Correct equine biomechanics for balanced movement are based on the longitudinal stretch - the flexion of the horse's spine that allows it to transmit power and carry the rider with strength.
Longitudinal stretching is when the horse drops his head in motion, simultaneously raising the back and reaching further under the centre of gravity with the hindlegs.
The horse's whole spine takes on a tensile quality, like a flexed bow, since both of its ends are lowered - the front end by the dropping of the head, and the back end by the tucking of the pelvis as the back legs step further forwards.
This flexing is supported by the engagement of the postural muscles to form the 'ring' of postural engagement. This drawing shows the longest parabola of this arc, when the horse drops the nose almost to the ground, but longitudinal stretching can also be present when a horse works on any degree of head-carriage, as long as the degree of engagement of the postural ring is sufficient to support it.
Whether the longitudinal stretch is a sound basis for training is the subject of many divided opinions. Its supporters include experts on equine biomechanics such as Charles de Kunffy, Dr. Deb Bennett and Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, while notable detractors include the French trainer, Jean Luc Cornille.
Although we believe the physiological evidence is there to support the validity of the longitudinal stretch (see, for example, Dr. Bennett's explanation of the postural ring), we would like to explain why we, personally, at HHT don't have any need for this kind of proof to know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this is what we should be looking for, above all, in gymnastically sound work.
The ultimate proof, for us, for the validity of the longitudinal stretch in correct equine biomechanics has nothing to do with scientific studies, it is an irrefutable, concrete feeling, that has been confirmed over and over again with all horses we've ever worked with.
Whether or not longitudinal stretching is something one has as a goal or not, it is something that happens, inevitably, when a horse starts to transmit the energy generated by the haunches through their spine.
When a horse's movement starts to become channeled in this way, more aligned and more balanced, the natural reaction of the horse is to drop their head, stretching their nose forwards.
How do we know that this transmission of energy is happening? That's where it comes down to feeling - pure sensation. Like the way you know whether the bike you're riding is in gear or free-wheeling. Working with a horse on the lunge, you feel this transmission as a steady connection flowing through the contact, so that you can feel right through the horse's body, from the nose to the hindlegs, with your lunge line connection. You feel the horse aligning onto the bend, and the movement becoming cadenced rather than rushed or sluggish.
When you are riding, you feel this transmission even more directly through your whole postural connection with the horse. When the power of the movement is channeled straight through the horse's spine, you feel the back lifting your seat, and both ends of the horse become unified with postural tone. The horse fills up the contact, stretching and softening into it, and when the reins are given out, the horse will always drop their head naturally as a continuum of the stretch, without any need for encouragement.
These feelings are unmistakable, but not
inevitable. It's quite possible to spend a lifetime working with horses,
with the best intentions, without ever feeling the reality of
transmission and postural engagement.
So why do some trainers contest the validity of the longitudinal stretch? Firstly there is an important confusion over what a true longitudinal stretch actually is.
Correct stretching is always, by definition, something that the horse offers, without any form of persuasion involving the front end.
A lowering of the horse's head that occurs as a result of use of the reins, side-reins or any other device, whether during lunging or riding, is NOT valid longitudinal stretching, despite how similar it may look. True longitudinal stretching is the result of a specific dynamic of equine biomechanics that involves the whole of the horse's body - it is not just a head-carriage.
We can force or persuade the horse to drop its head, and this may bring some mechanical lifting of the back, but the crucial elements of postural balancing and lateral alignment are bypassed, and all that will result is a horse who is on the forehand with disengaged haunches. Perhaps this is reason for the common misconception that a horse stretching down is 'on the forehand'.
This misunderstanding is also due to a confusion between our visual impressions and our perception of balanced motion.
We all know that horses naturally carry more weight on the forehand, and most riders are familiar with the feeling of the lack of balance this creates. The problem is that our intellect jumps in and tells us that we have to get the horse 'up in front' in order to correct this, and that this amounts to the horse lifting their head up.
In fact, the horse raising their head carriage, no matter how high, does not shift weight off the forehand. The only thing that can move the horse's centre of gravity back is for the hindlegs the reach further under the body mass each time they take a step, and this is what goes along with the correct longitudinal stretch. So a horse who is stretching down as a result of postural engagement is not on the forehand, even though our eye might tell us that they look downhill. If we can allow ourselves to listen to the feeling of balance instead, we will know that a horse with a true longitudinal stretch, whether on a high or a low head-carriage, is significantly more balanced and less on the forehand.
Developing the horse's postural strength and straightness to the point where they develop a high head-carriage is, naturally, a long process, which also depends on many aspects of the horse's individual conformation and physiology. If we sacrifice the longitudinal stretch in order to attempt a short-cut to a more 'advanced outline', then we defeat the whole purpose of correct dressage - to make the horse more able to carry the rider in strength, balance and grace.
Trying to achieve the longitudinal stretch as an end in itself rather than as a product of our feel for transmission is no different than trying to achieve an 'advanced outline' as an end in itself.
Even some of the
aforementioned supporters of the longitudinal stretch fall into this
trap - for example, trying to encourage a young horse to stretch down by
leaning forwards and taking the hands low and wide. Feel for balance
should tell us that this way of riding only unbalances the horse's movement, so the head may drop
but the rider has contributed to the weighting of the forehand instead of using their posture to shift the centre of gravity back towards the haunches.
To generate a correct longitudinal stretch, the rider needs to develop their ability to create a postural engagement with the energy coming from the horse's haunches, in order to then channel it through the horse's spine to initiate the longitudinal stretch.
Riding based on correct equine biomechanics is focused on the postural influence we can have over the horse's whole-body posture, not just having an effect on the front end (see: How to Ride Dressage... Real Dressage).
The lesson in all of this is to focus on developing our awareness of the feeling of balanced movement, instead of imposing the goal of a certain rigid visual appearance, because no matter how 'correct' this appearance is in theory, attempting to achieve it without following feel is sure to lead us astray.
You can learn all the theory you like, read all the studies that exist on equine biomechanics, and name all the muscles it's possible to name, but none of this will have any real relevance unless you develop your actual awareness of the reality of balanced movement in the horse's body.
Like everything constructive we can do with horses, it comes down to expanding our conscious awareness of the present moment - everything we need to know is right there.
For a guide to the basic stages of training a horse based on the foundation of the longitudinal stretch, see Camille Dareau's 'How to Train a Horse Without Force, pt.1'.
For a guide to developing your riding in a way that promotes the longitudinal stretch and correct postural engagement, see Gabrielle Dareau's 'The Gymnastic Rider'.
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