One horse walks on as she swings her head and takes long, ground-covering strides down the trail. Meanwhile, the second horse is left in the mare's dust before finally jigging at the jog to catch up. The lagging horse transitions to the walk, starts to relax, and then falls behind once again: jig, walk, repeat.
More than likely, you've ridden the lagging horse at some point on the trail, and you know what it's like to be shaken like a martini in an effort to keep up with other horses in your party. At the time, you might feel hopeless, but the truth is there's something you can do to break the cycle. The trick, or rather technique, is teaching your horse to lengthen his stride so you, too, can cover more ground with fewer steps.
Being able to lengthening your horse's stride has all sorts of applications, including making that trail outing more enjoyable, says trainer Leslie Lange of Greeley, Colorado. Lange is an AQHA world champion trainer who also coaches youth and amateur riders. In the show pen and out, horses need to be able to lengthen or shorten their strides while remaining relaxed, supple and obedient no matter what the class or discipline. Lange's show pen prep for extending your horse's strides at the walk, trot and canter applies equally to the horses you ride at home.
Before You Begin
Lengthening your horse's stride is a relatively advanced movement that requires an initial level of strength and obedience. In fact, the skill is required of dressage horses as they work their way up through levels of training.
"Your first attempts will probably be fairly awkward," Lange predicts. "But eventually you and the horse will feel the rhythm and lengthen the stride."
Before you get started, make sure you have some basic skills in your toolbox so the lengthened strides have a strong foundation. "You want a horse that's established rhythm, is comfortable, and can carry himself in an even rhythm," says Lange.
Reach For It
- Remember a lengthened stride is longer, not faster than a regular stride.
- Keep lengthening sessions short in the beginning as your horse develops strength and flexibility.
- Use ground poles to help you visualize and achieve longer strides.
- Reward your horse for even small increases in the length of his stride.
- Practice lengthening and shortening your horse's stride between obstacles, such as trees, fence posts or pylons.Only ask for lengthening at the lope if your horse is well schooled at the gait and under control.
Your horse needs to:
Work obediently at all three basic gaits.
Move freely and forward off your leg, seat and voice aids.
Give to your hands with his mouth, head and neck.
Be physically supple and in shape.
You need to:
Have a secure and balanced seat.
Maintain soft and giving hands.
Develop timing between your hands, seat and legs.
Understand that the walk has four beats, the trot has two, and the canter or lope has three.
A Look at Lengthening
A lengthened or extended stride covers more ground than a regular stride, which means the horse is taking longer rather than faster strides.
"The horse takes fewer steps to cover the same amount of ground," Lange explains. "A horse that takes six strides from points A to B will take maybe only three strides when extended."
To take those longer strides, the horse has to lower his haunches, lengthen his rounded back, and power from behind as he takes bigger steps behind and reaches forward with his shoulders and front limbs. The resulting strides stretch the horse's muscles and loosen his back, shoulders and neck.
"Lengthening is a good exercise to supple a horse's body," Lange says.
Of course, not all horses are built the same, and they each have their own individual talents. "A lot of how much lengthening you get is going to depend on the horse's physical composition," Lange says.
A hunter-type or warmblood will probably find extension exercises easy to perform, while a shorter-coupled, cow-bred horse might struggle to lengthen his stride in the beginning. The key is to develop and improve upon each horse's natural level of extension through training. For some horses, the result might mean adding three inches to the stride. For others, you might get three additional feet.
Your horse will also become stronger and his strides will get longer as you incorporate lengthening into your daily riding routine. At first, Lange points out, you might just get a couple of truly longer steps when you ask the horse to lengthen his stride.
"It's a day-to-day thing," she says. "Quit when you feel like you've improved upon what you did the day before. Or, if your horse just seems to be having a bad day, quit when you feel that he's better than when you started that day. That might mean you get just 10 strides where you feel the horse slowed his gait down and took a longer stride."
Along with developing strength and suppleness, your horse will also become more obedient as you work on lengthening his stride. Over time, you should find that he becomes more responsive to your aids as you practice alternating between lengthened and shortened strides.
To start asking your horse to extend his walk, connect your hips to his hips by relaxing through your back and following the movement of his hind legs with your seat. As his left hind leg moves forward, your left hip moves forward. As his right hind leg moves forward, your right hip moves forward.
Once you've connected your hips with his and can feel the movement of your horse's walking stride, ask for his mental focus.
"Start by putting the horse in your hand," Lange says, indicating the light contact you'll establish with your horse as he moves forward while giving his face softly to the reins. "Then, you want to use your seat and your legs to push him forward with each step. At the walk you want to be a little bit ahead of the horse, so as his left front foot steps forward, you're already stepping your weight into the left stirrup, and as his right front foot steps forward, you're stepping into your right stirrup."
As you sit in the saddle, imagine you're taking each step for your horse, and begin lengthening your own stride. Rather than keeping up with your horse's natural stride, ask him to match his steps with the longer cadence of your seat and legs. "Get the horse to meet your rhythm," Lange says.
You should feel your horse's back begin to swing as he starts taking larger steps behind. If you're out on the trail, try lengthening strides between landmarks, such as from one tree or boulder to the next, and then ask him to shorten his stride again. With practice, your horse will start to pick up that long, ground-covering walk you need to set a comfortable walking pace on the trail.
The trot is probably the easiest gait in which to feel a longer stride, Lange says, and is often a good starting point for lengthening work. "Start out at the sitting trot with the horse in the bridle, and push him forward with your seat, voice and legs," Lange says. It's important, she adds, that the horse isn't over-bridled or behind the vertical.
Lange recommends picking up the posting trot and using your up-and-down rhythm to help your horse lengthen his trot stride. As you did with your hips at the walk, ask the horse to match his trot stride to the timing of your posting by holding the up and down beats for a fraction longer than usual. "You almost want to be in front of the horse with your post," she says.
The difference in your posting is subtle, but your horse should respond with a longer stride. On the down post, squeeze your horse forward with your legs and seat, which will encourage him to take a deeper step with his outside hind leg and help him drive into a longer stride.
Try switching between a sitting jog and an extended trot to develop your horse's responsiveness. If you're working in an arena, jog in the corners and the short ends of the arena, and then extend the trot on the long sides. Also, use the diagonal of the arena-from corner to corner-to lengthen the trot for several strides.
Control is the key as you move your horse into an extended lope or canter. Again, Lange stresses, you want to make the stride longer, not necessarily faster.
"You don't want the horse to zip out from underneath you," she says. "Initially, they might go faster, but as they get comfortable, they'll lengthen their stride."
Keep the horse in the bridle as you ask for a longer stride. In other words, you'll want to maintain light contact with your horse's mouth through the reins and keep your horse slightly flexed at the poll.
"Stand up in your stirrups just a little, like the reiners do, and sit forward," Lange says. Keeping contact with your horse's mouth, use your legs and voice to ask the horse to take a longer stride, but remember this isn't a race. You just want the stride to get bigger, and at the lope or canter, a little bit of lengthening goes a long way.
To practice lengthening at the lope, Lange suggests working your horse on a circle. Use a smaller circle for your horse's regular lope, and then make the circle bigger as you lengthen the stride. Practice moving from the small circle to the big circle and back to ensure your horse is tuned into you and is under control.
Adding Ground Poles
As your horse begins responding to your cues to lengthen his stride, you can add drills and obstacles to your work. Today's trail classes have become a sea of poles, Lange points out, so her riders practice extending and collecting over ground poles at home. Even if you don't compete in trail classes, trotting and loping poles will also help you visualize the length of your horse's stride and test your ability to clearly communicate with your horse. Ground poles, especially, become an excellent gauge not only of the length of your horse's stride, but also of his responsiveness to your aids.
Before asking your horse to lengthen his stride over ground poles, get him used to simply walking, jogging and loping over a single pole on the ground. Some horses will find this exercise easy, while others may need some extra practice as they build confidence and figure out where to put their feet.
"Let the horse get comfortable with his stride," Lange emphasizes.
Once your horse is comfortable going over a single pole, Lange says to lay two poles out at intervals equal to your horse's natural trotting stride. Trot your horse over the poles, and let him find his natural rhythm.
"Usually we start out with the poles three feet apart, or just under three feet," she explains. "The horse should put just one step between the poles. You might find that if you have a short-strided horse, he'll shorten up and put two quick steps between or step on the pole. So, when you start out, you'll probably have to adjust the poles to fit your horse until he can jog through them in what I call the 'comfortable pace.'
"It's very important that they learn to only put one step between the poles: You want them to approach, go over, and depart the poles without their gait changing rhythm."
The next step is to lengthen the distance between the poles so your horse has to take a longer step. "Nothing drastic," Lange says. "Just four to six inches. As you approach, ask the horse to go a bit stronger. Because of the training you've done previously to teach the horse to take only one step between the poles, he should lengthen his stride and take a longer step in order to cover the extra distance."
Lange also uses ground poles for lengthening strides at the lope and canter.
"It's the same at the canter as it is at the trot," she says. "Start with one pole, canter it, and then add another pole. Start with the poles six feet apart, and then start widening the distance between them."
In addition to lengthening the stride on the flat, this exercise will also help a horse destined for jumping to learn to regulate his stride between fences later on.
For riding all three gaits over poles, the rider must prepare the horse before lengthening his stride. "You can't just crawl up there and expect the horse to make the distance," Lange says. "You've got to ask the horse for some momentum and length of stride prior to reaching that first pole. If you've done your job in getting him there, he can do his job and put just one step between the poles."
Once you've mastered going over two poles, try lengthening over three or more, Lange says. The more poles you add, the more strength and reach your horse will build while doing lengthening work.
You'll find with consistent practice that your horse's stride will get longer and stronger. And, next time you're on the trail, you might just get the chance to use his new, lengthened stride to break the jig, walk, repeat cycle.