In this essay, I want to champion the cause for working a horse long and low.
At the clinic, I just finished the subject came up regarding the relationship between working a horse long and low and true collection. Kim Howard said to me she had a recent revelation about working a horse in a long and low posture and its importance in the development of collection. So this has prompted me to write here to clarify what I believe is the relationship between the two postures.
A lot has been written about what is true collection and I don’t want to dedicate any space rehashing what is already easily found on the internet and explained by people more expert than me. But what I do want to discuss is the relationship between long and low and collection because it seems pretty common that people come to my clinics with horses exhibiting false collection or a training frame simply because they have not been taught to prepare their horse by working long and low for a year or two.
Training a horse to elongate its frame, stretch its muscles along its top line and lower its neck while working freely forward (long and low) has been a cornerstone of classical dressage for eons. In more recent decades, some modern dressage trainers have branched off in their philosophy to embrace the principle of working horses is an artificially shortened frame in order to impose “roundness” on horses. Traditionally this type of training rarely worked because horses did not have the conformational robustness to withstand the excessive strain this put on their bodies. But modern breeding of Warmbloods has created super athletes whose body’s laugh at the physical restrictions that hyperflexion imposes. There are horses out there winning at the highest levels of dressage that do not exhibit true collection because their genetics allow them to perform the most difficult movements without correct training.
So here is my take on why working a horse long and low for months or years is so important in the development of collection. Please excuse the very simplified treatment of this topic.
Collection is a curling of a horse’s body into a coil. The frame contracts and the hindquarters coil under a horse and the weight shifts backward with the hindquarters doing most of the carrying and pushing forward. The degree that this happens will vary depending on the degree of collection. (I should say at this point for people unfamiliar with collection in dressage that collection is not one thing. There is a sliding scale of collection that moves towards every increasing engagement of the hindquarters as the execution of certain movements require.)
In order for the frame to coil, the muscles along the horse’s top line need to NOT contract. Notice I said “NOT contract” rather than relax because there is a subtle difference in regard to muscle tone in a relaxed muscle and an un-contracted muscle. On the path to collection, there is conflict between the muscles of a horse’s top line and it’s undercarriage (to put it simply). When one set contracts or tightens the other doesn’t and visa versa. In normal posture during riding, the top line of most horses is more contracted than the undercarriage. This creates a hollow back, raised neck, tight poll, and hindquarters that don’t really step under and engage well. But as we move towards collection the muscles of the top line contract less and the antagonistic muscles underneath the frame dominate the posture. This means the horse has a rounder back and the hindquarters can engage more.
This is where working in a long and low frame becomes important. It teaches horses to not contract the top line and to relax the hindquarters and neck. The extension of the frame encourages a horse to turn off those muscles in the top line that inhibit true collection later on.
The other important thing long and low allows is the strengthening of those muscles it is going to need later for collection. Collection requires a considerable degree of muscle exertion and an unfit horse cannot be expected to carry a collection posture for very long. It’s like asking a couch potato to do 20 pushups. It takes correct riding and correct use of muscles over a long period of time to develop the kind of muscle strength and fitness required without undue strain on a horse. If a rider tries to collect a horse without proper preparation it will inevitably evade being correct resulting in false collection. On the other hand, a strong and fit horse is more likely to offer true collection because the exertion will be minimal for short periods.
So long and low becomes the precursor to collection. Once a horse is moving freely forward and developed a correct long and low posture the only thing needed to turn it into collection is softness to the reins and an elevation of the base of the neck. These are the elements that produce the shifting of weight towards the back half of the horse and a rounding of the neck. In essence, they cause the frame of the horse to contract like a coil ready to spring forward. In theory, it is that simple. In practice, it takes a bloody long time of slow and progressive work.
So if you come to one of my clinics seeking help working your horse in a correct frame, there is every likelihood my attention will be focused on how to help your horse first work in a relaxed long and low posture for the next year or two.
When turning or circling a horse a feel from the outside rein is tended to stop a horse from over bending to the inside and prevent the shoulder from drifting to the outside of the turn. But this does not address the cause of why a horse drifts to the outside and purely treating a symptom. I discuss the causes and a few possible cures.
Problems With Lateral Flexion - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cehk99rYEi4
A topic came up at a clinic recently that was important enough to those listening that they suggested I write my thoughts down for my Facebook followers to read. So here goes.
It’s about the progression from a young horse learning to yield to the inside rein when first being started to the development of collection as it rounds out its education a sometime later.
From the first time I put a halter on a foal, I begin the journey of teaching the horse the importance of giving to the feel of a rope. It’s not just about employing the horse to move its feet in the direction the rope pulls it. It involves the feel of the rope inspiring the young horse to change its mind from what it is already thinking to what the rope is telling it to think. The rope is the medium by which the human’s idea is conveyed to the horse to become its idea. To me, that’s the definition of yielding or giving when it comes to communicating with a horse. If it’s just about moving the horse’s feet then it’s giving in, not giving.
Now that we have that cleared up, the importance of yielding to the feel of the lead rope for a foal is only a small step away from teaching collection! Well, maybe two small steps away ☺!
Teaching a horse to yield it’s thought to move its hindquarters and its forehand in response to a feel of the inside rein or the lead rope is among the top few most important skills a horse must learn in my view. I first begin by teaching a horse to disengage its hindquarters independently of its forehand. Then I accompany this lesson with teaching it to yield its forehand independently of its hindquarters. These forehand and hindquarters yields form the basis of everything that it is to come.
Once the forehand and hindquarter yields are well established it becomes much easier to have both ends of the horse working in unison with correctness. Let’s look for example at a circle. A correct circle is nothing more than a smaller version of a forehand yield and a hindquarter yield performed simultaneously. By that I mean, a circle should consist of a horse laterally flexed along the arc of the circumference of the circle (inside bend), the inside fore follows the line of the circumference of the circle (forehand yield) and the inside hind steps to the outside of the circumference of the circle (hindquarter yield). So you can see that the essence of a correct circle is the horse giving (with its thoughts) to a feel of the inside rein to have the forehand and the hindquarters working together.
So where do we go next from a correct circle to head towards collection?
One the biggest obstacles to horses carrying themselves in a manner that leads to collection is tension in the muscles along the back – usually called a tight topline. Without a relaxed topline the best we can hope for is a false collection or frame where the horse only softens from the poll to the wither. The back refuses to relax, which makes the engagement of the hindquarters necessary for collection, damn near impossible.
Once we can get a soft bend and our horse accurately following a curved line, we can use this to encourage our horse to elongate its frame and relax its topline. It is important to understand that a correct lateral bend in a horse is a major resource in getting a horse to relax the topline. It is biomechanically impossible for a horse to have a strong brace in the topline IF the bend is soft and correct. That’s why using the inside rein to influence the lateral flexion is such a powerful tool in minimizing the resistance a horse may hold in its back.
Now that we have a horse relaxing its back it can now stretch forward and down. This opens up the length of stride of the horse and encourages the hindquarters to work harder through engagement. The result is a slow strengthening of the muscles that will be required later when we finally ask our horse to carry more weight on the hindquarters.
To be extremely brief about this (otherwise this essay will be several chapters long), collection comes from working a horse in an open and relaxed frame to build up muscles and mental relaxation. We then begin to shorten the frame by asking the horse to raise the base of its neck and carry more weight on its hindquarters. In time the horse learns to lower its hind end as it raises the base of the neck. All this takes a lot of time and a lot of work and can only happen if the horse remains soft and yields to the reins through its entire body. This why people who believe collection can be established in a few months are misled.
I am not saying there are not other ways to teach collection to a horse. There are always many roads to Rome. But it is my experience that utilizing the power of yielding to the inside rein to establish a soft and relaxed mind and body is prone to fewer errors and wrong turns than using both reins to attempt to impose softness and eventually collection.
It all begins with teaching a horse to be soft to the lead rope and yield its hindquarters and forehand while maintaining a soft lateral flexion. In my view, there is no more powerful tool than a soft bend in response to the inside rein.
Photo: Dorinda is encouraging Maggie to stretch down and relax her topline in the trot. There is a way to go, but it is a beginning.
Since my post criticizing the claims made by Cowboy Dressage that it is based on classical principles, I decided to look more closely at what is a central tenant of the discipline, which is ‘soft feel.’
When I was younger and a student of dressage I never once heard my teachers talk about soft feel. So when I began taking an interest in horsemanship, I was confused by this term. A lot of the trainers talked as if soft feel was important and how it changed the entire physical and emotional outlook of a horse. But when I observed what they were doing, this did not appear to be true. Their talk did not match their walk. I believe it’s still true today.
For many years I have heard, seen and read about the concept of soft feel. I have heard everybody talk about it. Those that try to teach soft feel interpret it as anything from vertical flexion of the neck to heavenly harmony of horse and human (don’t ya just luv alliteration?). It appears that different people assign different definitions to soft feel. For the most part it seems the common usage of soft feel is taught as a horse yielding to the reins through vertical flexion of the neck (whether at a stand still or in motion). However, I have seen a video clip describing it in mother earth statements that tried to convey soft feel as much more than vertical flexion without actually saying anything. It was portrayed as the ultimate achievement between man and horse, without actually saying what it is. My own view is that soft feel is not the ultimate achievement, but the very reason why so many non-dressage folks confuse soft feel and collection (which should be the goal).
Irrespective of what various teachers choose to define soft feel as being, it is my experience that they are all teaching it as one thing. Every person that comes to one of my clinics who has had previous experience with the concept of soft feel understands it as vertical flexion on a light rein contact. From memory, this is without exception whether the student has a minimum experience with the idea or is deeply entrenched and committed to the notion that soft feel is their ultimate goal. It is only after I discuss and demonstrate it at clinics that the concept of soft feel evolves beyond that for many of them.
So it doesn’t matter what trainers or clinicians say about soft feel because their students are all coming away with the same interpretation. And what they are learning (ie soft feel = vertical flexion on a light contact) has little long-term value and definitely not in anyway related to the classical principles of dressage. It is deceitful to say otherwise in my view.
I will try to expand on the problem in a little bit, but in a nutshell it comes down to the difference between lightness and softness. Just to remind people who have forgotten or have not heard my interpretation of the two concepts.
Lightness is a physical response to pressure.
Softness is an emotional response to pressure
A horse can be light, but not soft through evasion of pressure. But a horse that is soft is also light through a mental and emotional yielding to pressure.
In my research before writing this essay, I watched and studied a lot of videos, read a dozen or more articles and blogs and have concluded that almost universally that when people are talking about soft feel they are talking about lightness where the influence of the reins runs from the horse’s poll to its withers, and no further. I am sure there are a few people who get it and are not guilty of this, but from what I can find the vast majority seem to be. In all the clinics I have attended where soft feel has been discussed, people are only talking and teaching about lightness and the reins being blocked at the wither. I am sure the vast majority doesn’t even know the problem exists; yet their horses do. So cries from people that tell me I am wrong and that I don’t get it hold no sway over my opinion because the evidence is everywhere despite the rhetoric from gurus and students.
So let’s examine the basis of my concern about soft feel and why I believe it is anti-dressage and good training.
In essence, the issue is that with soft feel horses are learning to give vertical flexion in response to the feel of the reins WITHOUT influencing the topline to soften and the hindquarters to carry more weight. This makes it very (if not extremely) difficult for horses to develop self -carriage and eventually collection. Collection is the ability of a horse to soften mentally and through its whole body to raise the base of its neck, relax the muscle across the back and offer more flexion of the hocks. Whereas soft feel is simply the ability of the horse to flex its neck without pulling on the reins. See the problem?
Once soft feel is taught to a horse, it is very difficult to convince it to connect the reins through the whole horse and not just to the end of the neck. It is far easier for a horse to learn early on that the influence of the reins should go all the way to the hocks. It does take longer to teach this than it does to teach vertical flexion, but that it is because it is physically more demanding than soft feel. So connecting the reins to the entire horse (via mental and emotional comfort) needs to be done in much smaller increments as the horse both understands and builds the muscle strength to carry itself in this new correct way. Soft feel is easy to teach and requires very little muscle development from a horse. It is a trick.
I see no advantage to teaching horses soft feel. It is mostly taught as an evasion and requires no alteration of the way a horse carries itself that is much different from how it carries itself in the paddock (except for the bent neck). It offers no advantage to a horse during periods of work. On the other hand, collection has huge advantages for a horse’s physical well being during workloads. That’s why I am at such a loss to comprehend why Cowboy Dressage thinks soft feel is the pinnacle of harmony and is not interested in collection. To me, that’s like saying Ikea is the ultimate in furniture craftsmanship – looks good on the outside, but falls apart easily and not made to last.
I am excited that people from western disciplines are interested in incorporating dressage training into their ranks. I believe every horse benefits from good dressage. But the emphasis needs to be on good dressage. It doesn’t matter if you ride in a dressage saddle, western saddle, racing saddle or bareback. It is irrelevant if you use a snaffle, curb bit, double bridle, or no bit. It does not matter if you do it in an arena, on a trail, paddock or in a yard. Who cares if you ride a Warmblood, Fell Pony, Mongolian Pony or Akal-Teke. None of that stuff matters. But correctness and softness does matter and there is no substitute for it if your motive is to benefit your horse.
Photo: This horse has developed a soft feel.