Here’s How

Practical Horseman - - Special Dressage Issue -

Shorten your reins smoothly af­ter a stretch


How ex­actly should I shorten my reins to bring my horse’s head up out of a stretch with­out los­ing the con­tact or let­ting him pop his head up in the air?


When­ever I am con­fronted with train­ing chal­lenges deal­ing with keep­ing a good con­nec­tion, I al­ways rec­om­mend first mak­ing sure your horse’s bit and nose­band are fit­ted cor­rectly so there is no pinch­ing be­tween them. I see an aw­ful lot of nose­bands set too low, such that the horses’ cheeks get pinched when­ever their rid­ers ap­ply pres­sure on the reins. In ad­di­tion, be sure that your horse’s den­tal main­te­nance is up to date to avoid sharp teeth, which can also cause re­sis­tance.

If your horse’s tack and teeth are OK, then con­sider other rea­sons why you might be hav­ing dif­fi­culty go­ing from a stretched to a work­ing frame. There are two com­mon causes for prob­lems with this tran­si­tion. First, you may need to im­prove your tech­nique, not just for re­gath­er­ing the reins at the end of the stretch, but per­haps for ini­ti­at­ing and ex­e­cut­ing the move­ment as well. The other com­mon is­sue is that your horse may have an over­all strug­gle with bal­ance and/or ac­cep­tance of the bit, which makes the stretch ex­er­cise fun­da­men­tally dif­fi­cult, and hence the tran­si­tion up is messy. If you sus­pect you’re deal­ing with the sec­ond prob­lem, find a trainer or clin­i­cian to help you ad­dress that be­fore try­ing to tackle stretching ex­er­cises.

If your horse gen­er­ally ac­cepts the bit and trav­els in a rel­a­tively good bal­ance for his level, re­view your stretching tech­nique, start­ing from the be­gin­ning. Here are some sim­ple steps to fol­low whether you’re per­form­ing a stretchy trot cir­cle, a free walk or any other stretch:

Be­gin by check­ing that your horse is ac­tive in the hind legs and con­tent with the con­tact. “Ac­cept­ing the con­tact” means that you can keep a steady and elas­tic feel of his mouth, fol­low­ing the me­chan­ics of the gait with­out in­ter­rup­tion or ten­sion, and your horse is amenable to the con­tact of the bit, not re­sist­ing, brac­ing, hold­ing his mouth open, etc.

It is of­ten best to train the stretch on a cir­cle, as the bend­ing line helps to keep your horse sup­ple and ac­tive from the in­side hind leg. Slightly loosen your fin­gers’ grip on the reins, al­low­ing him to chew the bit and pull them a few inches through your hands. You can open your in­side hand slightly away from the withers to help main­tain flex­ion, but your out­side hand should stay sta­ble at the base of the horse’s neck. Mean­while, use your in­side leg as needed to keep the bend, en­ergy and line of travel.

Most horses en­joy length­en­ing their neck and back mus­cles and will do so when given this op­por­tu­nity. Dur­ing the stretch, keep a feel of your horse’s mouth, even with the longer reins and out­line of his body. There shouldn’t be a “loop” in your reins. To­tal loss of con­tact makes the tran­si­tion back up very dif­fi­cult be­cause the change in con­tact is too abrupt. This will re­sult in a lower score on this move­ment in a test be­cause the cri­te­rion for the ex­er­cise calls for main­tain­ing con­nec­tion. Mak­ing your hands too wide is an­other com­mon fault and usu­ally oc­curs if you are try­ing to pull the horse into a stretch or you goofed and length­ened the reins too much too fast.

When the cir­cle is done cor­rectly to be­gin with, com­ing back up is pretty easy as long as you are aware of how to shorten your reins cor­rectly in any sit­u­a­tion, not just in this ex­er­cise. I re­mem­ber be­ing taught this tech­nique in my first rid­ing les­son: Put both reins in one hand and, keep­ing a feel of the horse’s mouth with that hand, slide your other hand for­ward up the rein to the de­sired length.

Then re­peat the process with the other rein to shorten it. This tech­nique al­lows you to keep some con­tact on both reins at all times, thus caus­ing the least dis­tur­bance to the horse’s con­nec­tion to the bit. Done cor­rectly, it keeps such “static” to a min­i­mum.

Shuf­fling your fin­gers up the reins to shorten them is not a very ef­fec­tive tech­nique be­cause it cre­ates more ir­reg­u­lar­ity in the con­nec­tion, which can re­sult in un­steady head car­riage or even some head flip­ping. With a horse that leans on the bit or takes a heavy con­tact, shuf­fling also fails be­cause as you open your fin­gers to shorten the reins, your horse may pull on the reins enough to lengthen them. The end re­sult is that the reins re­main ba­si­cally the same length.

In any ex­er­cise that re­quires bring­ing a horse back up into a shorter frame and con­tact, I of­ten try to lengthen my arms as I am short­en­ing the reins. This way, I achieve a shorter rein be­fore my horse feels my re­quest to shorten the frame. If I push my arms for­ward an inch or two as I shorten the reins, my horse doesn’t re­ally no­tice the shorter reins un­til I slowly bring my arms back into a nor­mal po­si­tion. This way I can take sev­eral strides to grad­u­ally read­just his bal­ance back into a work­ing frame, rather than do­ing both at once. The most im­por­tant goal is to try to stay with your horse’s mouth through­out the process, which means some­times mov­ing your hands for­ward a lit­tle—or back a lit­tle—de­pend­ing on your horse on that day.

The goal with stretching ex­er­cises is to show that your horse is cor­rectly rid­den “from back to front” ver­sus be­ing held or re­stricted onto the bit. Some horses do this eas­ily, but with oth­ers it takes time and pa­tience to de­velop the bal­ance and con­fi­dence re­quired to achieve a good stretch. To in­crease your chance of per­form­ing this ex­er­cise suc­cess­fully and con­fi­dently in the show ring, prac­tice it fre­quently at home.

Grand Prix rider Jar­a­lyn Gib­son has taught and trained dres­sage rid­ers and horses since 1993. She is a U.S. Dres­sage Fed­er­a­tion gold, sil­ver and bronze medal­ist, a gold bar re­cip­i­ent for mu­si­cal freestyles, a grad­u­ate with dis­tinc­tion of the USDF “L” judge pro­gram and is cur­rently await­ing the re­sults of the U.S. Equestrian Fed­er­a­tion ‘r’ judge li­cense ex­am­i­na­tion. She and her clients have qual­i­fied for and com­peted in nu­mer­ous re­gional cham­pi­onships and na­tional fi­nals. Jar­a­lyn con­tin­ues to ex­pand her clas­si­cal ed­u­ca­tion by work­ing with top Ger­man trainer Con­rad Schu­macher, for­mer USEF Young Dres­sage Horse Coach Scott Hassler and FEI three-star judge and com­peti­tor Wil­liam War­ren. Her train­ing and sales busi­ness is based at Shep­herds Run Farm in Lox­a­hatchee, Florida, in the win­ter and Poolesville, Maryland, the rest of the year.

In or­der to prac­tice col­lect­ing your reins af­ter a stretching ex­er­cise, first try the stretch on a cir­cle. The bend­ing line helps keep your horse sup­ple and ac­tive from his in­side hind leg. Al­low him to softly pull the bit a few inches through your hands while still main­tain­ing con­tact. As you com­plete the stretch and shorten your reins, put both reins in one hand and, keep­ing a feel of the horse’s mouth with that hand, slide your other hand for­ward up the rein to the de­sired length.

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