Working “Long and Low”
Working “long and low,” with the neckline lowered and extended, is classified among the longitudinal relaxation exercises. Your horse is “long and low” when, having relaxed in his jaw, he gradually lengthens his neck and extends his head to seek the contact with the bit that he’s used to; then, without picking up or slowing his gait, he lowers the tip of his nose forward and downward, to approximately the height of his knees. The goal of this exercise is to get the horse used to extending his neck when he wants to cover ground, and rounding it to slow down, halt, or enhance specific movements. This work is only really useful if you alternate it with asking the horse to raise and round his neck and lower his center of gravity.
Asking the horse to lower his neck is a good conclusion to any important exercise (especially one that required prolonged effort and commitment from the horse), since it lets the horse free his back and relax the muscles that contributed the most to his work. His willingness to do this is also a sign that his posture during the exercise was correct.
Mistakes When Working Long and Low
Mistakes by the Rider
- Letting go of the reins entirely and losing the contact with the horse’s mouth instead of accompanying the descent of the head correctly (this allows the horse to lose all momentum).
- Leaning forward as the horse lowers or extends his head.
- Failing to keep the horse moving forward with engagement (the lowering of the neck shouldn’t change the gait the horse is working in).
Mistakes by the Horse
- Rushing (this usually means the shoulders are overloaded; you need to slow the horse down and let him rebalance, and then try again).
- Losing energy (this means you need to encourage a little more impulsion).
- Dropping the contact (this means you should slow down, then very gradually resume a working pace).
- Pulling the reins from the rider’s hands (this is a defensive action, and you’ll need to figure out why the horse thinks he has to do it before you can fix it; it may also be an indication that he’s been uncomfortable or unbalanced and you didn’t notice).
To request a lowered neck, you simply open your fingers progressively around your reins, and lower your hands, yielding with your legs while keeping your calves in gentle contact (to maintain momentum). If your approach is correct, your horse will extend his neck and drop the tip of his nose forward and down (if not, he’ll straighten his head and speed up). All you have to do is follow this movement of his head, letting the reins slide as much as necessary.
Working with the Neck Extended
The extension of the neck is an elongation horizontally, with the head moving away from the body without descending toward the ground the way it does when you work “long and low.”
To ask your horse to extend his neck, first, close your legs, in order to slightly increase his impulsion (without going to the point of imbalance); then gradually open your fingers without letting him lower his head (vibrating your reins lightly). Your horse will then extend his head himself.
The contact with his mouth should remain consistent, and you should have the feeling that you could choose to interrupt this movement at any moment.
Working with the neck extended is beneficial:
- It allows “the horse to immediately give his entire front end the length and degree of extension called for to develop his gait.”
- It’s a good way to check whether your horse’s way of going is correct. A tense or constrained horse (whose way of going is impaired) will extend his head upward, not forward, when he’s released by the opening of the rider’s fingers. By contrast, the horse whose posture and bearing are correct will extend forward, seeking the contact.
- Because it extends the horse’s topline, it allows:
- The horse’s center of gravity to drop lower and move forward, which alters the horse’s balance in a way that favors even greater lengthening. This makes it possible to strengthen the horse’s natural impulsion and ensure that he moves his legs with lightness with significantly less effort by the rider.
- The horse to adopt a way of going that lets him carry the rider with greater energy (stretching and lifting his back).
- The horse and rider to practice keeping the horse on the bit and “in the hands” from the very first lessons—in a state of balance that encourages forward movement, with a relaxed topline and a flexible and mobile neck, basic contact is usually enough. The horse won’t react defensively to counter the rider, and the head/neck angle will gradually close as the horse begins to lift his neck and collect himself.
- The rider to avoid causing the horse’s back to turn “hollow,” even in the most sustained stretches.
- It’s an excellent gymnastic approach for show jumping, because it rounds the horse from the tip of his nose to his tail.
- It stretches the entire spine, in alignment, which improves the lateral flexibility of the horse (since he can then bend with his entire body).
- Depending on the way it’s done (with the head lower or higher, or more extended or less extended, and the intensity of the work done), it can help compensate for or even correct minor faults in conformation—relaxing and lengthening a short neck, for example, or rounding an inverted neck.
Mistakes When Working with the Neck Extended
Mistakes by the Rider
These are the same as for Working “Long and Low” (see above).
Mistakes by the Horse
- Opening the angle of the neck and head too far (this collapses the base of the neck and the topline; you’ll need to get the horse back on the bit and “in your hands,” and then start again more gradually).
- Lifting the neck (same as above).
- Failing to open the angle of the neck and head enough (this means you need to work on teaching your horse to seek the contact when you loosen your hands on the reins).
This exercise is worth practicing at the walk and trot, in particular, and is a very good relaxation for the horse when trotting him outside the arena. You can also use it at the canter, but keep in mind that since it helps loosen and supple the topline, it can alter the horse’s balance (and thus put him on his forehand). It shouldn’t be done with horses who have any issues with navicular syndrome, since it encourages the horse to transfer weight to his forelegs.
This excerpt from Relaxation Exercises for Horses by Guillaume Henry is reprinted with permission from Trafalgar Square Books (www.HorseandRiderBooks.com).