Our adventure in First Level continues this month with a closer look at lengthenings. Last month’s column discussed building the skills of a First Level rider. Now it’s time to put those skills to use as we begin to work on the First Level movements.
Definition of a Lengthening
According to the USDF Glossary of Judging Terms, lengthening of the stride is defined as “a pace at trot and canter in which the stride, frame and phase of suspension are longer than in the working pace, but the degree of uphill balance required in the medium pace is not expected. The tempo remains nearly the same as in the working pace.”
There are a couple of important points to remember when working on the lengthening. First, the tempo should not change from the working pace. If the tempo increases, the horse has started to lose his balance and fall onto the forehand. Second, while the stride, frame and phase of suspension are longer, it does not require that the horse have a more uphill frame. An uphill frame comes with the introduction of collection, which is not required until Second Level.
The lengthening is introduced in First Level to test the horse’s ability to maintain his balance as the thrust from behind increases. A correct lengthening will also demonstrate the throughness of the horse. It encourages him to reach to the contact by engaging his whole body.
A First Level Half Halt
A correctly ridden half halt is the secret to getting the most out of the lengthening. In last month’s column we indicated that the half halt needs to evolve at this level. The half halt of First Level not only helps to maintain a good tempo, but now improves the engagement of the hind leg and, when applied correctly, will also improve the balance and attention of the horse.
In a successful lengthening, half halts not only will sustain the engagement of the horse’s hind leg, but maintain his balance and tempo. Rhythm and impulsion are not compromised in a correct half halt. Therefore, to ride a correct half halt, the rider must apply a quiet driving aid while engaging her core and softly closing her fingers on the rein. These aids should be applied within the rhythm of the gait to maintain the quality of the horse’s movement. This encourages the horse to keep the hind leg engaged, maintain throughness and sustain rhythm and impulsion. The idea is to create a forward half halt, which is only possible with the use of the driving aid. Without effective use of the driving aid, the half halt will discourage engagement of the hind leg, therefore creating a backward half halt.
In a lengthening, when the rhythm or impulsion is lost in the moment of the half halt, it is a good indicator that the hind leg did not step forward into the contact, thus an absence of throughness has occurred. Before continuing with the lengthening, the rider must reestablish a correct working gait, making sure the horse is in front of her leg before lengthening again.
Remember the Basics
While improving the movements in First Level, the rider shouldn’t lose sight of the First Level purpose. Better connection, improved balance and throughness need to be incorporated into each and every movement. If any of these three aspects are lost, the rider must go back to reinforcing the basics.
Good basics progress in First Level to increase the impulsion of the horse. Along with rhythm and a steady tempo, the horse begins to develop cadence. Referencing once again the USDF Glossary of Judging Terms, cadence is the marked accentuation of the rhythm and emphasized beat that is a result of a steady and suitable tempo harmonizing with a springy impulsion. A good lengthening is born out of these basics, which are established in the working gait. The rhythm, tempo and cadence of the working gait should continue their expression in the lengthening. The quality of the lengthening is born out of the quality of the working gaits.
As the rider works toward a better lengthening she will discover the importance of rider balance. When the horse lengthens his stride, the rider must be able to effortlessly stay with the increased suspension and impulsion. In the transition back to a working gait, the rider’s balance must not inhibit the horse’s ability to perform a smooth transition. A well-ridden transition will not compromise the basics, but will enhance the capability of the horse to maintain the quality of movement. A strong core and an independent upper body enable the rider to seamlessly adjust to changes in the stride length. Continual focus on improving the rider’s position will enable her horse to perform to the best of his abilities.
Exercise: Go Forward to Come Back
This exercise is useful to develop the lengthenings and create more expression of the gaits. It helps to keep the horse’s hind leg engaged when transitioning back to the working gait. It also improves the connection and throughness and is useful for slowly developing a more uphill frame required in Second Level.
1. Begin in a working trot.
2. Go forward two strides in trot.
3. Come back two strides in trot.
4. Repeat in canter.
When you ask your horse to go forward within the gait be sure to keep him connected and soft in your hand. The moment you feel your horse go forward, you can immediately ask him to come back. The moment your horse comes back, you can ask him to go forward. Once your horse is more honest with these transitions, you can increase the number of steps that you allow him to go forward. When asking your horse to come back, give an impulse with your leg aids to encourage your horse’s hind leg to stay engaged. This gives you the feeling that your horse is actually going forward to come back, meaning that his hind leg steps forward into the contact, without stiffening, to come back. Keep the tempo the same by half halting a little as you ask your horse to go forward. This will increase the stride length rather than increase the tempo.
It’s common for the horse to stiffen in the transitions. This can happen both when you go forward and when you come back. If your horse stiffens or gets heavy in the hand as you go forward, try doing the exercise on a circle so that he has to give in his rib cage. This makes it more difficult for the horse to drop and stiffen his back when he performs a transition. If he still stiffens as you go forward you can use counter-flexion for a moment to help keep him softer on the outside rein. Remember to use counter-flexion only for a stride or two, not longer. Counter-flexion needs to be utilized with the feeling of riding the horse into the opposite rein, maintaining the horse’s impulsion. When you ask for counter-flexion keep your rein aids slow to prevent destabilizing your horse’s head. If you still have trouble keeping your horse soft as you ask him to go forward you can circle to the outside (or in the opposite direction of travel). This will soften your horse on the outside aids. It is a good challenge for your horse as you go forward, as it asks him to stay supple between both the inside and outside aids.
If your horse stiffens as you come back, be sure that his hind leg is engaged enough. Keep your leg on and give your horse an impulse if you feel him lean against the bit as you come back. You can use counter-flexion in this moment as well, to prevent your horse from leaning on the bit. Counter-flexion will help keep the poll soft and, therefore, the neck and topline more supple. Continuing on a circle will also help with the downward transition. Challenging the suppleness of the horse’s rib cage when asking him to go forward and come back will improve the quality of the lengthening as well as the transitions.
Lengthenings are in constant development. With more power, expression and uphill balance, they will transform, first becoming the medium gait before ultimately becoming the ever-dynamic extension. It is a privilege to watch our horses discover confidence not only in themselves, but the partnership we share with them. Next month, this journey examines leg yields.