Stretching vs. Reaching: Thoughts on “Long and Low”
by Alissa Mayer February 17, 2017
I’d like to re-frame and re-name this phenomenon of “stretching down” that we like to see our horses do in training.
Instead of STRETCHING, which technically means putting tension on muscle fibers in an effort to get them to lengthen – we want our horses to be REACHING forward and down, an active movement.
REACHING is a voluntary relaxation and internal lengthening of the long back muscles in the horse, which allows the core to engage. Core engagement enables the horse to easily and correctly lift the back – creating room and freedom for the hind legs to swing under the body, AND setting the horse up in the optimal postural alignment to use his core muscles to support the engagement of the hind leg. This creates optimal pushing power with maximum ease and minimum effort.
The “frame” of long-and-low is a natural posture for the horse, but maintaining it during work isn’t something they would do in nature, so we must teach our horses that this is a desirable way of going. This can be taught through clear communication and helping the horse find more and more mind-body integration, what I call Somatic Integration.
After just a few lessons on this topic, and a few practice sessions between lessons, this pair is showing both harmony and relaxation while working on using the long-and-low position to improve suppleness and athleticism while building self-carriage and power – all from the ground with a simple soft halter and long lead-line for connection. As much as possible, slack is maintained in the line to prevent the horse from learning to lean into the contact, and instead encourage him to balance and carry himself using his own body and strength.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is priceless!
For those of you skeptical of still photos that may just be lucky captures of coincidental moments (I fall into this category myself) – here is a video clip of the same pair in action during our recent lesson!
As Taj, the young quarter-horse gelding, is taking more responsibility for maintaining his long-and-low posture in the trot by finding and releasing his long back muscles, his human Jacqui is able to spend less and less time non-verbally explaining to him how to find this feeling in his body. Instead she has the time to introduce the concept of more hind limb engagement, without rushing or having to multitask to help her horse “keep it together.” She is free to focus on beginning to ask Taj to start using more “push” from his inside hind leg, and only occasionally has to remind him about finding the long-and-low posture.
As this new skill is developed, relaxing over the back to REACH forward and down will become the habitual way of going for the horse, which will encourage “correct” development of the top-line and core muscles. This creates a horse who is a healthy back-mover, and it prevents an accumulation of tension that can lead to chronic contraction and soreness of the back muscles.
Questions or comments? Post them below and I’ll get back to you asap with an answer!
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Cheers – Alissa