One of the key scales of training for dressage horses is suppleness. The term refers to the horse’s willingness to work over his back and topline to seek the rider’s contact.
This scale is tested in movements where the horse is allowed to ‘take the reins and stretch’, and in the ‘free walk on a long rein’.
But what is the judge looking for and how do you encourage your horse to work over his back and stretch?
What the judge is looking for when stretching on a long rein
When testing suppleness over the back and the willingness to work ‘through’ from behind to the contact, the dressage judge is looking for the qualities that are described in the FEI guidelines as follows:
‘Stretching on a long rein. This exercise gives a clear impression of the “throughness” of the horse and proves its balance, suppleness, obedience and relaxation.
In order to execute the exercise “stretching on a long rein” correctly, the rider must lengthen the reins as the horse stretches gradually forward and downward.
As the neck stretches forwards and downwards, the mouth should reach more or less to the horizontal line corresponding with the point of the shoulder.
An elastic and consistent contact with the rider’s hands must be maintained.
The pace must maintain its rhythm, and the horse should remain light in the shoulders with the hind legs well engaged.
During the retake of the reins, the horse must accept the contact without resistance in the mouth or poll.’
If the horse is tense or not ‘on the bit’, he won’t stretch, and this will incur a poor mark.
How to teach your horse to stretch
Begin by taking up a relaxed but purposeful walk.
The horse should be attentive to your aids and be working forward into a light elastic contact.
Ride a large circle and gently release a small amount of pressure on your inside rein whilst maintaining your outside contact so that the horse doesn’t lose his balance and drift out.
The horse should begin to follow your hand and stretch forwards and down towards the contact.
Keep your hands very still and quiet.
Pulling back or ‘fiddling’ with your fingers will only cause background noise, and the horse won’t want to work into the contact.
If this doesn’t work, make the circle a little smaller and try again, asking for more inside bend and flexion. Keep your leg on to encourage the horse to move toward the hand.
If the horse lifts his head, rather than stretching, pick up the contact and begin again.
Reward even the tiniest amount of stretching by easing both hands (but don’t give away the contact completely), removing your leg pressure and patting your horse.
Once your horse has begun to understand what you want, offer him more rein until he’s almost placing his nose on the floor!
As long as he keeps moving forward and working into the contact, you’re working along the right lines.
When the penny drops in walk, repeat the exercise in trot.
The steps should become bigger and longer, with more elevation and bounce. You should begin to feel the horse’s back really swinging underneath you as he rounds over his topline and pushes himself along from behind.
The exercise is also demanded in canter in some of the more advanced dressage tests. The challenge here is to allow the horse to stretch without allowing him to lose his balance and rhythm.
Working over the back and stretching forward and round into the contact are crucial elements of the basic scales of training for dressage horses.
Your horse should find this exercise enjoyable, and you can use it as a reward during schooling sessions as a relief from more collected work.
- How to Ride From Your Inside Leg to Your Outside Rein
- How to Improve the Free Walk on a Long Rein
- Exercises to Improve Suppleness and Balance
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Suppleness