Tuesday, September 8, 2015

A Spoonful of Sugar Helps the Horse to Stretch Down **

In my August lesson with Amy Howard, neither of us were really too happy with Tucker's trot work and I wasn't entirely sure what was going on.  Since then, I've changed a few things:
  1. As I've already blogged about, I changed my warm-up from long and low with loopy reins to forward walking on contact and lateral work until I feel him take both reins.
  2. I've also been very conscious of whether I'm riding "back to front" or "front to back."  I actually read something helpful about the human brain being wired to fix things with our hands, and as riders we need to retrain that instinct to fix things with our seat, leg, and balance.
  3. I switched farriers.  We had tried a new farrier for the past couple of months who was a very nice guy but ultimately wasn't working out for our needs.  So I had to make the terribly awkward and uncomfortable farrier-break-up call, but I'm really happy with how his feet look after the switch.  Now we've got him balanced a little better, with less toe and a little wider at the heel, and I think it's helping him get his hind legs under himself a little more.
So Amy was much happier with our trot work in the warm-up in our lesson last week. I showed her the things I've been doing to get him in the right rein. For example, we start off on a circle going right with his nose pointed toward the rail until he fills the inside rein. Amy added to that by telling me that once he takes the right, soften the left (outside) rein, and then he'll come back to a true bend without dropping the right. Tiny little change, but a big difference.

So once we were warmed up I explained that since our last lesson, where Amy told me that the stretchy trot should have enough contact that I could pick up a canter from it, I've realized that I'm doing the stretchy trot all wrong (the "conscious incompetence" phase).  I lengthen my reins, drop the contact entirely, and Tucker pretty much gives me a hunter trot, not a real "stretch."  This explains why it's consistently our lowest scoring movement.  So, I did some research, made a playlist, and found this amazing video, which of course I can't find now.  (It was a blonde woman on a liver chestnut, in a fancy indoor, probably European, stretching the trot down and picking the reins back up.  Anyone??)

Unfortunately, even though I've tried to work on it at home, I have been running into a complete dead end.  I just could not seem to explain to Tucker that I wanted him to take the reins from me and stretch down.  I could make my reins longer, or send my hands forward, but ultimately he doesn't reach down when he's on the contact and the only way to get him to stretch is to chuck the reins at him.

I explained all this to Amy and she walked me through the process.  In the stretchy trot, his back should come up more (and I should encourage him to lift his back with my legs), and then he should reach down but maintain the same connected in my hand, and all the while the tempo shouldn't change. We discussed that it's a more difficult process for a horse who used to be a hunter, because he knows the "hunter frame" so well, and has a spot where he thinks he should go, and wants to create a loop in the reins (vs. a dressage horse, who doesn't know about that frame and understands stretching down into contact).

So, in my lesson, we tried asking for incremental stretches downward, like giving 1 cm of rein and asking for 1 cm of stretch. Then I'd give a little more, but when he wouldn't stretch more, my reins would go slack, I'd take back to re-establish the contact, Tucker would curl up, and we'd achieve the opposite of what we were going for.  So we talked about not "taking back," and instead lowering my hands, spreading my hands, or pushing my hands forward, so I worked on that part but we still didn't get much stretch out of him. We tried opening the inside rein to get him to bend around and down, but as soon as I'd go back to center his head would come right back up. 

At a certain point, Amy said "okay, hang on, he's not getting it," and walked toward the corner of the ring.  I figured, okay, she's getting her tall boots, I'm the last person who should be teaching a horse a dressage concept, this makes perfect sense.  But then she grabbed something from a jar and came back toward us.  I had visions of being forced to carry rocks in my hands along with the reins, a trick instructors have used on me in the past to make me close my fingers.  

I can only assume that Tucker believed at this point that Amy had retrieved some unknown dressagey torture device and was lamenting his fate and mentally getting his affairs in order.  Much to our mutual surprise, the thing Amy retrieved was sugar.  To which Tucker said, to quote Adam Levine, Yes please.

So we started at the halt, and the goal was to get Tucker to understand that he needed to reach down while I maintained contact with his mouth through the reins.  At first, Tucker tried to make his lips as long and dexterous as possible because he was convinced that while I had the reins in my hands, his neck could not move.  The poor thing could NOT understand why this crazy lady was offering him a treat and not bringing it to his lips when clearly it was just out of his reach.  He was so convinced his neck could not move that Amy asked if he liked sugar.  (That's like asking me if I like wine.)

Eventually, Tucker got sick of contorting his face and tried moving his neck.  Once we did this successfully at the halt (where I just leaned down and kept connection with his mouth while he ate his sugar), Amy stayed alongside of him and kept offering sugar to get him to stretch at the walk and trot, which resulted in an inordinate amount of drool up her arm, several stifled giggles on my part, and many moments where I tried not to bumble the whole effort by either pulling back or letting my reins get slack (which would have both sent the wrong message and defeated the purpose of the exercise).

Although he did start to stretch toward the end of the ride, I was not entirely convinced the sugar had caused the breakthrough.  I am, after all, a lawyer pessimist born skeptic.  We joked that it might seem a little hokey and it wasn't exactly classical dressage, but I figured we gave it a shot and if it mildly improved things, great.  Nothing to lose, right?

You guys.  It totally freaking worked.

In my rides since that lesson, I have worked on the stretchy trot with contact, and it's completely improved.  On Friday during our ride I had him trotting all over the ring, changing direction, doing serpentines, and all different size circles, stretching down with contact.  Granted, ideally we probably want him stretching down farther, but he actually gets it.  Yay for smart ponies and double-yay for trainers who think outside the box (or jar, as the case may be).

** This post is alternatively titled, "Pour Some Sugar on Me, in the Name of Dressage," "Sweet Trot of Mine," or "Sugar, Sugar, Pony, Pony."


  1. haha this is awesome - love Amy's creativity!! i really struggle with putting the concept of the horse 'following' the contact into action - your point about humans wanting to fix things with their hands makes a lot of sense in that respect!

  2. Oooh, I like this idea! I have a lot of trouble getting Gina to stretch downward; maybe this will help!

    Humans wanting to fix things with their hands makes total sense!!

  3. Love this idea! I can't get Dassah to stretch into contact for anything! Now to get the hubs out to help me with this....

    Congrats on finding a solution!


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