Spanish horses tend to be more compact, often with a shorter neck and back, which can make it harder for them to find the length in their bodies to stretch. I find they tend to be lighter in contact as a result of not wanting to stretch and follow the bit. Having said that, it is extremely important for any horse—regardless of breed or age—to be able to stretch forward and down. There are physical and training-related reasons for it.
Physical: As athletes, horses need to have a physically balanced body in order to stay healthy and have longevity in the sport. If a horse is ridden only in a collected frame, he is always using the same muscle groups. To get stronger and to avoid fatigue-related injuries, a horse’s body needs to use all muscle groups. A horse who is ridden in the same frame will lose his suppleness, elasticity and adjustability. He will not develop a connection from front to back, swing or relaxation through his body.
Young horses benefit from stretching as it can often make hard movements easier. For example, when I teach a younger horse the canter pirouette, I encourage him to lower his neck a bit. This makes it easier for him to step forward with his hind legs.
Training: A dressage horse must seek out the bit and follow the rider’s hand. This encourages him to stretch, use his back, have a longer stride and connect his hind end to his front end. If a horse only wants to be in a collected frame and doesn’t want to stretch, it’s a sign that he has a connection issue that needs to be addressed in order for his training to progress. A horse who holds himself and does not seek out the bit is not using his back or accepting the bit, but hiding from it. This usually results in the horse having a shorter, often choppy stride and being short in the neck or behind the vertical.
When training a horse, you need to be able to take his neck as low as you’d like and bring it up again when you want—with the horse following your hand at all times. With a younger horse, you might want to ride him in a more collected frame for five to 10 minutes and then ride him in a lower frame. The key is mixing it up and keeping the frame correct for the horse’s age and level of training while also considering his conformation.
Each horse is an individual. Some stretch better at the end of the work, while others stretch easily at any given time. When I’m working with a horse who does not want to seek out the bit, I consider his preferences so I can set him up for success. With some horses, getting them to stretch is all I work on until they begin to accept the bit. Other horses stretch better at the trot, some at the canter. I find it easier to stretch a horse at the end of a training session. You have to find out what works best for your horse. It is important, however, that horses learn to stretch at all three gaits.
Serpentines are a great exercise to encourage your horse to stretch as they are very conducive to getting the horse to go from your inside leg to your outside rein. A horse who likes to break at the poll doesn’t give you a lot to work with. For instance, if I have both reins at the same time and I want to stretch the horse, such as when riding in a straight line, often the horse will simply go deeper. But having a bit of extra value on the outside rein in a turn, while my inside rein invites him forward and down, is helpful. Connecting the horse to the outside rein like this develops a little bit of pressure on the reins, a baby step toward stretching forward.
When riding a four-loop serpentine, for example, I leg yield out on a loop portion, sending my horse forward and sideways from my inside leg toward the outside rein. In the leg yield, I don’t really use my weight a lot, but stabilize the horse by staying in the center. I do, however, make sure that I keep a straight line from my hands toward the bit. As the horse stretches, his head might come a bit lower. Now I need to lower my hands. As a result, I might also have to widen my hands, or the straight line from hand to bit will be broken, which will invite the horse to curl.
Since your horse stretches when walking him on the buckle, I recommend that you start there and work toward riding an extended walk, with the horse’s poll being at the height of his withers. Pick up the reins gradually. Make them only as short as your horse allows without curling his neck. Because you can use the outside rein more easily in turns, as in the previously mentioned example, bending lines such as circles are particularly helpful to encourage your horse to stretch. As in the exercise outlined, utilize the inside-leg-to-outside-rein principle when walking on circles or bending lines. Ride a lot of extended walk. Walk your horse out, invite him to march and accept the contact with a following hand. Watch the rhythm. Eventually, try to take his neck lower and lower. Don’t drop the reins, but always keep them at a point where you feel your horse does not yet shy away from the contact and curl, and work him toward stretching from there. As your horse relaxes through the poll, you can generally send him more forward and out.
Praise your horse when he offers the tiniest bit of stretch toward the contact. It is the only way he can differentiate between good and bad. The horse has to understand what you are asking him to do.
Kristina Harrison won a Pan American Games team gold medal in 2003. She competed the PRE stallion, Rociero XV, who was the first PRE to be invited to participate in the U.S. Olympic Dressage Team selection trials. She operates Angele Farms in California.