You turn the corner and ask your horse to lengthen the stride in canter a little. But, instead of covering more ground with each passing stride, it feels like his legs have begun to move nineteen to the dozen. Flashbacks to pony riding are flying through your brain… And the rushing and racing is becoming more intense with each passing stride!
The result is that, yes sure, you are definitely covering more ground however you also have less control, less energy, and a lot more tension in each stride. And this is a problem, particularly when there are obstacles to be navigated on a jumping track!
Why Lengthen the Stride?
Being able to effectively lengthen the stride in the canter is important in both flatwork and jumping. The key is the lengthen throughout the whole body, covering more ground.
But doing so without losing the energy, connection, balance, and rhythm that is necessary to keep engagement during the movement.
The stronger and more developed and agile your horse is, the easier he will find it to lengthen and shorten his stride to greater degrees which, particularly in jumping, is often the difference between a successful exercise or not. It will also allow him to make changes faster with less transition time in between and without sacrificing balance and rhythm.
Your horse most remain relaxed throughout the lengthening because any shortening will result in the strides actually becoming more ‘choppy’, shorter and quicker rather than longer, flowing and connected
Lengthening Versus Increased Speed
Often, lengthening the stride is confused with an increase in speed. I have found that a simple exercise for riders to do on the ground (on their own two feet) is often enough to allow riders to see the differences between lengthening the rushing.
Begin by ‘cantering’ on your own two legs on the ground. Yes, you might look a little silly, but bear with me here. So, as you are there, merrily skipping along, begin by seeing how little distance you can cover with each ‘stride’ of your skip. Now, start experimenting with how much distance you can cover with each ‘stride’ of your skip.
Notice how the longer the stride or distance, the more ‘stretching you are having to do? Also, notice how you have to bring your initial foot that is pushing off on each ‘stride’ underneath you in order to achieve any forwardness in your skip? Each stride sets the next up.
Engaging Your Horses Hindquarters
Well, it is a similar principle for your horse. Rather than the hind end being left behind as he works to lengthen the stride in canter, rather think about the hindquarters stretching forward.
The more underneath him he can engage his hind legs with each stride, the more they can propel him further along in the stride itself
Straightness Through His Body
So in order for your horse to correctly be able to lengthen the stride, his body must be straight throughout the canter to begin with. If his hind quarter tends to drift one way or the other, it stands to reason that the ‘propulsion’ will not be equal through the body. This will leave him unable to create the energy required to truly lengthen the stride.
Begin by working on straightness. Having mirrors in the arena are a great help for this as they allow you to assess your horse is truly correct and straight through his body while working. Or you can also ask someone on the ground or take some photographs or videos. Take from both a head-on angle and directly from behind. These are often the easiest angles to see if there is any tendency to carry the hindquarters a little more to the inside or outside.
Keep in mind that your horse’s straightness is often very much in relation to your straightness in the saddle
Make sure that you are symmetric through your body and carrying yourself equally on both sides. Also assess any tendencies you might have to be a little stronger with one leg over the other. Perhaps you are a little crooked through your hips, which will almost always affect the quality and straightness of the canter.
Straightness Through Your Seat
The reason that your balance and straightness are so important when cantering, and particularly when asking your horse to lengthen the stride, is that a lot of the ‘asking’ is with your seat. When we canter, our seat moves with the horse in an almost circular, rolling motion. Being able to identify this movement in your body and then adjust it as you want is key to making transitions up and down within the canter itself.
It is often described as a ‘scoop’ action and I think this is a good description because a scoop comes ‘up’. This up part of the movement is necessary to allow the energy to connect through your horse’s back from the hindquarters to the front end.
Spend time working on isolating the particular muscles in your core that are responsible for this movement in your body. Then begin experimenting with your horse how modifying the movement translates across to your horse in the canter
Remain Consistent Through Upper Body
Also make sure that you are able to follow with your pelvis and lower torso, while making sure your upper body remains balanced and as still as possible. A lot of riders make the mistake of cantering with their shoulders and chest.
Rather see your shoulders as being responsible for maintaining a consistent, following, and elastic contact with your elbows. From here, work on establishing the same connection to your horse’s mouth.
This is pretty much impossible if your shoulders are shaking and twisting around in the saddle, while your pelvis is locked and stiff.
Prepare the Transition
So, now that we have a better understanding of what our horse actually does when he lengthens and of what we should be doing while it is happening, let’s look at setting the transition up. When starting out first, it is often easier to lengthen after you have asked for a few shorter strides first.
Using your half halt, begin rebalancing your horse in the canter. Think about moving with him and following him in the canter, but also about how you want him to lengthen. If he lengthens correctly, his hindquarters will come further underneath him, which will in turn, lighten his front end a little more.
So rather than your horse becoming all strung out with a downward trajectory, think of your horse as an aeroplane. This bum is low his front is higher. Keep this in mind as you ask for the half halts and also as you ask him to lengthen.
Asking for ‘Longer’ Strides
Once your canter is established and your horse is listening to you, you can begin asking with your seat for a ‘longer’ movement each stride. Keep in mind that your seat and hands are connected, so it is important to also allow for this ‘stretching’ with your contact as well. This does not mean throwing the reins at your horse; consistent contact is essential. Also, continue to use your leg with each stride, to ensure that energy is constantly being created behind to continue to push or propel your horse forward.
Pay close attention to the tempo; rather than speed up, it should either remain consistent or actually slow down a little as your horse covers more ground – so has more time between each footfall – with the longer stride
If the tempo speeds up, it usually signals that your horse has excess tension in his body. Said differently, he is rather doing his best ‘pony’ impression than actually reaching for more length with each passing stride!
An Inch is Longer…
Also when you initially begin to lengthen think of each stride as reaching further than the last. It takes quite a bit of development and strength on your horse’s part to lengthen his body while continuing to work forward with impulsion. So rather than just pushing him faster, build each stride a few inches longer than the last. As he becomes stronger and more responsive to your aids, you can ask for a longer stride from the start, but think of it as an initial ‘building blocks’.
You may find that your horse can ‘hold’ this lengthened stride for only a few strides initially before he begins to lose the forwardness of the movement.
This is to be expected initially at this point, half halt again and begin to shorten the stride. Often a small circle ridden in a working canter can help to rebalance your horse, but remember to maintain the straightness throughout both your bodies all the time.
Lengthening and shortening of his strides in canter is a great suppling exercise to work into your schooling sessions and will help you to keep your horse fresh, responsive, and agile regardless of what your chosen discipline is.
Connection for Equestrians
Are you interested in the step by step instructions as to how to ride your horse correctly and influence the length of his canter stride? There are 5 audio horse riding programs dedicated to this topic (along with hundreds of other programs) inside of Connection. You can find out more about it by visiting https://stridesforsuccess.com/join/