So then, where to begin? The No.6 Stretch is a concept that I developed not just through the years I’ve ridden and trained horses, but also the long hours that I’ve spent looking at them from the ground. I think it’s important to talk about it because stretching is a subject which has somehow become controversial in some circles – for many people it’s seen as something which just lets the horse off the hook for a bit – which it can be if the rider chooses. However it can also be something entirely different, and that’s where the No.6 Stretch comes in, to give people access to processes and ideas, while maintaining a sense of structure.
Imagine a number 6 turned on its side, so that the long tail is the horse’s neck, and the round bit is the horse’s haunches. So this is an elongated and stretched top line, which has the engagement and holding capacity for collected work because of the collected hind end.
Part of the reason that people are dismissive of stretching horses is due to the terminology that surround it; dressage has its origins in military training, and the language that an instructor or trainer uses with his or her students has, historically, been quite abrupt. It is language that is appropriate for the drill sergeant training a raw recruit, but the demographic in dressage has broadened to include people who may start riding later in life, or maybe had a break from riding for their career or family. This creates an interesting dynamic because you have people who have brilliant brains and a huge amount of life experience, but are in this area relatively novice. Therefore it’s all credit to people, as a sign of an ego under control, that they don’t mind being the student. I would say that anyone who tries hard enough, as long as they can ride the walk, trot and canter, can get to top level if they choose. However, many people don’t necessarily want to become Olympic riders, but they want to know what makes the horse tick, and feel that they are getting towards the end goal.
But let’s go back to language. I really dislike the phrase long and low, because that speaks to me of deflation – you hear people say “Well I can’t ride my horse long and low because he’s just so on the forehand” etc…A bit like the eternal struggle between good and evil, there is also a constant struggle between throughness and engagement. Throughness refers to the degree of lengthening through the top line, so that the movement of the horse’s hind end can transmit through all the vertebrae, from the pelvis through the lumbar back, through the thoracic spines, through the withers and into the neck. I see throughness as a movement, a ripple. It is arguable that most horses being ridden long and low are through but not engaged; they look ‘downhill’ or ‘on the shoulder’. If we develop this idea of the No.6 Stretch, where the horse is stretched but still engaged behind, then this stretch becomes the open door to the rest of the horse’s training.
Sticking with the topic of words I don’t like, I also can’t stand the word evade, because evasion is a human characteristic, and an implication of being sneaky. Horses are not intellectuals. Horses are reactors. Horses need to be loved as what they are, not as surrogate human beings. The horse is blameless – when they offer less than ideal behaviour it is a reaction to things that have happened in the past, or a lack of understanding of the reactions we expect them to have. The horse isn’t a good boy or not; it wants an easy life, it isn’t thinking ‘Ooh, let’s go to the Olympics’.
The state of the horse being on the aids is such that when the horse feels comfortable we feel it’s being good, partly because it’s conceded to our requests, but also you get that sense of coordination. It moves forward, maybe it relaxes its neck, it swings through the back so it’s easier to sit on, it’s lighter in the rein. All these symptoms are something that we create through our attention to the horse’s balance, its physique, its suppleness, straightness etc. But from the horse’s point of view it’s almost a neutral reaction. When the horse is correctly on the aids and is balanced and supple its ears go floppy, its eyes glaze over; it doesn’t need to look at the tractor outside, doesn’t need to guard itself from the sabre toothed tiger around the corner, because it’s letting you do that. Horses put their heads down to graze when they know they are being looked after by the lead mare or the stallion – when they are ready for flight the back is down and the head up. A bullfighting horse will crouch, ready to go sideways very quickly, like cutting horses, ready to rope a steer – they stay low, ready for action. A dressage horse, when it lifts its back and trots with a moment of suspension makes itself incredibly vulnerable, because it can’t move while in the air.
When the horse is uptight, the only thing to do is reassure it. The better our aiding system, the better set up we are to do this. The leg can bend and support, and as we make the horse feel more comfortable physically, the psychological distress goes away. Imagine what happens when a horse spooks or is habitually hollow and tight through having been habitually badly ridden; its body is in a constant state of preparation for flight. If its body is always like that; then its mind is going to be like that as well. So we make the horse’s body supple and soft, and make it feel as though it is in grazing mode, so it is no longer worried about looking out for predators. Relaxation is the pre-requisite for athletic development; if you don’t have the horse available to you mentally and physically then you can’t really make it more powerful. Our type of dressage is primarily therapeutic. The horse is not a weight-carrying machine – it’s an eating and running machine. We have to make the horse adopt certain postural changes so that instead of sitting on its spine, which is relatively weak, we want the spine to be raised with correct musculature so that we are sitting on something strong that is lifting us.
To make the horse a weight-carrying unit we have to change the way it uses its hind legs. Imagine three bascules; the forehand bascule, which rotates forward and away from the rider, the hind bascule; which rotates under, and the middle bascule; which is characterized by the back coming up and supporting the rider. In good training, these three bascules combine to create one big bascule, providing a bridge on which we can sit and be supported. If the horse doesn’t carry us like that then every step it takes is a concussive step. Every concussive step will take its toll on the bones inside the foot, the joints and the spinal processes.
The idea of the No.6 Stretch is that the hind legs are performing to a high level, which means the back is lifted, and if the symptom of that is that the horse drapes its neck down and lowers its poll – if done in a correct way – then you have the start of what we call an uphill position. When you ask most people what they think an uphill position is, they will describe an image where the poll is the highest point. That’s not necessarily incorrect, but like a lot of the jargon we use, such as ‘on the bit’ and ‘uphill’, it refers to the end of the process, not the starting point. A lot of people take concepts such as contact as a starting point, whereas I see them as a result. There are other things that should be starting points – balance and relative straightness – but contact is an evolved thing. When people say “the horse has got to be on the contact”, I would say “Yes – eventually”.
The No.6 Stretch is a way of evolving the whole horse at the start of the process, so that the croup is the lowest point, the withers are the next highest point and eventually the poll is ultimately the highest point. If you start it the other way around, you completely ruin the horse’s ability to achieve the first two important points. However, if by working on the No.6 Stretch we get the croup to lower because the hind legs are taking a more bending step, even in a modest way initially, which then lifts the back, which then lifts the wither, but with the back relatively lowered as a result. This means that there is a pull in the back muscles from the back going down and the hind legs stepping under, and we have the prerequisites for our collected work.
Coming soon – The Number Six Stretch Part 2, more Portal Techniques, and we’ll meet another Equinerd!