Lengthening the trot

Now that you have the hind legs engaged and can bend your horse at will, it’s time to teach lengthened trot. The basics for this lesson should go fairly quickly if you have done your preparatory work correctly and your horse has developed a consistent tempo. (Article 5 and Article 6 of the series)

The first step in teaching your horse to lengthen in long lines is to teach him the cues for lengthening . To assist in this endeavor, you must be able to do a brisk jog for thirty or forty feet. If you can’t manage that, you can teach the lesson on the circle. It will take a little longer, be a little more confusing for the horse and requires a larger circle, but it can be done.

Once you have taught the horse to lengthen in long lines going straight, you will be able to transfer the lesson to the circle (in long lines), as long as you initially make the circle big enough.

Before you start, you will need one new noise. Along with the noises you have already developed and use, you must have a noise that tells your horse you will be asking something requiring more attention/engagement/push. I use ‘shu shu shu shu‘ in tempo to say push harder. This, and the negative noise you developed previously, is the key to teaching lengthening on long lines.

Teaching lengthening

Here’s how it works. You have warmed your horse up and he has his inside hind leg engaged and is working nicely off the outside rein. He is trotting round and engaged on the circle. What you want to do is use your preparatory noise, then send him forward in a straight line, running beside him at the end of the long lines using your new push harder noise. You don’t have to do anything with your hands except lighten while running with him.

Expect your horse to offer one or more of the following; canter, run sideways away from you, move his legs faster without maintaining engagement, stop, do nothing different at all. These are not the only responses you’ll get, just the most likely! Your horse may get really creative and give you something altogether different! Be patient. Horses learn by trial and error. If you get something other than lengthening, make your negative noise and immediately put him back on the circle. Make sure you give him time on the circle to rebalance himself before you ask again. Remember, we are working toward self-carriage.

When you do get a lengthening, make sure you verbally praise him the instant he manages to give you what you’ve asked for, even if it’s just for two strides. After those two strides, he may fall on his forehand or drop out of lengthened trot and rush or canter. Be patient. He’ll associate the praise with lengthening and your negative noise with the stuff he’s doing wrong. You’ll get more consistent lengthenings as he develops strength, and the ability to maintain his balance, in lengthened trot. When he can sustain lengthened trot for the duration of the straight stretch, use the noise you associate with dropping from one gait to the next lower gait to bring him out of lengthened trot to working trot before putting him horse back on the circle.

When you can consistently get the lengthening on the straight, you can begin to ask for it for short stretches on the circle. You must keep in mind two things. When you first ask for lengthened trot on the circle, make sure you use the largest circle you can manage. The larger the circle, the easier the transition from lengthening on the straight to lengthening on the circle. Secondly, you are asking for working trot/lengthened trot/working trot transitions and you must cue your horse accordingly. The quality of transition you accept here is what you will live with later!

Transferring lengthened trot to the vehicle

Lengthened trot, whether at liberty, ridden or driven, requires strength in the propulsion and lift muscles. More strength is required for a ridden lengthening than one performed at liberty. A driven lengthening requires stronger muscles than one ridden. Given these facts, don’t expect the same quality or length of stride in lengthening when you start the lesson hitched. Do expect your horse to need time to adjust his balance and build the strength and balance required for the task.

The quality of lengthening you receive in harness can largely be dependent on certain physical factors. These factors include, but are not limited to, the weight and balance of your vehicle, the quality of the lengthened trot work in long lines, the preparation immediately before the lengthening and the terrain. The only factor we haven’t already covered is terrain. You are better off asking for a lengthening with the horse on the flat, or moving up a slight hill, where the surface is firm and provides adequate traction. When the horse is going downhill, the front legs are carrying extra weight and the strength required to perform lengthened trot is much greater. It is important to give your horse every benefit you can in this early work to ensure the lengthening work remains correct.

To prepare your horse for the lengthened trot in harness, start on a circle. Once he is engaged and round on the circle, allow him to straighten, adding your push harder noise. The power built by engaging the hind legs will release into lengthened trot

In the beginning, your horse will not be able to sustain lengthened trot the full length of the diagonal of the dressage arena. He has to work up to that distance just as he did in long lines. You may get four or five strides of nice lengthening followed by a few strides of working trot for reorganization and reaffirmation followed by more strides of lengthened trot. Consistent and patient work on your part will provide you with the duration of lengthening you need.

Some words of advice

Don’t ask for too much lengthened trot in the beginning, either in long lines or driven. Once or twice each direction per work, once or twice a week, is enough. Any more could give your horse sore muscles, which will lead to resistance you want to avoid, if at all possible. If you work on lengthening one day, work on something else for a few days before working on lengthening again. This way, you will slowly strengthen the muscles needed for lengthened trot. If you push and make the muscles sore, your horse will avoid using them and your lengthening, and other nice things, may disappear. Be patient and consistent. It takes time to develop muscle. If you’ve laid the base correctly, this is an easy and natural next step, but it won’t happen over night. Don’t let your enthusiasm for this new work undermine your slow and steady progress.

Once you have mastered lengthening, you have the all the skills you need to perform through Preliminary Level. The only extra you need for Intermediate and Advanced is the collected trot. Remember, collected trot is not just a shorter trot, it is a shorter trot with engagement, impulsion and suspension. The work you have done, up to and including lengthened trot, is the base you need for collected trot. Keep the work correct and allow your horse self-carriage. When it comes time to start collected trot, the progression will be an easy and logical step.

Enjoy your driving. Let your horse enjoy the driving too. It’s much more fun when you can perform as partners.