things, you should get a very good mark, even if your horse’s paces are not particularly extravagant.

Common faults that are seen in the lengthened paces include:

  • Horse breaks rhythm, e.g., breaks into canter during the medium trot
  • Steps become irregular
  • Horse speeds up (running)
  • Horse raises his head and becomes hollow through his back and neck
  • Horse comes wide behind
  • Hocks trail out behind
  • Horse lengthens in front but not behind
  • Horse comes too short in his neck, not lengthening his frame
  • Horse loses balance in and out of the transitions

Most of these mistakes occur because the rider tries to “fire” the horse out of the corner onto the diagonal line without establishing good balance and connection first.

Also, some riders think that it is better to show no difference at all in the steps and settle for a safe “5” than risk a mistake. However, that’s not such a good strategy, as the lack of ability to lengthen will be reflected in the collective mark for paces, as well as in the individual movements in the test.

Before teaching your horse to lengthen

Before we talk about how to teach your horse to lengthen his stride, let’s look at what’s required of you, the rider.

Rider requirement 1

You must have a secure, independent, balanced seat that can follow the horse’s movement.

If you are gripping with your leg, the horse will respond by tensing his body, which will interfere with his attempts to lengthen his frame and stride.

Rider requirement 2

Your rein contact must be elastic.

When you ask the horse to lengthen, you should push your hands forward, and the horse should follow the hand, stretching his head, neck, and body toward the contact.

If your hand is fixed and blocking, or if the contact is intermittent, the horse will not seek to find your hand again when you release the rein forward.

Rider requirement 3

You must be able to ride a proper half-halt.

That’s crucial if you want to ride smooth transitions and keep the horse balanced throughout the lengthening exercise.

Rider requirement 4

You must also know how to engage your horse’s hindquarters.

When riding lengthened strides in trot and canter, you need to “wind up” the horse’s energy in his powerful hindquarters before allowing that impulsion to travel forward into your elastic contact and slightly forward hand.

The aids for lengthening

The aids used for lengthening are the same for all the paces.

Think of riding “from a whisper, not a scream.” In other words, make your aids as discreet as possible, and avoid kicking your horse or digging him with your spurs.

Step 1

Start by gradually increasing the level of impulsion, containing the energy in your elastic contact, and by using half-halts.

Step 2

Keep your horse straight, ease your hands slightly forward, and ask the horse to take a few bigger steps without losing impulsion.

Don’t fire the horse into the lengthening. That will push him out of balance and rhythm, and he will probably fall onto his forehand and start running.

Gradually, ask the horse to lengthen his stride, keeping the tempo and rhythm the same.

Step 3

Be careful not to lean back behind the movement and start driving the horse with your seat. That puts pressure on the horse’s loins, causing him to hollow against the discomfort.

Step 4

When riding the transition back, sit up, keep your leg on, and close your hands to maintain the energy.

Step 5

Throughout the exercise, be sure to maintain a “receiving” contact that doesn’t restrict the impulsion through the horse’s back.

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to balance the horse with your reins. That will cause him to shorten his neck and hollow through his back.

TIP: When teaching your horse to lengthen in trot, always ride the exercise rising. Sitting on the horse’s back will probably cause him to tighten up and become hollow.

Exercises to teach your horse to lengthen

To teach your horse to lengthen, begin with an active, rhythmic working trot.

Step 1

In the arena, ride down the long side.

Just before you reach the corner, ride a half-halt to rebalance the horse’s weight back onto his hindquarters and shorten your reins slightly to gather your horse into a secure connection.

Step 2

Ride your horse in that way around the next short side and through the next corner, taking up a slight shoulder-fore position as you do so to bring the inside hind leg more underneath the horse.

Step 3

On reaching the next long side, straighten the horse, push your hands very slightly forward, and soften your rein contact.

Squeeze your legs on or just behind the girth. The horse should reach forward with his head and neck to follow the contact.

Releasing the contact allows the impulsion you’ve created to explode forward as the horse follows your hands. Using your legs encourages your horse to lengthen his frame and, consequently, his stride.

Step 4

Ask for just a few strides at first, gradually building up the number of steps as your horse becomes more balanced.

Don’t ask for too much too soon.

Step 5

Repeat the exercise a few times until your horse gets the idea.

Now, try riding the exercise on the diagonal line of the arena.

Again, shorten the horse’s frame, and use a half-halt to gather the impulsion in the corners and on the short side before you go.

Step 6

Remember to use the half-halt to bring your horse back into the working pace before you reach the corner/track.

The transition back is important, as it reestablishes the horse’s balance and keeps him attuned to your aids.

Step 7

Once the horse can manage the exercise comfortably in trot, you can progress to riding a few lengthened strides in canter, using exactly the same aids and exercises.

Exercise tips

You can ride the exercise on a 20-meter circle too, which can help to bring the horse’s inside hind leg more underneath him, preventing the horse from falling onto his forehand and discouraging him from quickening.

Also, it can be helpful to practice riding lengthened strides away from the arena on trails or in fields. Riding lengthening up a long hill can prevent the horse from running onto his forehand and encourages him to push more from behind.

Remember to keep the rhythm and tempo correct and consistent, use your half-halts to gather the horse before you ask him to lengthen, and, in trot, rise slowly to discourage the horse from quickening.

Lengthening in the walk

Most horses will lengthen their stride in the walk, naturally wanting to stretch their head and neck down when the rider releases the rein contact.

In extended walk, the horse’s hind feet should clearly overtrack the prints left by the forefeet.

Ride the walk in exactly the same way as described above, collecting the horse in the corner, and then easing your hand forward to encourage him to stretch as you ride across the diagonal, down the long side, or around a circle.

Be sure to keep your leg on to encourage the horse to remain active and step further underneath his body, covering more ground as he does so.

In conclusion

Every horse can learn to lengthen his stride!

Keep the rhythm and tempo the same, and don’t be tempted to fire the horse into the lengthening, as that will cause him to lose his balance, become hollow, and start running.

Do you have any other tips when it comes to teaching horses to lengthen their strides? Share them with us in the comments section below!

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