In the beginning, if I could get the horse to drop his head even just below the withers, I thought I was getting a beginner sort of stretch. I was so pleased that I could influence the horse enough to get him to drop his neck.
Then as time went on, and with my ever-patient instructor at my side, I realized that just getting the horse to drop his neck actually had nothing to do with getting a stretch.
Well, that was my burning question after about a month (or more!) of neck-downs and still no real stretch!
The Passive Stretch
In reality, the passive stretch is not really a stretch. It is more of a what I now think of as a "neck-down". The catch is that many people cannot tell the difference between a passive versus an active stretch, and therefore get caught in the passive conundrum without even knowing it.
When you are new to getting your horse to stretch, you don't know what a truly active stretch feels like. Initially, it can even be a little overwhelming to watch the horse as his neck goes down, down, down, seemingly into a never-ending abyss. It can even become a little uncomfortable to feel the imbalance the neck-down may cause, since the horse does in fact fall to the forehand in a passive stretch.
The neck-down comes from the reins. You learn that if you take the contact long enough, the horse will start looking for a release. At one point, the horse will drop his head and you will release. And so - as with anything (right?) - take more contact and the horse will quickly learn to drop his head even lower. Your release at the bottom will reinforce that he did the right thing.
And then your superstar fantastic instructor tells you that you are NOT doing a stretch!
After many, many more tries, you might start to discover that the problem with the passive stretch is that it is merely a posture. Similar to reaching down for grass, the horse learns to reach down for the pressure release. If the back was hollow before the neck going down, it will still be hollow. If the horse wasn't properly using his hind end, the disengagement will continue and might even become more pronounced.
At the walk, it might not be much of a problem. At the trot, you can begin to really feel the horse leaning to the forehand. If you try a neck-down at the canter, you will really know what imbalance feels like! Beware - the horse may fall to the forehand enough to slip or trip.
The Active Stretch
The active stretch is different in so many ways.
1. It starts from the hind end. The key is that there should be movement. So without initiating impulsion from the hind end, there will be no stretch.
2. The energy travels over the top line, and because of that energy, the horse reaches forward to the bit. If the horse is being truly energetic - from the rear - he will spontaneously want to round, release the tension in the top line, and begin the stretch.
You should feel a surge of energy (I think of it as a mild whip-lash effect) which ends in the horse's desire to reach forward and down. How far he reaches forward and down depends on the depth of your release.
3. Finally, the major difference is that your release of the reins encourages the horse to reach down even more. Therefore, other than the original level of contact, there is no more taking up of rein or tightening or pulling or moving your elbows backward.
During and After the Stretch
The other major difference between the active and passive stretch is level of activity. While the horse is stretching, he is still with you. In the passive stretch, you effectively drop the horse and let go. Then, you must "take up" again (your reins, contact, energy, connection).
In the active stretch, you are still there through the whole movement. You can half-halt through your seat and reins, you can use your leg aids and you can smoothly resume the usual riding outline once the stretch is over.
The reins are not loopy, or completely released.
There is always a light, effective contact between you and your horse, regardless of where the head and neck is. (Click here to tweet that.)
Begin to Float
You will know when you have found the active stretch. There is simply no comparison to the neck-down. You will feel:
- the horse's energy surge
- the back actually becoming rounder and stronger
- the strides become larger and bolder
- the body loosen up, the horse become enthusiastic and calm at the same time, and just this overall buoyancy that wasn't there with the neck down.
Combine all the above and you will begin to float, equine-style!
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