Trot Lengthenings: The What, The Why and The How

Carole Grant explains how to do this basic dressage movement.
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We start talking about lengthening the trot early in any training program. Trot lengthenings first show up in competition in First Level, Test One. Though the definition of the lengthening is pretty simple, trot lengthening is often misunderstood and not so simple to train properly. When horses don’t learn to go forward and lengthen properly before they begin advanced work, which happens all too often, it comes back to haunt riders again and again in the higher levels.

The horse that has been taught to lengthen his trot stride properly has gained more than the ability to cover more ground. He has acquired an essential building block for the rest of his career. (Photo by Amy K. Dragoo) 

The horse that has been taught to lengthen his trot stride properly has gained more than the ability to cover more ground. He has acquired an essential building block for the rest of his career. (Photo by Amy K. Dragoo) 

Covering Ground

The “what” of the trot lengthening is fairly straightforward. The horse pushes himself from behind and through his whole body into longer suspended strides. He covers as much ground as he can in balance. If you watch a horse doing a proper lengthening across the diagonal of the arena, he will need fewer strides to get from one end to the other than he does at the working trot. That is the key to a good lengthening in both the trot and the canter. It doesn’t quicken, and though the lengthening teaches the horse to put more weight on the hind legs as he is learning to push, it doesn’t require carrying as much weight on the hind legs as do medium and extended trots at the higher levels.

When a horse is lengthening properly, in the walk, trot or canter, he uses his whole body, pushes off from behind and moves into the hand. He also has the ability to put his nose in front of the vertical, which I will explain more about later.

In the U.S. Dressage Federation’s Glossary of Judging Terms, lengthening is defined as “Elongation of the stride an the outline of the horse, yet maintaining the same tempo [beats per minute] and balance as in the corresponding working pace.” I don’t agree completely with this definition because there are fewer beats per minute when the stride is lengthened. The rhythm, however, stays the same. By rhythm, I mean the clarity and the regularity of the footfalls. In other words, the trot has two beats, the canter three beats and the walk four beats.

The feel of the trot lengthening should be familiar. Most of us have been trotting out in the field or down the road with a group of horses. The horse gets longer and gets some suspension. Typically the horse is carrying himself in a good way. Imagine that feeling. That is the trot we are looking for here. Suspension is the natural by-product of the lengthened stride. Even in many good horses, the working trot doesn’t naturally have much suspension. Later, in the working and collected paces, after he has learned to lengthen or gain ground in his body when the leg goes on, his stride gets slower and longer.

Learning from Lengthening

Why is learning such an important building block for training? Lengthening teaches the horse to use his body and neck and to move into the hand. If the horse does not know how to move into the hand when the rider’s leg is used, pushing from behind with his nose in front of the vertical, he will have critical problems throughout his training with contact and with the ability to use his back and go forward properly. That is the biggest reason for teaching the lengthening.

 Giving a tired, heavy horse the clues he needs to lengthen a little will ask him to push rather than to pull and become harder in your hands. A sensitive horse also learns to accept the leg because he understands, with calmness, that it means to go forward.

 The horse’s ability to stretch and to push into your hand, using his entire body, is a skill that will be key throughout the levels, all the way to Grand Prix. In piaffe and passage, for example, you are balancing more, while using your legs to make the horse more active. At any moment, you should be able to use your leg to go forward into the hand. For this, the horse has to have full knowledge of the leg, knowing that you will push forward and he will reach forward into the contact and cover more ground. The calmness with which he can go into the hand is essential, and the lengthening can actually calm a tense horse. In fact, whenever I get in trouble with any advanced movement, I ask the horse to go forward to the lengthening.

Introducing the Concept of Lengthening

Now that we’ve talked about the “what” and the “why,” we need to discuss the “how.” I have used trot lengthening throughout my career as a tool to teach the horse to use his back, neck and entire body. Because the horse’s instinct might prompt him to canter in order to cover more ground, the mind of the horse, as much as the body, needs to be taught what the trot lengthening is all about. There are a number of exercises for properly teaching the trot lengthening, and it is easier for some horses than for others. When you try to teach lengthening, the horse starts to lose his balance. The exercises are about rebalancing and repushing. Some people feel that the horse doesn’t learn to lengthen until he learns to collect. I don’t think that is correct. Before he learns collection, the horse needs to know how to cover more ground. Collection, really, is the highest form of forwardness.

 So, let’s get started on the “how.” Once it is established, that the horse can be ridden, goes forward and has some degree of rhythm, you will begin to give him the concept of lengthening. He already will be schooled in walk, trot and canter—of course, not perfectly, but he understands the concept. You want to teach him that from the trot he can push without picking up the canter.

 So, pick a spot a long way off on which to focus with your eyes, and feel in your own body as if you want to push your horse and take him with you to that long spot. At the trot, push him with your legs, and let go a little bit with the hand. He will undoubtedly make the mistake of breaking into the canter. You have to push from behind and let go, knowing that he will make this mistake. Don’t think of breaking into the canter as a problem. You will only have a problem if you don’t give the same correction each time. So, push from behind, let go a bit and when he canters, say, “no,” with a half halt or a “whoa.” Ask again.

 This is the main concept in the beginning: to give him a way that he can push his whole body forward and not canter. It must be very clear that you are not afraid if he canters a million times. You can’t hold him from the canter. The most important thing is that he goes forward from behind. He may also become off balance. If he becomes off balance, you need to be willing to push and give and allow him to canter and then bring him back. In the arena, I start this exercise in the middle of the long side, so that when the short wall comes up, he slows down without you having to stop him, allowing you to push him without him losing his balance.

 Does he understand that to push forward doesn’t mean to canter? Probably not. He may fall on the forehand, but you still need to push him. I don’t want you to pull back on the reins, because the first requirement is always to go on and push. When he gives you the response you want—a few steps in which you feel that he has attempted to cover more ground without cantering or just the slightest lengthening of stride without cantering—reward him and don’t ask him again. Say “good boy,” pat him or do whatever it is you do to reward him. You might change direction or simply let him walk on. That would be a good reward. Now he is beginning to think more and be more in tune with you, and you can ask more another day.

 When he does break into the canter, I prefer that he canter on the true lead. It takes a little equestrian tact to think that way. In other words, if we are thinking of true canter, we are apt to use our outside leg as well as the inside leg. Pushing needs to come from both hind legs. If the horse is always taking the off lead, you are not using the outside leg enough. In that case, try to work on this exercise a meter from the wall.

 Sometimes you will have a horse that learns the concept of covering more ground but goes a bit wide behind or isn’t being totally correct in some other little way. He is still using his body and I don’t get too upset in the beginning when the horse makes these mistakes. Some people want the horse to carry so much weight behind that he never learns to push and only gets quicker. He never really comes to the length or the suspension because he hasn’t learned the concept in the beginning. Right now, we’re trying to influence the horse to be willing to push into a long neck and know that he won’t be held back. Refinements can come later.

 I have used the term “push him into your hand” a few times. When we are teaching lengthening, it is important to remember that the horse must keep his nose in front of the vertical. If he is too much on the vertical or behind, there is no way to learn to use his whole body because he doesn’t come through the withers to the hand. It’s a clue that you are teaching it wrong. If he has his nose in front of the vertical, you are on the right track.

 I have also asked you to “give.” As a rider, you must learn to ride your horse to the end of the rein. I don’t want the horse to go with a short neck, but there should also be no slack in the rein. For example, if you were riding a horse up a hill, you would give him more rein and he would use that length and reach for the bridle to use his neck more. If you give with your hand, you have to teach the horse to reach into the bridle. Push, but give proportionally and allow the horse.

Exercises Incorporating Lateral Work

By the time the concept of the lengthening is being introduced, the horse should know something about moving away from the leg—the turn on the forehand and the leg yield. After the first exercise, when you feel that the horse is attempting to cover more ground without cantering, you may introduce a little lateral work to improve the lengthening. From the short side, at the trot, turn onto the quarterline and, from the quarterline, as for a leg yield to the rail or wall. When you reach a point one meter from the wall, push with your legs and give with the hands to ask for that longer trot stride. Continue straight, either a meter from the wall or along the wall. This narrowing of the hind legs through the leg yield can give the horse more strength to develop an even better lengthening.

 A more advanced version of this exercise is to ask for shoulder-fore at the trot as you turn onto the long side. Midway down the wall, ask the horse to go straight, giving him the aids to lengthen his stride at the same time. The horse will bring the inner hind forward, increasing the engagement. In both cases, it will feel as though the horse is pushing more and becoming in better balance because of that pushing. It’s a good feeling. When he is going forward from behind, I feel as though riding the horse requires less effort. He is not against your inside or outside leg, but he is straighter and more together. He is using his hind end, his middle and his front end as one. Half halts then become easier because he has stepped into your hand.

Using Cavalletti

Once the horse has some idea of making his stride longer, it’s a very good idea to put up some cavaletti. Cavalletti teach the horse to reach with his neck. He does not have a choice. Remember to keep the horse straight with the neck in the middle of his chest. I start with poles on the ground. Once the horse understands the concept and is going over the poles easily, I like to use secured poles or true cavalletti, because I don’t want the horse to get careless, hit the poles and move them. Place them about four feet apart. Ride into the line of cavalletti a the working trot, and the horse will use his whole body, lengthening his frame as he goes over the cavalletti. Start with two, then add a couple more, building up to five or six.

Riding over cavaletti will tell you if you have successfully taught your horse the concept of lengthening. Cavalletti require the horse to push forward with the hind legs and to trot into his whole body. If he doesn’t, he may stumble, lurch forward, put his neck up and grab the reins out of your hands, or he may canter.

Cavalletti are also very helpful for the rider to feel a lengthened stride. When you are on a horse that trots into his whole body, it is a whole different feel from riding a horse you are always designing into the proper shape or making round with your hands. You feel as if you are riding one complete horse, rather than many components—a neck, a middle and a hind end. It is quite amazing. But in the beginning, it has to be taught.

Transitioning from Trot to Canter

When you have taught your horse the concept of lengthening and he knows how to do his trot-canter-trot transitions, which he learns at Training Level, you have another great exercise at your disposal. On the 20-meter circle, transition from trot to canter, then ask him to come back to trot as you normally do. Then immediately ask him to lengthen the stride a bit—maybe four or five strides. It’s likely that the same old pitfall will return, and he will try to canter. But when you ask, and he lengthens a little, reward him; come back to working trot and ask him to canter on. After you do this a few times during maybe two or three training sessions, you will get the most amazing feeling—because when he understands this, he will canter into the hand in better balance without rushing. It may take some time and will require that you accept mistakes. Keep it simple and, most important, be consistent with your aids and corrections. He is learning that every upward transition is a pushing exercise like going up a hill and that every downward transition is putting weight back, like coming down a hill. This is how he learns to stretch.

 It is particularly important when working on the circle to use your outside leg as well as your inside leg. Remember that the horse’s outside leg has a longer way to go than the inside, so the pushing power has to be greater. It’s like the horse at the end of a drill team pinwheel or the last kid in that game Crack the Whip. Whoever is at the end of the line has a longer way to travel, just like the horse’s outside leg. That concept is difficult to grasp for many riders, and it’s the reason horses with less experienced riders will often take the wrong lead or trot with an irregular rhythm when learning the lengthening.

 Again, you cannot be deterred by mistakes. Know that they are natural mistakes that need to occur for the horse to learn more. When you can do these transitions quickly, the horse has learned to use his whole body, and now, when you push him forward without holding him back, he will cover more ground.

 If these exercises sound easy, it is because the best way to train a horse is with very simple work. The horse that has been taught to lengthen his trot stride properly has gained more than the ability to cover more ground. He has acquired an essential building block for the rest of his career.

This article first appeared in the November 2004 issue of Dressage Today.

A rider, teacher and trainer, Carole Grant has won many honors. She rode at the 1982 World Equestrian Games in Switzerland and earned two gold medals at the 1983 Pan-American Games in Venezuela. Grant has worked with Georg Theodorescu, Melle Van Bruggen, Reiner Klimke, Harry Boldt and George Wahl but credits her late ex-husband, Chuch Grant, USDF Hall of Fame inductee, with helping her “get into the mind of the horse.” With daughters Mary Ann Grant and Tonya Grant-Barber and partner Dr. Larry Baudin, Grant operates Equistride International, a dressage facility in Fenton, Michigan, and Wellington, Florida.

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