Stretching vs Reaching

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


5 thoughts on “Stretching vs Reaching

  1. Please check out Art2Ride. Will Faerber is a classical dressage trainer who advocates this type of training (although he refers to this as stretching down — semantics). Contrary to what some may think, this does not put your horse on the forehand, but helps hind leg engagement and topline strength by lifting the back, all of which is needed to develop collection. And it takes time to develop this athleticism in a horse. Which is why, in our world of instant gratification, it is not necessarily practiced. This type of training is not new, just a (almost) forgotten art.

    1. Thanks for commenting Gloria. Yes, classical training is one of those “so old it’s new again” topics that is being rediscovered all over the place!

      I agree semantics is part of the “stretching down” confusion some folks have, but I believe it is more than that. If you reverse the order of your sentence about collection, it would be more accurate regarding what the horse actually does in his body to stretch or reach forward and down – and understanding the structure and order of engagement gives us more ability to support it with training.

      To clarify what I mean – in fact, reaching forward and down does not lift the back!

      When a horse engages the hind leg with more energy and push, he also uses his core muscles (abs) for strength and support, which lifts the whole barrel, including the back. The more relaxed and supple the long back muscles are, the more easily the horse’s back will lift with this core engagement. When this happens, the suppleness of the back and topline muscles allows the horse’s neck to lengthen and reach forward and down. A horse who must force his back up because the longissimus dorsi muscles are tight due to poor saddle fit or chronic tension/contraction will have difficulty doing this, will tend to “fall out” of the frame and keep popping his head up, as well as likely have a sway-back when at rest. A horse with a relaxed back and supple longissimus dorsi will have an easier time engaging the hind leg and core, and will find it easier to maintain the “long and low” posture – but will not be able to stay there very long in the beginning, because as you pointed out, it takes time to develop the strength and endurance to hold this healthy working frame.

      So, when we see a horse who can easily reach forward and down, whose back is undulating in time with the movement, and whose hind limbs are tracking up or over-tracking, we can assess with confidence that this horse is fairly relaxed and engaged, and using his body “correctly.”

      Ergo, if a horse cannot reach forward and down easily, and requires the support of a rider or a device like side reins or draw reins to perform the desired posture, it is very likely that the horse is suffering from chronically contracted muscles (in the back and elsewhere) and is having to first override those contractions before putting his neck forward and down, rather than being able to release into the desired posture.

      When the body has to fight itself to move in a particular direction, two things happen:
      1. The brain will re-route to using different muscles to perform the task, if any are available, and
      2. All muscles involved in the movement are compromised, both the ones blocking the movement, and the ones that are recruited to push thru the “block” and do it anyways. This overworking causes the muscles to fatigue faster, recover more slowly, and interferes with development because the muscles never get a chance to rest, recover and rebuild….

      I have just completed production on a new video discussing this very topic! I will attach the link here when I get it uploaded to the site.

      What to do if your horse has a tight back?
      Using Equine Hanna Somatics® (EHS) is the fastest and most reliable way I know of to help a horse to first become aware of these chronic muscle contractions, and then to release the patterns that are creating or maintaining these habitually tense muscles in the body.

      Learn to do a full-body EHS session with your horse by getting our instructional video Equine Hanna Somatics Session 1 (click here).

  2. Interesting distinction between stretch vs. reaching. When I reach I find I am more aware of the need to be in balance. Thank you for the video. Really enjoyed it.

    1. You are so welcome Barbara! I’m thrilled that you are finding this information so useful! Can’t wait to see you and your mare again soon.

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