This picture shows Jessica Smyth on her 10-year-old Swedish Warmblood mare, Star. They are currently competing at Fourth Level.
Star is moving with nice engagement from behind, and from the picture I would guess that they are working on trot extensions on a circle. Star shows energy and elasticity in the movement and an appropriate amount of collection for this level. It is a good picture to show that the extended movements are closely related to collection. The same amount of energy that is necessary for the collected movement can be used to propel the movement more forward into the extension. This is really visible in the picture. The angle of the photograph makes it a little hard to judge the neck position. I assume that Star has a very nice frame in the collection (before starting to extend) with the poll as the highest point and the nose slightly in front of the vertical and a nice softness to the inside flexion. Her mouth is closed and shows foam, which is always a sign of a relaxed poll and true suppleness, as only then can the glands provide the saliva to show the foam on the mouth.
Practicing extensions on a bent line not only works on the horse’s ability to lengthen the strides, but also improves the lateral bending work. If you concentrate on riding the exact same circle line on whatever size circle you choose, the horse should be able to keep the same number of strides for each quarter of the circle. Riders who are blind actually use this technique to make sure the circles are perfectly round. When deliberately putting in more or less steps per quarter of the circle, one can be sure that the horse correctly lengthens or shortens the strides and does not merely become slower or faster. If, on the same circle line, the horse needs fewer strides, she naturally needs to bend in her body a bit more than when using more strides. That is why horses often tend to enlarge the circle during extensions to avoid bending more in the body. Using this knowledge can be a very good tool to improve the horse’s bend while riding forward. Too often, riders slow down their horses too much when aiming to bend more (starting from the hands), and this photo is a very good picture to explain the connection of the forward movement and the lateral bending of a horse. It reminds me of the classical sentence from Gustav Steinbrecht: “Ride your horse forward and straighten him.”
When I look very critically at this picture, I notice that the horse’s neck is still in the frame for the collected trot, but her body and legs are already open in the extension. You can see that the front leg reaches farther out than her nose. To perfect this already pretty good moment, Jessica should encourage Star to reach out with her neck and topline to carry her head farther forward. That would give the extended movement more balance and longer air time.
When schooling the elasticity of the transitions between collection and extension, it is important that it starts in the horse’s body (as seen in the picture)—only then can the neck become free and reach out more, too. If the neck gets too long too early, the horse cannot find the balance in her body and will not be able to extend well. This picture shows enough balance in the horse’s body for Jessica to start asking for a bit more open frame in the neck now, too.
Looking at Jessica’s seat, I can see that she is aware of this and carries her hands with the intention to support the uphill and forward tendency in this movement. Her inside leg is right in place and she is looking forward and very concentrated. Her seat shows a considerable amount of feel and experience. She is using her pelvis and seat to encourage Star’s hind legs and to start the extension correctly from the hindquarters through the body to the front. Now she has to be careful not to be left behind the motion.
In the moment of the photograph, it appears as though Star got the message and reacted to Jessica’s weight aid very promptly. Jessica does push her hands forward to allow the forward movement, but her upper body stayed slightly behind, still asking for the forward movement. This is not severe, but it can be enough to cause Star to brace in her neck as a balance reaction.
Consider this scenario: Imagine standing on a skateboard and quickly leaning a little bit back to give your legs and the board a forward impulse. If you are not fast enough to bring your body back over your legs, the skateboard will take off alone and you will end up sitting on the ground as the board rolls off. Jessica, of course, does not look like she is in danger of this, as her balance is not at risk. But becoming aware of this moment can help her improve the quality of her extension.
Quality movement in trot requires some elasticity and springiness inside the movement. I often compare it to jumping on a trampoline: If you want to land safely on your feet, your head should be positioned well over your feet. It is easier to maintain this position when you are taking small jumps forward, but becomes harder when jumping a farther distance forward. Now, think of this in terms of the rider’s upper-body balance for riding shorter strides and then lengthened strides.
For Jessica, this trampoline example should help her understand that merely pushing with her pelvis can result in her legs coming in front of the alignment line. Then, she gives the horse a forward impulse, but her body balance stays behind the movement. A better forward alignment of her upper body will help her to ride the extension with more harmony, fluency and quality.
I would advise Jessica to concentrate on her upper body and chest balance during these extensions and always think futuristically. She needs to bring her upper body forward toward the place where the horse will land on the next stride. Then her pelvis will be supported by her upper-body balance and it will be easier for Star to stretch this little bit more in her topline and score even higher in her already very nice extension.
I hope that this image will deepen Jessica’s understanding of her horse’s needs and balance. I wish this harmonious and talented pair many happy hours of exploring higher level secrets in dressage.