At the ripe old age of 24, the age at which one is certain one has learned almost all there is to learn about many things in life, I was offered a job managing a riding school and training riding instructors in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The school horses were racetrack flunkies. Some were sound, but all were stiff as boards. I used all the knowledge I possessed to help them become more supple. If I had understood the importance of stretching in the right way and the daily use of correct stretching for all horses at all levels, I would have been a better trainer and instructor.
Wherever I teach, I ask riders who are not yet addicted to good stretching if they can show me where the horse’s cervical vertebrae are. Almost without exception, they run their fingers down the top of the mane from poll to withers. For those of you who aren’t sure, take a good look at the picture above of an equine skeleton. The only time those big bones in the neck are in a straight line is when the horse is eating off the ground. The good folks who first wrote the tests that include a stretchy circle certainly understood that this is a very important gauge of whether the horse is supple over the topline as well as balanced while moving forward in a stretched outline.
My epiphany came long after my 20s when I had the good fortune to meet Ingrid Klimke and watch her teach and train. Ingrid would say that if you are having trouble stretching, then that is all you do in the ride. There is no compromise in allowing a reach through the reins except for the sake of safety and even then, one must have a calm horse with a supple topline as the goal for that session. We should not skip that part and go straight to work. The difference in the horses who are warmed up in this way is quite obvious, not just in their way of going but also in their attitude. You can really count the ways that things improve when using stretching. You get more swing through the back in trot, causing longer strides particularly in walk; improved jump in the canter; better connection through the reins, which is directly attributable to a supple back; the capacity to readily accept a half halt and carry more weight on the quarters; shoulders that are freer and more maneuverable and a horse that is correctly gymnasticized.
Stretching is organized on-the-aids training to develop the swing in those back muscles. In every ride, I spend at least 10 minutes walking followed by as much time as required to stretch in trot and canter before shortening the reins and riding the horse up and out to the contact with the poll as the highest point (unless you count the ears as one cheeky kid once told me).
The other salient detail I took away from watching Ingrid train and teach is that there should be only two positions for the horse’s neck: stretching forward and down, and the poll as the highest point. Anything in between should happen only when the horse makes a mistake or is biting at a fly.
It is up to you to prepare well for the training goal of the day. With a correctly warmed-up horse, you are more likely to meet your goals successfully and, best of all, with minimum stress and strain to his musculature. Finally, once you start practicing correct stretching, you will look at horses with tight, short necks with new eyes and have a whole new understanding of why this subject is too important to skip.
Joanna Crilly is a USEF/Equine Canada Senior “S” dressage judge and Canadian Level 2 Coach. For the past 21 years, along with business partner Joan Johnston, she has owned Kars Riding School, near Ottawa, Ontario. Joanna studied Western and African music at the Institute of African studies in Ghana, and enjoys teaching riders about the preparation of freestyles (karsridingschool.com).