“How do I get a more elastic trot?” (Dressage Today, April 2015)

Reader Question: Could you give me some exercises that make my horse’s trot strides slower and more elastic, with more depth to the gait? I do get slowness, but feel the elasticity isn’t there. What should I work on?

Before addressing the elasticity, let’s look at possible reasons why you feel the need to slow your horse’s trot. Generally, a hurried trot tempo has many sources, most commonly: tension, over-active driving aids, or faulty balance. In the first scenario, tension could be caused by factors such as reaction to environmental stimuli, fear, pain, or confusion by the rider’s aids. Or you simply have a horse who is genetically “hot” and sensitive, tending to hurry when pressured. Once you can identify and help your horse through his source of tension, the more likely he will relax his mind, body, and tempo.
In the second case, the rider hurries the horse out of his natural tempo by aggressive or unceasing driving aids. This often happens when the rider feels the horse is not in front of her leg, and can cause a vicious-circle: The rider feels insufficient reaction to the leg, therefore drives with every stride. The horse thus becomes even more dull, which perpetuates the cycle. In this case, first make sure the horse is round and supple over his back, and that you are inviting him to seek a contact out toward the bit, keeping your wrists and hands soft. (see more on “throughness”, below).
Check that you are sitting in balance, with proper shoulder, hip and heel alignment, with relaxed seat and legs. Use your legs only when asking the horse for something, such as to move off more energetically in the trot. In-between, keep your aids neutral. To “test”, try going from a passive, “neutral” leg to an activating leg and then be alert: you must immediately react. Either reward a good response by quickly relaxing the aids, or follow up a non-response with a tap of the whip or bump of the leg. In other words, be clear in what you are asking for and quick to either reward or correct your horse. Your aids will become precise and more meaningful to him.
In the third scenario, rushing can be caused by the horse’s balance having fallen to the forehand. To help relieve the forehand, ride frequent half-halts and transitions. The moment you feel the horse take a bit more weight behind, soften the hand to allow the forehand to lighten. Ride frequent transitions within gaits and in-between gaits. Further improve the balance by adding shoulder-in, which supples the hindquarters, creating more “carrying” and thus a slower tempo. Keep in mind that slowness due to inactive hindquarters is never correct.
To develop elasticity in the trot, you’ll need to address both lateral (side-to-side) suppleness and longitudinal (back-front) suppleness, and frequently alternate the two throughout each ride. Elasticity can be defined as the ability or tendency to stretch or contract the musculature smoothly, giving the impression of “stretchiness” or “springiness”. I also like to think of it as “looseness”.
Stretching long and low, transitions between gaits, transitions within gaits and half-halts help develop longitudinal suppleness, while circles and bent lines, shoulder-in, travers/renvers and half pass improve lateral suppleness. (actually, you will find that shoulder-in, when correctly ridden, is useful in both). An example of combining the exercises is as follows. Be creative and ‘listen’ to your horse’s responses as you work together.
After you have loosened your horse’s muscles and achieved a round, lifted back through careful warming up and stretching, begin in working trot. Ride energetically forward to establish the activity of the hindquarters, keeping the same tempo. Now, ask the horse to collect for a few strides, maybe 6 or 7, reward, and again ask him to move out. Ride several of these transitions, until they happen smoothly and without resistance. Not only does this help develop longitudinal suppleness, but also strengthens your horse’s hindquarters and balance by alternating pushing and carrying power. This work also improves “throughness”, the ability transfer energy from the hindquarters forward towards the bit and from the bit back to the hindquarters, without any resistance, stiffening or dropping of the back.
Now, add some bending work such as voltes and serpentines, making sure your horse bends according to the line you are riding and that the shoulders or quarters do not escape in or out. Picture the horse’s spine lying directly on top of each line. Again ride a few transitions within the trot, followed by shoulder-in or leg-yield. Change direction and repeat the exercises. Now add travers/renvers or half pass (according to your horse’s level of training) followed again by some forward-back transitions or transitions between gaits, such as trot-canter-trot, or canter-walk-canter. For more advanced horses, transitions within the canter, such as collected to “very collected” and back again, are quite helpful.
Remember to give your horse frequent walk breaks and/or “stretchy” trot circles in-between this work. Avoid riding the same bend, direction or stride length for long periods of time, since this can cause muscle fatigue, tension and loss of elasticity, not to mention boredom and frustration. If the horse stiffens his back or drops it entirely during the work, you’ve lost the “bridge” over his back, and he will likely become tense, shorten his strides, or lose the supple contact. A simple remedy is to go back to rising trot and offer him to lower his neck and stretch forward and down into the contact, until you feel his back raise and swing again.
If you carefully ‘weave” these exercises into one another, you will be surprised by how much more elastic and expressive your horse’s trot becomes. Your friends may even think you got a new horse!

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