The cornerstone of any aspiring dressage riders’ skills is the ability to help the horse channel fluid movement through his back. We accomplish—and test– this by riding in a long and low posture, or stretching the horse’s neck downwards. This posture, as I will clarify below, ensures that the horse is working with a positivelytensioned, but still loose and swinging, topline. Unfortunately many riders, in their disciplined aspirations to ride their horses on the bit, fail to realize that riding long and low is a critical component of riding a horse correctly into the contact. In fact, nowadays it often seems fashionable for dressage riders to have short, tight reins the entire time they are mounted. Below I will clarify the physiological consequences from riding too much in a restricted frame without stretching long and low frequently.
Riding the Wrong Way
Riding exclusively in an “on the bit” frame day after day creates bad postural habits in addition to stiffness in the spine. Firstly, a horse’s neck muscles are not built for isometric, or static, contractions. Asking him to hold the isometric contractions necessary for travelingin a collected frame builds metabolic waste in the muscles and puts pressure on nerve endings. Rather than strength, the horse adds tension day after day. This tension becomes tight, rigid muscles and connective tissues, leading eventually to atrophy in the deep spinal stabilizing muscles.To maintain a healthy back, and comfortable neck muscles, a rider must constantly refine the skills of pushing the horse’s whole body out to the bit, so that the horse lengthens and stretches his neck away from his chest. This horizontal posture, by action on the spinuous processes of each vertebrae, stimulates those stabilizing structures and eases tension out of otherwise larger surface muscles.
Horse Moving Off the Forehand
Sometimes, I see and hear riders operating with the assumption that by keeping the horse’s head and neck up in an elevated position while riding, it keeps the horse from moving with weighton the forehand.Occasionally, students are falsely instructed toget the horse off the forehand by lifting up his head and neck. For many, this may give the false impression that the horse is now traveling uphill. Bear in mind, however, that it is very possible for a horse to have an elevated neck carriage and still be on the forehand. Likewise, it is possible for a horse to travel with a low neck position and be off the forehand.
Far more important than where his neck is positioned are the elements of looseness vs. restriction in his scapula and shoulder movement, whether the neck is properly toned vs. tense, the lift and tuck of hisabdominal muscles, and the soft swinging of his back under the rider. These elements directly determine whether a horse is able to elevate his withers and draw the weight up out of his front legs. When one of these elements is not occurring properly, the best plan is to ride in a long and low frame until it is corrected.
Riding the Right Way is for Everyone
New dressage riders sometimes assume that long and low riding is a training concept they are meant to get beyond and then put behind them. Riders are not asked to perform long and low in dressage tests above First Level, but they must understand that they do not eliminate it from schooling. Top international riders ask their horses to work in this posture daily, either in warm-ups or cooling down. Long and low is also frequently used during the middle of a schooling session to refresh the swinging motion in a horse’s back or as a way to ride the horse more forward in front of the rider’s aids. Regardless of a horse or rider’s level of training, riding in a long and low posture is necessary for a few minutes each day. It ensures the consistent quality of your on-going training.
Every horse is conformed differently and therefore requires a slightly different neck position for long and low. As a general rule, though, aim to ride with your horse’s poll level with or slightly lower than his withers. You want him to extend his neck forward and downward as if he were interested in sniffing something on the ground directly in front of him. Be sure to maintain positive but light tension in both reins equally and ride at the same tempo as for working trot, no faster and no slower. Also note that long reins are not synonymous with loose reins. Do not be tempted to think that if long reins are good for your horse then loose reins are even better. Unless your horse is actively reaching in to your contact and making elastic connection, the purpose and value is lost.
Always perform long and low in rising trot to encourage maximum freedom and stretch of the horse’s back. Recent treadmill studies from The Netherlands have shown that the force on a horse’s back is the most minimal at posting trot. Do not forget to readjust your reins as needed. If the horse loses balance or his attention wanders, he might raise his head and create slack in the reins. Shorten the reins quickly at this moment to maintain the positive but light tension. Once you have re-established a feel of his mouth, begin to lengthen the reins again. When you are able to maintain a consistent feel with the contact by these subtle and quick rein adjustments, the horse will learn to stretch and hold a steadier posture in the long and low frame without becoming disorganized or lifting his head up away from the bit.
Important Training Principle
When I rode with the late Egon von Neindorff in Germany, our lessons began and ended the same way every day: each and every rider needed to ride in posting trot in a long and low frame for several minutes. In a group lesson, this might take some riders much longer than others to accomplish. Regardless of how long it might take, we all waited and rode until every single horse in the arena achieved the stretched, loose, swinging frame that master Neindorff was so adamant about. Our lessons never deviated from this basic outline. In his riding school, it didn’t matter if you were an advanced dressage rider or a novice; absolutely everyone stretched their horses out to the bit in a long frame before and after riding in collection or working postures.
Some days I felt this was tedious. I wanted to get to the more “fun” parts of our riding such as flying changes and half-passes. In the years since, however, I have had the good fortune to work with all kinds of horses, varying in wide degrees of body types and athleticism. Though their bodies have differed, they have all responded to the rule that, without frequent loosening and elongation of the horse’s spine, a rider can only achieve a false frame. By following the training principle that every horse shall stretch long and low as frequently as he travels in collection, I have been blessed to watch these horses become looser, more content, better moving, and free of soreness day to day. Do not forget that this is one of the primary goals of dressage and is as critical as the fun stuff like half pass and flying changes.