It isn't easy to work your horse into a true lengthening. That is because most horses tend to increase their leg speed when asked for "more" by the rider's aids. Invariably, we speed up our posting tempo to mirror the horse's and soon enough we are going faster-faster and then the horse switches into a canter.
If the horse doesn't speed up, he might stay in the same trot. So in effect, there was no lengthening at all.
What is a lengthening?
The key to a true lengthen is in the horse's body. The leg speed has nothing to do with the movement (other than in horses with suspension, the tempo might actually slow down a touch). Instead, the horse should stretch in the body from hind leg to front leg, allowing the stride to open up and the body to lengthen. The head can be held high and the nose on or ahead of the vertical.
There should be a feeling of uphill movement and quite a surge of energy (impulsion) as the horse gets into full swing.
There are so many reasons to add the lengthen to your daily riding routine. First, it helps strengthen the hind end by asking for the hind legs to come deep underneath the body to start the initial push of energy. Second, it strengthens the topline by allowing the opening of the body and transferring energy through the topline, under the saddle and to the horse's neck and poll.
Third, it challenges the horse to increase energy without losing balance. This is a prerequisite for higher level movements such as the medium or extended trot. Fourth, when done right, it just feels good! Some horses (and riders) lengthen just to feel the freedom of power that it allows.
Use a lengthen after (basic) collected work and see how fun it is for the horse to "go big" after some carrying work.
What not to do.
We'll start with what you shouldn't do to help eliminate the common problems from the get-go.
Don't kick the horse faster. You need seat and leg aids, but you don't need to stun or rush a horse into a lengthen.
Don't grab a hold of the reins and pull the speed back. Use half-halts before, through and after the lengthen. But do your best to allow the horse as much freedom as possible without coming to the forehand.
Don't fall behind the horse's movement. There should be an energy surge as the lengthen develops. Make sure you keep your upper body on top and in center of the saddle. If the horse does in fact lengthen the stride, you'll cover more ground than usual. Be there!
Don't let you reins go. This is the opposite extreme of pulling on the reins. If you let the reins get longer through the movement, the horse will have nothing to support him and will likely fall to the forehand. So it's not exactly a free-for-all in rein length. Keep the reins the same length before, during and after the lengthen.
What to do.
It's easiest to introduce the lengthen to the beginner horse or rider on the long side of the ring. Use the rail to help guide your horse for the first while so that you can focus on the stride length and your own aids and body. Graduate to a diagonal line only after you have some success on the rail.
Use the short side of the ring to prepare for the lengthen. You could do a 15-m circle at A or C to prepare. Develop a good working trot in the circle. Work on rhythm, a nice controlled tempo, and suppleness both laterally and longitudinally. You can post or sit, but if either of you are new to the lengthen, it's generally easier to post while you and the horse develop your strength.
Take that good trot out of the circle and into the corner.
Half-halt into and out of the corner. Make sure your corner is forward and energetic, but the trot stride should still be the horse's normal working trot length. Pump up the energy through your seat and leg but don't let it out yet!
Develop the lengthen.
One of our most common mistakes we make in teaching and/or learning the lengthen is to think that we have to take off like a cannon ball out of the corner. This is how horses learn to stiffen, fall to the forehand and learn not to use their backs.
Instead, come out of the corner as if you're still in your working trot. Then a few strides at a time, "allow" the energy out. If you did your homework in the circle and corner, the horse should be almost exploding with energy and now has a chance to let it come through.
Remember to keep the same rein length and keep your body on top of your horse (don't lean back or get left behind). Just ride as you normally would ride the trot.
Your post might be a touch longer in the forward and back phase if the horse does lengthen the stride. If you are sitting the trot, your seat will have to follow the bigger strides. Half-halt before the next corner, readjust your seat to a regular stride length, and half-halt coming out of the corner.
What usually happens.
Chances are, your horse either speeds up or doesn't make any change at all.
In both cases, don't worry too much. Instead, go into the next circle, go through the set up and try again. The key is that you have to learn to do the allowing, and your horse has to learn to accept it. Many horses don't even recognize the allow initially. It takes time to learn how to let go.
There is also the strength factor in both of you. Your horse might be able to really give only a handful of lengthen strides before falling to the forehand or scrambling faster. You might fall behind the movement and inadvertently pull or interfere in some way.
It takes time for both of you to develop the core muscles necessary to lengthen. So don't be too hard on yourself or your horse. Whatever happens, just make a mental note and come back to it next time you ride. Don't expect it to happen overnight.
A good lengthen feels effortless. The strides bound down the rail and you can feel the surge of energy coming from the hind end. The horse should be forward-feeling, uphill and energetic. Bonus points if his ears are pointed forward and he calmly comes back to a working trot at the end!
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The Five Stages Of A Transition: Whether you are working on upward transitions or downward, progressive or non-progressive, there are certain aspects to look for in every well executed gait change.
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