Back to Basics: Trot Lengthening With the Less-Than-Gifted Dressage Horse

Dressage has universal benefits for all horses — even those that aren’t classic “10” movers. Biz’s “Back to Basics” column returns, breaking down trot lengthening for the less-than-gifted horse.

One of the things I love about dressage is the concept of relaxed power.  On top of being beautiful to watch when correctly executed, it is a great life philosophy.

Pi embodies the concept of relaxed power and at 9 years old, I’m convinced it is the source of his longevity. Photo by Biz Stamm

The extended trot (in my humble opinion) exemplifies “relaxed power.” Nothing screams “dressage!” more than the loose, swinging back and stretched frame combined with the flexing hocks and driving hind legs. While my little horse Helix, a six year old Kiger mustang, is nowhere near ready to attempt this pinnacle of strong and stretchy, he is getting his first little taste as he moves up to first level. Here we will take on trot lengthenings to provide evidence that we are developing “thrust” that will be used later on to deliver that brilliant extended trot.

For some horses, this first step  is easy. For others, not so much, and Helix falls into the latter camp. Instead of beautiful, floating strides, his front legs take on the form of sewing machine needles, moving up and down incredibly quickly while covering as little ground as possible. So how does one go about transforming this hectic shuffle into a fluid lengthened trot? It all comes back to that whole thrust thing.

I’m big on semantics (I occasionally go by the alias “the Semantics Diva”) so let’s start off by defining the central term here, thrust, and clarifying what it means in this particular context. The good folks at NASA define thrust as “when a system expels or accelerates mass in one direction, the accelerated mass will cause a force of equal magnitude but opposite direction on that system.”

In horse terms the “system” is your horse’s body, and as it accelerates its hooves towards the ground, it creates thrust in the opposite direction that propels the rest of its body. Technically speaking your horse is constantly generating a thrust force. It is the magnitude and direction of that force that allows your horse to lengthen it’s stride. Yay vector physics! So let’s explore that!

My alter ego, the Semantics Diva. No. Just kidding. It’s actually the time I dressed up as a mushroom genus for Halloween. Photo by Dave Maliszewski.

Let’s start with the magnitude, or the amount of force your horse is exerting with its feet against the ground. As I previously mentioned, when our horses are moving, they are constantly creating a thrust force by pushing off the ground with their feet. When we ride the lengthened trot, we need to have a way to ask our horses to increase the magnitude of the thrust to take those longer strides. In simple terms, when we put our leg on, we need to get a more of a push off the ground.

So if you’re like me and ride a horse that is not naturally inclined to lengthen, this larger push might translate into a weird shuffle/scramble as your horse isn’t in the right balance yet to actually lengthen. That’s OK. The important thing is when you put your leg on, you get a reaction. Try doing this on very light contact well because we dressage riders can get a little…micro-managey. Our propensity for perfection and control is what attracted us to dressage in the first place, but it can frequently get in the way of progress. Over riding with our hands can inhibit impulsion (and impulsion creates propulsion!).

Once we’ve established the ability to increase the thrust force with our leg we can start addressing the direction of the force. In order to lengthen we need to generate more hang time giving the horse more time to take longer steps, and we do this by asking our horses to push up as well as forward (see figure below). In order for this to be possible we need to make sure the horse’s abdominals are engaged, and the pelvis is being pulled forward to position the hind legs under the horse.

One way to test this is to check in with your transition from stretchy trot to working trot. Your horse should willingly stretch forward into the longer contact, lifting his back as he lengthens his frame. As you come back to working trot, there should be minimal change in the roundness of the back. Have someone take some video of you and watch the area directly behind the saddle. It should stay up and round.

The thrust force vector for working trot vs. the thrust force vector for lengthened trot which is larger in magnitude and a more upward direction. Image created by Biz Stamm.

The ability to maintain a round back will position your horse’s hind legs underneath him, allowing for a greater upward push once his balance allows for it.

So that whole balance thing. How do we go about improving it? The key is to encourage your horse to bear more weight behind, giving the front legs the space to reach for longer steps. But isn’t asking our horses to bear more weight behind the definition of collection, and isn’t this an article about lengthening?! Yes. It is the definition of collection, and the ability to effectively lengthen comes from the ability to collect. Now at first level it would be unfair to ask for anything that required a high degree of collection, but your horse needs to a least be thinking about sitting on his hind end a little bit. A visual I come back to time and time again is that of a motor boat: as the boat accelerates forward, the rear of the boat lowers and the front of the boat comes up.

One exercise to improve the balance is the prolonged half halt, where you essentially bring your horse down to an energetic jog to shift the wight back and then ask for a lengthening from there. I like to ask for the half halt in the corner so I can use the bend to create a better connection on my outside rein and really encourage the horse to step under with his inside hind.

Not spectacular, but so much better. A huge part of this whole dressage thing is being patient and trusting the process. Thanks to our very own Morgane Schmidt Gabriel for this suggestion and a bit of online coaching.

Other exercises that shift your horse’s balance back to allow for longer steps can involve preparing for your lengthening with a lateral movement. If done correctly, this will engage the hind end and allow for more upward thrust. My personal favorite iteration of this concept involves riding shoulder-in halfway down the long side and then lengthening across the short diagonal.

Horses that have a tough time lengthening tend to be flat movers. Helix’s theme song is “Party Rockers” by LMFAO, because everyday he’s shuffling. So on top of improving your horse’s overall balance, it can be very productive spending time increasing the amount of suspension in his gait. To encourage a little more air time, incorporate some trot poles into their training program.  This will strengthen their hind end, encourage more complete articulation of the leg joints, and over time, create the suspension that allows for longer strides.

Trot poles for days! Photo by Biz Stamm

I just scratched the surface here, but I hope it was a useful explanation of what is required for a good trot lengthening, and a few exercise to get you started down the right path.

Go riding!

Biz Stamm is a horse trainer/mad scientist who enjoys spending her free time running like a gentle breeze in the Oregon foothills.  Specializing in starting young horses under saddle at Stamm Sport Horse LLC, she brings the analytical approach she has acquired while working in laboratory to her training. She currently owns two horses: the Kalvin Cycle (Kalvin), an 11-year-old half-Arabian gelding, and DB’s Alpha Helix (Helix), a 6-year-old Kiger mustang gelding.  While she is currently pursuing competitive goals, her main goal is to enjoy her horses, and for her horses to enjoy her.

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