Home Topics About Us Saddles Services Contact Us

All Stretches Are Not Created Equal

By Carol Kurtz Darlington, Art2Ride Associate Trainer

A lot is being said lately about riding long and low. Some say horses should never stretch below chest level. Others ride their horses on the buckle. The truth is that all stretches are not created equal. Riding your horse in a stretch when you have no contact with the bit only results in more weight on the forehand. These peanut-rolling-type horses are usually completely hollow in their backs even though they are stretching.

In classical foundation training we stretch a horse with the purpose of lifting its back and engaging the hind end under the body as Helen and Orlando are demonstrating here. This is a completely different stretch. We maintain a consistent contact of the weight of rein, whether working in hand, lunging, or riding.

Below is Emmeli on her beloved horse Nacho in a deep stretch in the trot. The straight line in her reins is what we mean by weight of rein. Notice she is not holding Nacho back at all but just connecting the energy from his back to his mouth. The parallel lines between the diagonal pairs of Nacho’s legs show that his hind end is active and in sync with his front legs.

It’s true that when you first teach your horse to stretch he will probably be on the forehand. But no horse is more on the forehand than a hollow horse, which is why we want to lift the back. If the stretch is done correctly the hind end will become more active and the horse will begin to balance itself and carry more weight in the hind quarters. Horses in a deep stretch with connection to the bit will gradually weight the hind end more as they develop and lift their backs.

It is important to stretch a horse under saddle with forward movement from the hind legs, as we see Allison stretching Contigo here in the walk. She keeps the connection with the bit, but never pulls back on the reins. This will develop self-carriage instead of you increasingly having to hold your horse up, which is impossible anyway. Once your horse is developed to the point of being able to come up and work over its back in the working gaits, the stretch will serve as a great warmup as well as a chance to restore circulation to the topline muscles between challenging moves. The stretch is not the end goal but serves as part of your horse’s development and eventual collection.

If your horse has not developed its topline, it is necessary to strengthen and lift its back. By activating the hind end with lateral movements like leg yield and shoulder-in to help your horse step under its body with the inside hind leg, its back lifts. This lengthens your horse’s neck, and that is the type of stretch we’re going for. Once you can maintain a good stretch in all three gaits, your horse will be strong enough to begin coming up into the working gaits and keep its back up and supported by the abdominal muscles.

Here is Tori teaching Soleil to stretch in the canter. Soleil is reaching with that inside hind, and Tori is lifting her body to make it easier for him.

This development will take some time and patience, and it cannot be rushed. The stretch is only as valuable as its effect on your horse’s back. Look behind the saddle. No matter how great the front end may look, if there is a dip behind the saddle it means the back is not being lifted. You don’t want a stretch like that. As master horseman Will Faerber says, “The stretch not only helps you to learn how to balance, but it lets the horse develop its own balance underneath you without you holding on to its mouth. It lets the horse develop self-carriage. A horse that is held against the hand will never develop self-carriage. They’ll just balance against your hands for the rest of their lives.”

Sarah & Fleur at Art2Ride Clinic:

Cody’s horse Indy:

Karli and Petri: