When everyone starts and finishes their schooling session they work on a long rein. Or do they?
Working on a long rein is actually harder that it initially sounds and most people are unintentionally working on a loose rein.
There’s a reason dressage tests award double marks for a “free walk on a long rein” and that’s because it’s very important in the education of a horse, and also that it is quite tricky to master.
Why is it important in a horse’s education? Well, in a free walk on a long rein the horse should stretch out their neck, releasing their top line muscles. These are the muscles that are working hardest so need to be stretched and released of tension. It’s the same with the movements “allow the horse to stretch” in working trot or working canter. The judge wants to see that the horse is relaxed and confident enough in their way of going to stretch their bodies. It’s similar to giving and retaking the reins in that it highlights bad hands and the horse not being in self carriage because the horse won’t want to stretch, or won’t want to be picked back up afterwards.
What is a good stretch? Well, the horse should remain in balance, in the rhythm of the gait, cadence and stride length of the gait, and relaxed whilst stretching their neck forwards and down. Don’t forget that the head is the heaviest part of the body so carrying it further away from the centre of gravity and in a lower position is quite physically demanding. The horse should be obedient to the aids that the rider can pick up the reins to change their frame without the quality of the gait changing.
Creating smooth, balanced transitions into and out of stretching work is half the battle of getting a good stretch, because a balanced horse will find it easier to change the frame of their body.
When teaching a free walk on a long rein I always emphasise that it is a long rein, not a loose one, and focus on my rider eeking the reins from their hand centimetre by centimetre. If the rein is given away too quickly the horse will fall onto the forehand, rush and lose their balance. All of which has to be corrected before retaking the reins. The first few times you ride on a long rein, you may only have let the rein out two centimetres, but it’s a start. For a horse who’s not used to the exercise then carrying their head just a bit further away from their body will be difficult enough, and still having a rein contact to support them will give them confidence. Then once they start to understand, you can let out a bit more rein. It’s important to walk before you run!
Otis found free walk on a long rein difficult initially, but by putting it into schooling sessions he soon got the hang of it and it was often one of our best marks in dressage tests because his nose would Hoover the ground as he stretched. Matt, unfortunately, finds it difficult, so the next couple of weeks are going to be spent putting free walk on a long rein into his schooling sessions so that he learns to stretch more and more each time. His walk doesn’t change between medium and free, but he just isn’t confident taking his neck out and down so therefore has t the confidence to let his stride open up. But as he can be quite tense and alert, it’s not really surprising that this move is a tricky concept for him. I have asked Otis to explain it to him in the field!
Problems that can occur when asking a horse to work on a long rein, be it in walk, trot or canter, is that they can rush. In which case the rein has been given away too quickly and has become loose so the horse is worried at the lack of contact. Giving the rein away more slowly, making sure there is always a contact, and keeping the upper body and seat half halting helps solve this problem. Only stretching as far as the horse is able without rushing will help build their confidence in their ability to carry themselves. A horse who rushes may be used to a heavier rein contact, and dropping the contact into a long rein will cause them to rush forwards to try and regain the contact.
Some horses lose impulsion when given a longer rein. Again, I think it’s a lack of confidence. Due to them slowing down the rein sometimes goes from long to loose, which worsens the situation. Making sure the gait is really positive before starting to give the rein away, and using the seat and legs to continue driving forwards should help reduce the loss of energy. Only giving a small amount of rein away until the horse is able to maintain the quality of the gait before inching it out again should help keep them confident in the contact.
Working on a long rein is so important in improving a horse’s suppleness, balance and overall way of going, but I think riders often don’t give horses the best chance to do it well because they try to take giant steps, giving away more rein than the horse can take, and not practising it sufficiently. Doing it frequently, and only little stretches at a time, will enable your horse to lengthen their neck comfortably and be sure that you are still maintaining a contact to help guide them will build their confidence in this movement and ultimately it is being sure of themselves that allows them to stay balanced and relaxed whilst stretching.