No, not me, I’m all better and back in the saddle. Horses’ heads. It’ll all make sense in a moment.
While most of teaching connection in dressage (or “contact”, “on the bit”, “in a frame”, “in an outline”, “on the aids”, “accepting the bit”, or whatever your favourite buzzword is) involves getting the horse’s head further up and further in, it’s also important to teach your horse to stretch down and out. For one thing, you have to do both a free walk and a stretchy trot circle as early as Prelim if you want to compete. For another, it’s a valuable tool. Stretching the neck down and out mimics the horse’s natural head position when grazing and is a sign of relaxation. It’s a good way to cool him off after a workout; if I’m demanding something hard of my horse and he gets it right I often reward him with a change of rein in a free walk before going back to work.
Unfortunately, many young horses resent being asked to stretch, especially the hyper, jumpy, forward types. Others just have no idea what they’re supposed to be doing.
The good news is that any relaxed horse will do it by himself given the opportunity. The bad news is that a non-relaxed horse will not do it unless you dangle off his head or something drastic. I have tried, by putting a hand on the crest of the neck and leaning on it, to show them to drop their heads. Maybe this would work if you were not a midget, but all it did for me was make the horses think I was daft.
You could also try getting them to do this on the ground with a pressure halter, but the real key is to relax the horse. So usually I teach it either under saddle or on the lunge; usually trying under saddle first. I like to try it after a really good workout, especially one involving a lot of connection. When the horse is tired he is usually far likelier to relax and behave himself (in general, a tired horse is nearly always a well-behaved horse). Bringing the horse down to a walk, I’ll demand a really nice medium walk from him with his head on the vertical or (if he’s a tough cookie) even slightly behind it to really work his neck muscles. Then, quite steadily, I let the reins slip through my fingers. Most horses are happy for the rest and will stretch down beautifully. Even if I can only get a stride or two strides the first time I give him a pat and then let him cool off on a loose rein.
If that fails, then the horse usually doesn’t understand that he’s supposed to put his head down. (Horses that are good at connection are often good at stretching, too). That makes me put him back on the lunge and put on a standing martingale, de gogue or very low side reins. The de gogue seems to make the most sense to very green horses and is quite easy on the mouth, so usually I try this first. It applies quite strong poll pressure, which encourages the horse to drop his head down.
Luckily for us, stretching is its own reward, so once they’ve done it a few times and realise how nice it feels, the deal is normally done. Some horses look their best when they stretch, if you remember to make them engage their bottoms; they get a lovely swinging stride and start moving their backs. Then the hard part is getting them to trot in a circle without falling in or making a squircle, but that’s more to do with responding to the leg aids.
What’s brought this to mind recently? Well, it’s yet another difference between Arwen and Magic, and stood out dramatically when I lunged them both on Monday. Arwen is the reigning queen of stretching. Her free walk more or less involves digging a hole in the arena with her nose. She’ll even canter on a loose rein with her face almost between her knees. Magic, on the other hand, totally doesn’t get it. His conformation – a very short neck on a high wither – doesn’t help. Even when he is stretching, he doesn’t look it, because the neck is so short and the legs are so long. Being highly-strung and not very supple also makes it hard for him. We are finally getting him to stretch in walk so that his bit is at the point of his shoulder, so I expect he’ll eventually get it.