Q: Can you explain the difference between an engaged stretch and a horse just going with their head down?
A: There is a big difference between these two! Riding could be so much less confusing if horses didn't have necks...
Necks are so beautiful and easy to see, but they are often a distraction from the real issue, which is what is going on in their bodies. But the neck also gives us a lot of information about their body which we might otherwise miss.
There can be a BIG difference between a horse moving with a low head, and a biomechanically beneficial stretch of his whole body (including his neck). The more I learn, the less I worry about putting the neck in particular places and the more I just use it as a gauge of the whole horse. But, paradoxically, placing the neck in a particular place can have a huge effect on the whole body. We are seeking to have a horse that feels relaxed, balanced and supple enough to be able to stretch his entire spine, and we don’t want to make a horse put his head low if his body doesn’t feel balanced or loose enough to do it. They will be even less balanced that way. I look for a stretch, set up the circumstances for a stretch... But the stretch is a result of balance (trust and calmness), keeping in mind that adding energy may be what creates the balance!
I have met plenty of horses who are flexible enough to go low with their heads, even at a canter, but it doesn’t feel good (stumbling, pulling, heavy or just disconnected). In these cases I just say: “Thanks for showing me you can do that, now let’s get our longitudinal balance better in our body before we continue with that!” There is an emotional component to this posture and for a valuable stretch the horse needs to be emotionally calm (trusting). If it feels like the horse is pulling his head down in order to ‘take over’ that is not a valuable stretch. Also on this note if you simply ask the horse to put his head down but he doesn’t feel trusting or safe, it will not feel good, and he could feel less safe... I used to teach horses to stretch by talking directly to their heads/necks but I rarely do anymore. It started to feel like they were ‘ducking’. I don’t want the horse to stretch unless he feels safe, calm, balanced, energized and loose. The exception is when I have a horse with a lot of ‘history’ and perhaps he doesn’t know that he is allowed to make such a bold a move as lowering his head... even if he feels like it... But in this case it is very gentle and just to show him the possibility and that he will be safe to do this. I also may do it if a horse is really scared of his environment and I want to show him something he can do to feel calm. The same way you feel better if you make yourself smile... But it is important that your intention while asking for the low head is: "Hey, friend, take a deep breath and relax" and not: "HEY, submit to me and get your head down!" :-)
When a horse stretches because he is let loose, balanced, energized and calm then the whole body releases, including his back, under where you sit... This is when you will see the base of the neck change, as it is really a change in the whole body. When a horse stretches like this it looks less like a neck going down, and more like a back raising up.... and that is the gold! When it happens like this you can see the stretch even without the head lowering that much! In fact we want to keep that quality of a stretch-able body even during collection. That is really when we need the horse to have this ability, because it is so easy to create tension and contraction in collection. So we want to use a stretch to:
- show the horse he can find freedom inside his own body
- to supple and loosen the top line
- to help show them how they can carry our weight in a more healthy way
- to dissolve tension
- to check/challenge/develop their balance.
When a horse is stretching their back up, they will feel more comfortable to sit, because the feeling of being glued to their backs is partially due to us sitting deep and close, and partially due to their backs coming up to meet us. That is why it is so important to prove to our horses that we have athletic seats that can rise to the occasion... literally! It is our ability to lighten our seat that can give the horse confidence to bring their backs up, which in turn will help us sit deeper.. believe it or not!!