I've been using this exercise as a warm-up for both myself and my horse lately and I'm seeing great results! It's an active but relaxing way for both of us to loosen up. For me, it gives me time to loosen through my lower back and get onto my seatbones, find a nice tempo in the walk and maintain that tempo consistently.
It helps my horse loosen "over the top line" - getting longer through the neck and back, and then shorter - in a low-impact, non-rushed pace that gives him time to adjust himself physically and mentally to each posture. All the while, he practices swinging in the walk, stepping deep underneath his body with his hind legs and also maintaining a consistent tempo.
This article builds on a previous article I've written about the same concept, explaining the aids in detail, so you might want to read that first. "Can You Accordion Your Horse"? It's important to note that the "accordion" I talk about here is an over the top-line stretch and contraction. It isn't the same thing as a collection exercise (although this builds toward more collection). This one is more basic and can be effectively done by less advanced horses and riders (although it benefits everyone at every stage).
Start on a large 20-metre circle.
Ask for a stretch, focusing on letting out your reins as the horse reaches for the bit and takes it out and down. Don't just drop the reins and hope for the best. Use your seat and legs to initiate the horse's stretch, and feel for the right moment to let the reins out through your fingers.
When in stretch, feel for the swinging back. Get a friend to observe you to tell you if your horse is at least tracking up in his footsteps, or preferably overtracking. Then also encourage your horse to open up his poll so that his nose approaches the vertical when his head is at the lowest point.
After a few steps (let's say 5-8 steps), ask for increased impulsion using both legs. As the horse lifts his head, begin to shorten the reins. The horse's head and neck should lift now to his "normal" height (the height will depend on your horse's conformation and level of training) and your reins should be at your normal, working length.
Now, you want to try to maintain that swing of the back that you had in the stretch, even while the horse is contracting his top line muscles and rounder in the back and neck. You want to maintain the walk tempo that you had during the stretch. The stride length will be shorter but ideally, you want to be tracking up even in this "medium walk". The activity stays the same - no dawdling and stopping your own seat (no vacations!) just because you're walking.
3. Now take the exercise around the ring.
Start at the 20-metre circle, but you don't have to stay there. Go to the rail and follow the rail for a few accordions, then come off the rail and change directions on a diagonal line with another accordion, the change directions and keep going.
It is important that you can stretch at will, on a line or curve, and in any place in the arena (scary locations, anyone?) - stretching when your horse wants to spook is a GREAT way to develop confidence and trust from your horse. Just be on guard and don't let the reins out if your horse is ready to run!
4. What next?
Time yourself and try this for 5-10 minutes. Stretch/contract and repeat, even if you think you're getting bored, or if you don't have your horse's undivided attention. Get you and your horse used to how it feels to let the muscles loosen, and how it feels to tighten them again after that looseness. Feel for strength in the medium walk.
Then you can do more! Why stop there? Do the same exercise in trot (more difficult) and canter (most difficult). Don't worry if things don't go perfect the first time - just keep at it and see what you need to adjust through each stretch/contract cycle.
It will get better over time. You will enjoy the fact that your horse will start to predict when he needs to come up and go down, and he will become more and more comfortable in both positions. And so will you!
- Although we are thinking about the position of the head and neck, the idea is that the neck muscles are connected to the withers, which are connected to the muscular structures beneath the saddle all the way to the croup. Here's an excellent diagram of the horse's topline muscles and actions:
- Stretch the neck, and you stretch the back.
- But it is imperative that you also consider the hind end!
- So while you are stretching, impulsion is key. Not fast legs though, just energy and strength for each stride. With each thrust of energy, the horse reaches underneath the body, thereby creating a better balance point in terms of biomechanics, but also activating the hind end muscles into their own stretch.
- You want to maintain a light but steady contact at all times through this exercise, even at the stretchiest point. Long or short reins - keep some communication going through tiny half-halts.
If you have a chance to try this, let us know how things went in the comments below!
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Use the “Canter-Trot” to Truly Engage the Hind End: Many riders think that kicking the horse along and making the legs move faster is the ticket to engagement – but there is nothing further than the truth!
Don’t Mistake the Halt For a Stop! Don’t do it! Don’t mistake the halt for a stop. They are two entirely different maneuvers.
Why An Active Stretch is Nothing Like A Neck-Down: The problem with the passive stretch is that it is merely a posture.
Ode to the Stretchy Trot: How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
How Do You Know Your Horse Is Using His Back? In the long run, our primary motivation for self-improvement in riding is for the sake of the horse’s health. We want horses that live well, staying strong and vigorous long into their old age.