Updated: Apr 16
It's getting to be that time of year again...crisp early mornings, long sweat-filled days, the sun setting over the barn as you finish evening chores. No, it's not quite summer... but horse show season is just around the corner! I'm just a little excited - can you tell?!
A new season means many of us are moving up a level. If that's you, congrats! That's huge! One of the trickiest, yet most underrated "level ups" we face as dressage riders is the jump from Training to First level. While the horse is still in working gaits at this level (rather than having to show collection like we do at Second level and above), the horse does have to show more balance and thrust than they did at Training level. One of the ways First level asks the horse to demonstrate this improved level of balance and thrust by asking the horse to lengthen the stride in the trot and canter.
I find the trot lengthening, in particular, can be especially challenging. How many times have you seen the comment, "too quick," or "not faster," or something to that effect? In the trot lengthening, the stride should get longer but the speed of the trot itself shouldn't get faster.
So how do we teach our horse to do that? We've spent so much time at Training level teaching our horse that the leg means, "GO!". When we ask for more trot, it's natural that our horse wants to get quicker. Now we have to teach them to find another gear. We have to teach them how to engage the hind leg a little more as you ask for, "go."
I love using the leg yield to help my horse find that extra engagement he needs for the trot lengthening. Try this exercise:
Start in a balanced working trot. Turn up the quarter line or center line. Ask your horse for a few steps leg yield toward the rail. Just three or so strides - not too many.
Ride straight, close your calves, and ask for a few strides of lengthened trot. Again, not too many. Quality over quantity.
Ask for a few more strides of leg yield - either toward the rail if you still have room to go straight or leg yield out on a bending line if you're out of room to go straight and have to turn.
Don't worry about bringing your horse back too much. Let the leg yield help bring him back and engage the inside hind leg.
Repeat, little by little trying to ask for more strides of lengthened trot. Start by asking for 3 or 4 strides, then leg yield out. Then ask for 5 or 6 strides. Build from there. Be sure to work both directions!
Before you try this exercise, make sure your horse understands how to leg yield correctly from the quarter line or center line.
The most common issue you may have to trouble shoot is your horse getting faster rather than truly lengthening the stride.
If you're posting, try to keep the tempo of your post the same. Think "taller" rather than "faster" with your posting.
If you're sitting, try to stay loose and follow the movement. Embrace the fact that the trot is bouncy. When we tighten our bodies in an effort to stay still, this often causes our horses to tighten their bodies, too. A horse who is tight cannot make his stride longer, so he'll compensate by getting quicker.
Make a playlist of your favorite songs that are the same tempo (have the same beats per minute) as your horses trot. This isn't quite as tricky as it sounds. Find a song that you can easily "keep the beat" with the trot. Try to match that song in your working trot, your leg yield, the lengthening, and back into the leg yield. The tempo (beat) of the trot should match throughout the exercise.
<--- My not-so-pretty diagram. Give it a try and let me know what you think! I'd love to hear your feedback, either in the comments or shoot me a message!
What are your riding goals this year? Are you planning on showing? Tell me about it - I'd love to hear what you're up to!