Our lesson on Monday night was just a repeat of last Monday's lesson, only we got "more" and went farther. The principle was the same: it takes a lot of leg to get a good stretch. You know how all of the books use a visual as a metaphor for a dressage element? Sally Swift used a ton of them: legs made of melting ice cream, energy staying within the banks of a swiftly moving river, holding the birds in your hands, etc. A lot of them work for me, but just as many don't. What's funny is that as soon as I truly get the idea, the metaphor then makes perfect, logical, brilliant sense, and I wonder why I didn't see it before!
Right now, I have toothpaste on the brain. I keep walking around seeing toothpaste being squeezed from a tube. That is truly a great image for explaining how to get the stretch. For so long, I've been giving Speedy the reins while hoping that he'd take the contact out and down. Uh ... yeah ... no. It hasn't really been working. In order to get the toothpaste out, you have to squeeze it forward through the tube. OH!
For whatever reason, JL's explanation is finally making sense. She didn't just decided to teach us the stretch last week; she's been laboring on that concept for nearly two years. I am just now aware of what I need to do to achieve it. In order to get a stretch, I have to squeeze Speedy's hind end forward (like the toothpaste) so that his front and hind end match in pace and rhythm. Once he is truly moving forward from the leg, I can slowly move my hands forward. If he is really moving forward, his neck will lengthen and the contact will remain the same.
If you're like me, you're sick of reading, allow the horse to stretch forward and down. I've been "allowing" for two years now and nothing has come of it. I can't guarantee that these steps will work for you, but here's what JL is having me do to achieve a forward and downward stretch.
- Begin at the walk. Begin slowly to reinforce that this has nothing to do with speed.
- Get the hind end truly moving by squeezing as firmly as necessary to keep those back legs truly engaged. Do not stop squeezing, but DO NOT allow the horse to quicken his step at all. He should keep the exact same pace throughout the exercise with no variation in speed.
- Slide your hands forward just a few inches and note whether the contact remains the same. If you feel an even contact, you have achieved some stretch.
- If your horse drops the contact, meaning he curls under or behind the vertical (SPEEDY G!), add leg, lean back, and widen your hands. Do not pull back.
- The reason you add leg is because he is trying to drag his body around by his front legs. Adding leg tells him to step underneath himself which will help lift his front end.
- The reason you need to also lean back (not a ridiculous amount) and open your chest is so that you can drive him forward to maintain a very steady contact with the reins. There can be no stretch to the bit if there's any loss of contact. JL gives me two pictures to think of as I am sitting back: 1) imagine that you are water skiing. If the line gets loose, you are gong to fall. To regain the tension in the line, a skier will lean backwards. If the "boat" runs off to quickly, the skier is pitched forward and falls. A horse that runs off in the front end is also unbalanced and "falls" on the forehand which means no stretch. 2) imagine you are walking with an eager child's hand in yours. Don't squeeze the child's hand too hard, or he will not want to walk with you. If you have a soft, but firm grip of his hand, he can easily pull you along to what he is so eager to see. In doing so, he stretches your arm forward and downward. I strive for the feel of a child pulling me along while not falling off my water skis.
- JL explains that the widening of your hands serves to channel forward the energy that you are creating with your squeezed legs which in turns tells the horse to stretch out his neck.
- Once you have regained forwardness by squeezing, leaning back, opening your shoulders, and widening your hands, you can begin bringing your hands closer together and sliding them forward.
- Any time he drops the contact, repeat, repeat, repeat. JL says that until he is 100% sure that this is what you really want, he will never understand the cue to stretch.
- Now you can try it at the trot.
After doing this for several days, Speedy is now trying to stretch his neck at the walk as soon as I pick up the reins. Woohoo, Buddy! Over the last few weeks, I have also noticed way more saliva than I have ever seen before. Again, this is an excellent indicator of acceptance of the bit (it's not a dental issue!). One final thing that we've seen is Speedy's regular warm-up cough hasn't shown up in a few weeks. Instead, he is sneezing/snorting like crazy as he warms up. It has a nice, this feels good sound to it. I don't know if the cough will come back, but for now it seems to have been replaced.
None of this is from Speedy finally deciding to play ball. This has everything to do with me asking him in a way that he gets. JL remarked several times on Monday that my contact was much more elastic and following and far less restrictive. So yah, me! as well. The more I get and understand, the better Speedy moves and looks.
So, here's to stretching it out!