Top dressage judge and coach Karen Adams offers a positive approach to tackling the top of the Training Pyramid. In Part 2, we learn how to  test and improve longitudinal suppleness.

In Part 1 of Karen Adams' series on developing collection without resistance, she showed us how to test and improve your horse's lateral suppleness. In Part 2, we'll learn how to then improve his longitudinal suppleness as well. 

Visualize an accordion or Slinky toy while doing this exercise, shown in the photos on pages 52–53 and pages 54–55. When ridden well, it can quickly take a horse who is blocking or stiffening in the back, neck, jaw or poll to a softer, more supple place. Going back and forth between these opposites supples him longitudinally—lengthwise from tail to poll—which will make it easier to introduce collected steps. It also promotes an honest “reaching for the bit” attitude, which is essential for maintaining a connection both alive and relaxed in the moment. By playing your horse back and forth this way, you can never force him into a false frame, so he never learns to lock up or resist your aids when you shorten your reins.

Some people might worry that asking the horse to reach forward and down into the bridle regularly would encourage him to travel on his forehand. This is true to some extent. But don’t worry, it is only a temporary state, one that is absolutely essential for eliminating tension and resistance. Once that is achieved, you can ask your horse to shift his balance back onto his hind legs and begin to develop collection.

For this exercise, I recommend using smooth reins without stops, which might cause friction against your fingers.

STEP 1. While trotting to the right and maintaining an inside bend on a large circle, ask your horse to stretch forward and downward, draping his neck as you gradually lengthen the reins. If he’s not familiar with these aids, begin by feeling both reins more firmly to get his attention. Bend both elbows at a near right angle so the joints act like pulleys, allowing your arms and hands to go forward or backward as needed. To keep the inside bend on the circle, your inside rein may need to be a bit shorter than the outside rein.

While maintaining a supportive “position right” with both legs and reins to produce the corridor, give on the outside (left) rein by moving that hand an inch or two forward. Then allow the fingers of both hands to be open and inviting, rather than in firm fists, to encourage your horse to reach. As he starts to drop his head and neck, keep a light feel while gradually letting him take the reins longer. Timing this is challenging, but always try to stay “connected”—never throwing the reins away. Praise him with a pat on the neck and a soft quality to the hand so he wants to find the connection with you and stay there. It is very important to praise even the start or beginning of stretching into the bit. Some horses really come around if you make a big deal out of them.

Think of this stage as being “on the bit with a longer neck.” The length of time you stay in it depends on your success. If all goes well and he stays in rhythm and tempo, keeps the inside bend and honestly stretches forward and downward, praise him and continue for one or up to three circles. Try to keep him connected and reaching into both reins. Think of them as telephone lines where the messages can be sent and received only if the circuit is not broken or loopy.

With practice, your horse will learn to lengthen his neck and reach toward the connection with the bit the moment you give the hand forward and close your legs. Most horses love this stretching part. Learn to use it as a reward, not just in a resting phase or end of a session, but at other times in your work also.

STEP 2. Now it’s time to bring your horse up into a rounder connection and shape. Gradually shorten your reins by taking both elbows back and sliding your fingers gradually up the reins to the length of neck you want. Or, if you can do this without losing the connection, take both reins in one hand at your desired length and then return to one rein in each hand. Either way requires practice. When you reach the rein length you want his neck to be, give with the fingers a little to encourage him to stretch again into the hand toward this rounder, more uphill neck shape.

Meanwhile, keep your inner and outer “corridor walls” true and in line with the big circle shape you are riding and channel his active energy straight between both lower legs, seat bones and hips into your receiving hands. Keep your elbows bent, but with a forward “attitude” in your hands, which stay as passive and quiet as possible. If you do this tactfully and with good timing, your horse will simply adapt his shape to the rounder bascule you have made with your body aids. Praise him, soften your fingers and do not overstay your welcome. Keep this rounder shape for no more than one circle in the beginning.

STEP 3. As soon as your horse shows that he can stay soft and give to this shorter contact (or even start to, if this is new to him), praise him and send him forward and downward again into a longer neck and rein. Let him find a comfortable, soft connection there. If he loses the stretch or gets hollow, take your elbows back with a light driving leg aid until he chooses the rein tension that encourages him to soften himself and yield forward and downward. Then reward him right away.

Sometimes a horse will go down, hit the contact, then come up above the bit and need to be sent back down again. This just means you were a tad slow in softening your reins. The more you do it, the better your feel and timing will become.

TIP: It is very important to praise even the start or beginning of stretching into the bit. Some horses really come around if you make a big deal out of them.

Repeat this exercise with the aim of getting your horse buttery soft going back and forth between a shorter and longer frame, spending half to up to three circles in each mode. Always ride him energetically forward and give him nothing about your aids to resist against—no pulling the head in or sawing on the reins or riding him into a set hand. The beauty in this exercise is that the horse becomes softer, more malleable and more willing to follow your requests because he is not being forced into a hard or backward hand or pulled into a slower gait.

All the while, maintain the same rhythm and tempo, riding in such a way that your attitude and your aid-giving show no bias between the longer work and the shorter work. It is all equal. One is not harder than the other; one is not work and the other rest. It is all on-the-aids work ridden from the hind legs up into the contact.

If you can achieve all the important ingredients of the Training Pyramid in both directions, practice the exercise both ways. If not, one direction will suffice for that day.

 TIP: As in most aid-giving situations, the rule of thumb is to use as little aid as possible, but as much as necessary, to get the horse’s response.

This article was originally published in the September 2017 issue of Practical Horseman. 

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