Ask The Trainer
How can I help my 5 year old mare to lengthen her stride at the trot? (She naturally moves ‘flat kneed’) Her canter is beautiful.
I ride with minimal rein contact if any but she tends to tuck her chin a little too much. I use my seat and legs to drive her up into the bridle, but usually results in ‘speeding’ which leads to more distraction. Any exercise ideas?
I will assume that you have made sure that your horse has no physical reason not to want to lengthen, such as a sore back or hocks, or an ill-fitting saddle.
First, make sure that you understand and are correctly applying the aids for shortening and lengthening the strides. The aids for shortening a stride are to close the fingers and hold. The rider must refrain from pulling back on the reins. The rider’s spine establishes the new rhythm by posting smaller, and the legs close around the horse, to maintain the desired gait. The aids to lengthen the stride are to give slightly with the reins without losing contact so that the horse may extend his body and stretch, allowing his stride to lengthen, while sitting balanced and lightly, using the legs to create a greater degree of engagement from the horse’s hindquarters. I find that it works best if, initially, the rider uses the legs every other stride, rather than every stride. This gives the horse a chance to respond without rushing. The rider begins to post bigger which encourages the horse to lengthen the step. It’s important to know how to correctly ask for both shortening and lengthening, and to practice both, so the horse knows there is a definite difference between the two. If you are sure that you are consistently applying the aids correctly, yet your horse still is not responding, then I would suggest using cavalletties to help your horse figure out what you want.
You will want to have the cavalletties poles on the lowest height. Initially, set them up so that the horse is comfortable trotting through them with her normal stride, and, starting with one pole, gradually work up to using three or four. When you are sure she is relaxed and confident with this, move the poles apart a few inches. Establish a rhythm and approach the line. As the horse is crossing the last pole, apply the aids for lengthening and try to maintain the longer stride for as long as possible after clearing the last pole. When the horse falls apart, relax and simply keep a rhythm around the ring and make another approach. Eventually, start asking for the lengthening on the approach, keep asking through the poles, and keep asking for the longer stride after the last one. You can also set up more sets of three to four poles in other places around the ring, making sure that all the sets of cavalletties are arranged so that the horse can easily maintain a steady rhythm around the track. Eventually, vary the distance between the poles of several sets, and ask the horse to lengthen or shorten when approaching the appropriate set, and to maintain that length of stride for as long as possible after. When you feel the horse is responding well, start asking for the lengthening of stride where there is no cavalleties, if the horse responds by speeding up the short steps, calmly steer into a set of cavalletties set up for the longer stride and ask again. Eventually, your horse will understand what you are wanting, and you will find that you need to cross a set of cavalletties less and less.
For more detail, you may want to read the article on using cavalletties in my Training Column, as well as this question: Cavalleti Training which also has some details relevant to your problem.