This picture shows Sara Gray on her 9-year-old mare Josie Sandra TF. Josie has had two foals and was started late into riding. She was only about a month under saddle when Sara got her. They are currently showing First Level.
When I went as a “Bereiter” into a German dressage stable, the main trainer there told me: When you can ride your horse properly over the back into stretching, you are ready to ride serial changes (higher level fun movements). So, I am happy to write about this picture!
A good stretch is a check of how the work before it is done and requires rhythm, balance, suppleness and the seeking of contact from the horse. It is proof that the training is following the classical rules and the Training Scale.
A Correct Stretchy Trot
In this photo, Josie is trotting and stretching very nicely. The trot is active. The right hind leg is swinging with lift under the body, and the diagonal front leg shows the same lift and is reaching forward from the shoulder. The back looks open and supple with a swinging tail, and the neck is reaching forward down into the contact. The photo angle is making it difficult to judge the horse’s balance and neck position. Though the left front and hind legs are lifted the same height, the right front leg is still fully on the ground with the left hind leg already starting to lift. This indicates a very slight tendency to load the front legs more, which often can happen when the horse is deeply stretching.
There is a very fine line between the horse reaching deep or hanging the weight of the neck onto the shoulders. Sara is riding just on the border, which in training is very important, as here the real work starts. In a lesson, it would be important to see how the next strides continue. I hope that Josie finds the balance of the topline into better self-carriage without needing to come up.
The neck and the head of the horse are heavy and function like a balance lever. The lower they hang, the more they will pull on the shoulders downward. Therefore, the horse needs to have an “anchor” to be able to reach long and low with the neck without tipping onto the forehand. The best description I have for this is from my cousin Felicitas von Neumann-Cosel: “The horse should feel like looking curiously over the cliff but staying safe on the legs.” This means only a horse with a good balance and a strong topline can afford to “look over the cliff” in a deep stretch.
Rider Position During the Stretch
Sara is riding with high concentration in this photo. She is keeping her body upright and maintaining contact to help her horse stay balanced. To be critical, I notice that her lower leg is slightly turning out with the heel coming up. Keeping her leg long, stretching down through the hamstrings into a deep heel can be the “anchor” line that helps the horse keep the balance. The more the rider can deepen into the stirrups, the easier it is to balance the upper body and have independent hands.
In our bodies, the elastic structures play an important role for stability and elasticity. There is a fascial connection called the superficial backline. This starts at the eyebrows and runs over the head, down the back, along the back of the legs, around the ankles, under the soles of the feet, all the way to the big toes. Expanding this backline will ensure an elastic stability that the horse can use as an aid to anchor his balance and allow stretching without tipping on the forehand. The lower leg moving slightly back and the ankle coming up is already weakening the backline of the rider.
When Sara deepens into her stirrups and becomes more aware of this backline, she may feel that Josie can stretch with more self-carriage and balance.
Hand Position Matters
There are details in Sara’s hand position that can influence the quality of the stretching. Her left hand is facing down, which is adding weight onto the rein. Keeping the hand more upright will help to rotate the upper arm slightly to the outside and bring the shoulder blade into a better position.
This is part of a chain reaction. When you turn the arms out more, this triggers the shoulder to move back and the chest to lift. But if you face the hands down and rotate the arms inward, this leads to a rounding in the shoulders and crouching down. How to carry the hand is such a small detail that can make a big difference for the movement.
On her right hand, her fingers are open to allow maximal giving. This is OK for a moment but not permanently. Some riders think that the habit of riding with open fingers shows how soft they are in the contact. On the contrary, open fingers cannot give any more. The next possible movement of the hand is to close and take. Elasticity and soft giving are not possible riding with permanently open fingers.
The Elevator Exercise
The following exercise will help to ensure that stretching is balanced. Imagine the neck and head of the horse are in an elevator. Riding the horse in a normal frame (comfort-zone height) could be called the third floor. From there one can move slowly down into the second floor, wait there a couple of strides and then move down to the first floor.
In the same way, work your way slowly up from the first to the second and third floors and then even a little higher (without the horse becoming tight in the back or shorter in the movement). When you reach the fourth floor, then move down again. Gradually stretching and being able to change in many variations (3-2-3-2-1-2-3-4-3-2-3-2-1-2-1-2-3 …) ensures that the horse maintains the balance. It also teaches him to keep the benefit of the stretch when starting to collect. This way suppleness can get carried into the higher levels.
The way Sara and Josie are stretching and working together I am sure they will make their way up the levels. Enjoy the journey, Sara. You have a lovely partner in Josie.
About Susanne von Dietze
Susanne von Dietze is a leader in equestrian biomechanics. A physiotherapist, licensed Trainer A instructor and judge for dressage and show jumping, she gives lectures and seminars throughout the world, including at the prestigious German Riding Academy in Warendorf. She is a native of Germany and now lives with her husband and three children in Israel, where she competes at the international level. She is the author of two books on the biomechanics of riding: Balance in Movement and Rider and Horse, Back to Back.
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