Does your horse struggle with trot lengthenings? Does he quicken his tempo or break into canter instead of taking bigger steps? Not all horses are gifted with natural, balanced trot lengthenings. But every horse can learn to produce them, to a certain degree, given thoughtful training, clear, consistent use of the leg aids and patience.
One of the first lessons we teach horses is that “leg means go,” which they initially interpret to mean: “Move your feet!” In the next stage of training, we ask them to engage their hind legs—to flex their stifles and hocks more so their hind legs step farther underneath their bellies. This enables them to push off more energetically and take bigger steps without speeding up the tempo. To learn how to do this on cue, your horse needs to understand the leg aids that speak directly to his hind legs.
In this article, I’ll explain two approaches that I have found effective over the years in teaching horses to make this association. The first will show your horse how to yield sideways to leg pressure before asking for any steps of lengthening. This improves his acceptance and understanding of the leg aids and also increases the mobility of his shoulders and engagement of his hindquarters. The second approach uses ground poles to encourage him to gradually lengthen his stride without losing his balance.
Before attempting either method, make a training game plan for your horse. It probably will take him many sessions to grasp the concept of moving forward without getting faster. As with other new lessons, the best way to instill this in him without creating resistance or tension is by breaking it down into small, easy steps. Be sure he understands each step and is happy and relaxed doing it before you advance to the next one.
Plan to work on these exercises about three times a week. Limit how much time you spend on each one, being sure to integrate it into the other things you regularly practice. Watch that you never overdo it. Imagine hiring a trainer at a gym who works you to the point of exhaustion every time you work with him. After a few sessions, you’ll probably start making excuses not to go back. Your horse is just the same. Keep the sessions pleasant and doable so he looks forward to coming back to the ring the next time.
Exercise 1, Step 1: Turn on the Forehand
To introduce the concept of moving the hind feet in response to pressure from a single leg, teach your horse the turn on the forehand. In this exercise, he’ll step sideways with his hind legs, pivoting his body around his forelegs. Horses usually pick this up very quickly if you first show them how to do it unmounted. Here’s how:
After tacking up your horse, lead him into the middle of the arena and stand beside his left shoulder with his reins over his neck and the left one in your left hand. Gently take a feel of the left rein to bring his nose slightly to the left. Then press your thumb between his ribs just behind the girth. This will encourage him to disengage his hindquarters and step sideways away from you (to the right). The moment he does this, immediately release the thumb pressure and praise him.
If your horse doesn’t step sideways, try applying the pressure with the handle end of a whip. Also experiment with where you place your thumb or whip to see what location elicits the best response. He may be more likely to activate his hind legs if you move the cue a few inches back.
Ask for just one sideways step at a time, pausing to reward him after each step. After he takes two or three good steps, walk around to his other shoulder and ask him to do the same thing in the other direction. Depending on how quickly he digests this lesson, you may want to repeat this over several sessions before moving on to the next lesson.
You will need a ground person for the next step. With you mounted, ask her to stand by his left shoulder just as you did in the previous lesson. While holding normal rein contact to keep your horse from stepping forward, flex his nose slightly to the left with your left rein. Then apply left leg pressure in the same place where you used your thumb before. The moment he steps sideways, relax your leg and praise him. If he doesn’t step sideways, ask your ground person to press him between the ribs with her thumb just as you did before.
Repeat the same process in the other direction. With repetition, he’ll eventually begin to understand what your leg aid means. Ask for one step with each squeeze of your leg so that he learns to synchronize the movement of his hind legs with your leg aids. Once he’s responding well, progress to doing the same exercise without your ground person. Your goal is to be able to apply the leg aid without needing the rein aid to keep your horse from leaving the spot with his front legs.
Exercise 1, Step 1: Turn on the Forehand
Exercise 1, Step 2: Forward and Sideways
Now it’s time to add a forward component to this sideways concept. We’re going to introduce an easy leg-yield on a very shallow diagonal from the quarterline to the outer rail or wall of the arena. Horses find moving in this direction, from the inside to the outside of the ring, very inviting. The shallow diagonal also will help you avoid pressuring your horse to do too much too soon.
This is not going to be a textbook First Level leg-yield, which would be too much to ask of a young/green horse at this point. Instead, you’re going to ask him simply to move forward and slightly sideways in response to your leg aids without worrying too much about how straight he is in his body, how much his legs cross over or what his frame looks like.
Start at the walk and turn down the quarterline. So, for example, if you’re tracking right, walk past A, then turn down the next quarterline. Go straight for several steps, then flex and bend your horse slightly to the right. This mild bend away from the direction of travel is more inviting and less demanding than a “final product” leg-yield, which technically should have no bend.
Next, apply the same right leg aid you used to ask for the turn on the forehand, squeezing and releasing your leg in rhythm with his walk steps. He should continue moving forward but also step slightly to the left, away from your aid. As with the turn on the forehand, your inside leg will do all the talking. Think of “breathing” with it, increasing and decreasing the leg pressure for each step. Meanwhile, your outside leg should be passive, resting quietly against your horse’s side and allowing the sideways steps.
When necessary, make half-halts with your outside hand (your left hand in this example) to rebalance him if his tempo quickens or his shoulder bulges to the outside. Do this by squeezing and releasing your hand on the rein as if you were squeezing water out of a sponge. As with your leg aid, time your half-halts in rhythm with your horse’s steps, without taking a firm hold on his mouth. The goal is to introduce your horse to very understandable aids without making him feel boxed in and tense. If his response does not match your expectations—for example, if he speeds up—gently remind him with a half-halt, “I don’t need you to rush.” Then give him time to figure out a better interpretation of your leg aid.
Ask for only two or three of these sideways steps, still thinking of creating one sideways step with each leg squeeze, before walking straight forward again parallel to the wall. Repeat this sideways–forward cycle several times, working your way toward H in a staircase-like fashion.
Practice this a few times in both directions and then call it a day. Over the course of several subsequent sessions, gradually ask for more sideways steps, say four or five at a time, in between the straight steps.
Remember that the goal is to encourage your horse to take bigger steps with his hind legs, comfortably and confidently, in response to your leg aid. As his understanding progresses, you can increase the number of lateral steps, but always follow the same shallow diagonal. Avoid asking for more extreme lateral movement that would get you to the rail sooner.
You can also vary the placement of your leg aids to activate the shoulders and hindquarters in different ways. Sometimes place your leg a little farther behind the girth to talk to his hindquarters, allowing them to lead the shoulders in the sideways travel. Other times, place your leg more forward, closer to his elbow, to talk to his shoulders, allowing them to lead the hindquarters. Now and then, look for the happy medium that results in him moving sideways with all four legs with his body relatively parallel to the wall. These variations will encourage him to explore using his body in different ways, much like putting the pieces of a puzzle together.
When he is doing this exercise happily at the walk, repeat the same thing at the trot. Check that your position stays balanced, with your shoulders over your hips and your hips over your ankles. Stay in rising trot as this tends to put horses at ease. It also will help you apply your leg aid in a natural, rhythmic, pressure-release fashion, closing against his side when you sit and softening when you rise. You won’t be tempted to apply a strong, constant leg pressure, which might provoke a negative reaction in your horse.
Exercise 1, Step 2: Leg-yield at the Walk
Exercise 1, Step 2: Leg-yield at the Trot
Exercise 1, Step 3: Create Bigger Steps
Once the shallow, staircase leg-yield is going well at the trot, you’re ready to introduce a few lengthened steps. Begin on the quarterline, just as you did before. Initiate the same slight leg-yield, allowing the shoulders to lead toward the wall. This time, though, after his shoulders drift slightly sideways, each time you apply and release your inside leg aid in rhythm with his trot, squeeze it for a split second longer than you did before. This slightly prolonged leg aid will encourage him to add a little air time to his steps, increasing his suspension and stride length. Also, because the slight lateral movement freed up his shoulders, his forelegs will be mobilized to stretch forward to cover more ground, thus creating space for his hind legs to step farther underneath his belly.
At this point, it’s very important that you maintain your own balance so you don’t risk throwing him off balance. Don’t tip your body forward. Instead, maintain the steady posting rhythm—think bigger, not faster—and imagine a glass wall extending up vertically from your horse’s withers. Try to keep your nose from touching that imaginary barrier.
Be sure to maintain a steady contact. Many riders try too hard to stay out of their horses’ faces, afraid to touch the reins. Without that connection, though, their horses are more likely to fall into a fast trot or break into canter. By keeping a light contact, you encourage your horse to stretch his nose forward onto the bit, thus connecting the energy from his hindquarters over his back, withers and poll. This helps him create more push in his hind legs and thus longer trot steps.
Reward your horse for any effort he makes, no matter how small. Then take time to build on the concept. Eventually, when he feels relaxed and confident, you will be able to skip the bend and sideways drift and instead ride a single track straight to a specific arena letter or spot you’ve chosen. This time, apply the bigger-step leg aid with both legs—still in rhythm with his trot. Again, ask for a few steps at first and then gradually build on that. Over time, you will be able to perform a final-product lengthening from start to finish across the diagonal.
Exercise 1, Step 3: Leg-yield to Lengthening at the Trot
Exercise 2: Ground Poles
Another way to teach your horse to lengthen his stride is with ground poles. Start with a single pole on the ground. Walk him over the center of it several times in a calm, relaxed manner. Then go over it in posting trot, keeping a light contact with his mouth and maintaining your own upright position and steady balance. Be sure your shoulders remain aligned over your hips and ankles. Don’t do anything differently with your legs unless he slows down, in which case apply the same leg aids you would if he fell behind the pace doing anything else.
Next, with the help of a ground person if necessary, measure your horse’s natural trot stride by looking at his footprints in the sand. Measure from one pair of prints (made by one forefoot and one hind foot) to the next. Set up three parallel ground poles spaced this same distance apart. The average horse’s trot stride is about 4 feet (120 centimeters) long, but if your horse’s stride is shorter than average, it’s important to adjust the poles accordingly to make him comfortable with the exercise without risking throwing him off balance or confusing him.
Ride through the center of the three poles at a rising trot, keeping a soft contact with his mouth and maintaining an upright, balanced position. Close your legs against his sides each time you sit, giving rhythmic pressure–release support to help him associate this leg aid with the greater effort he needs to clear the poles. Repeat this several times in both directions.
When your horse is absolutely comfortable and relaxed going over the poles in his natural stride, gradually increase the space between the poles by only an inch or two each time. As you ride through the slightly wider-spaced poles, prolong each leg squeeze a split second longer to teach your horse to associate it with the bigger step.
Continue to increase the spacing gradually. Build him up in a way that makes sense to him and doesn’t ever become stressful, which would make the exercise counterproductive. Increasing the spacing too suddenly could result in a serious loss of confidence. Never spread the poles to a point where he starts to lose his balance or where you have to ride extremely aggressively to get him through the exercise.
For the first several sessions, begin with the spacing that matches his natural stride so he starts in his comfort zone. To save time, you can set up two sets of poles: one at his comfortable distance and the other with slightly wider spacing. Eventually, as his strength and confidence improve, you may be able to begin the sessions with the wider-spaced poles.
How widely you ultimately space the poles for your horse is not as important as teaching him to stay relaxed and confident while adjusting his stride. With practice, he’ll learn to do the same thing in response to your leg aids without the poles. To reinforce this lesson—and make his routine more interesting—alternate these ground-pole sessions on some days with the leg-yield sessions on other days. This will help you achieve your goal of consistent, quality trot lengthenings more easily and quickly.
Exercise 2: Ground Poles
A native of Switzerland, Bruno Greber earned his Eid. dipl. Reitlehrer (master instructor) diploma through the Swiss Professional Rider’s Association’s trainer/instructor program. He then moved to Vienna, Austria, to specialize in classical dressage. There he studied with former first chief rider of the Spanish Riding School Arthur Kottas-Heldenberg as his assistant trainer at his private barn. Bruno has also trained with Georg Wahl, Egon von Neindorff, George Theodorescu, Klaus Krzisch, Philippe Karl, Linda Tellington-Jones and Lisa Wilcox. He has taught clinics around the world for many years. He moved to Gordonsville, Virginia, in 2003 to compete horses for Ashanti Farm. During the following 11 years, he earned his U.S. Dressage Federation bronze, silver and gold medals. In 2014, Bruno and his wife, Barbara, started their own training business in White Hall, Virginia. For more information, go to greberdressage.com.
This article originally appeared in the September 2015 issue of Practical Horseman.