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.