I think the understanding of ’Riding Long and Low’ for new dressage riders is the most misunderstood concept, as they hear and read that the poll must be the highest point, and take it literally that the poll must ALWAYS be the highest point and this creates a rigidity in their arms that does not allow the horse to stretch his neck and back, or to move with the scope he would have naturally.
When the horse learns to stretch his neck downwards, forwards, nose slightly in front of vertical, he begins to build muscles on his topline while being ridden. This muscling develops to the point that even when we do not ask him to stretch quite so low, his previously developed muscles have become strong enough that when we sit with a supple swinging seat, he continues to swing through his back.
This swing over the back and connection leg to hand is preserved as we train our horse through the levels. As the training progresses, we ask the horse to carry more weight on his quarters through half halts, transitions, and lateral movements. We also ask our horse to begin to carry himself in this better balance (self carriage); and through systematic training, he eventually becomes lighter, straighter and the shoulders more mobile, the gaits of the horse are developed, and he appears to move in a more cadenced expressive manner.
For new students:
To ask for this stretch on an already trained horse is fairly easy. The horse has been ridden for so many years from behind into steady, elastic, sometimes allowing contact that it has become habit for him to be willing to stretch down. When we first get on a trained horse for the day’s ride, he seems to offer this even when we begin our warm-up phase. This type of horse is wonderful for a new dressage rider to learn on as they can feel “what it should feel like”.
For new horses:
There are great “therapeutic” stretches I’ve learned from Chiropractors that can be used to introduce a horse or rider to this. You can place one hand on the bridge of his nose and one hand on the side of his neck. Ask him to move away from the pressure of your hand on his neck and fill out his outside side, maybe even to the point he weights more heavily or steps onto his outer front leg. His response is to fill out his outside side, then slowly stretch down. You can do the same stretch with your hand on the shoulder, different places on his neck or at the girth. I really like this exercise, as it helps the rider while learning to do this, understand that bend is much more than just the reins, it is influencing the whole horse and the resulting softness that it creates.
Working the horse “in hand”, asking him to adduct his inner fore, and then later inner hind will help him to relax and stretch down. I like this exercise for riders as it also helps them feel how we can influence the horse’s legs from the ground with our body position, timing and placement of our aids, not just the hands on the bit in his mouth.
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