The Number Six Stretch – Part 2

The second article about Andrew’s Number Six Stretch, taken from teaching transcripts:

If you don’t have a horse available to you mentally and physically, you can’t really make it stronger. Our type of dressage is primarily therapeutic. Charles says that the first stage of dressage, where you put a rider on a horse’s back, is when you should start apologising to it. You have to use the language of your aiding, experience and knowledge to make the horse capable of carrying your weight; the horse isn’t a 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 a relatively weak and dropped structure, we want the spine to be raised with its musculature, so that we are sitting on something that is lifting us and is strong. That entails the elements of what I call the Number Six Stretch.

So, if a stretch only involves deflation, although it may be better for the horse’s psyche and it may feel less threatened and more relaxed, it still isn’t turning the horse into a weight-carrying unit. To make it a weight-carrying unit, we have to change the way that the horse uses its hind legs. Imagine the horse as three bascules; the forehand bascule, which rotates forward and away from the rider’s positioning, the hind end bascule, which rotates backwards and under. As both of those work in opposite directions, the middle starts to come up and tone, and when this is developed in a horse’s musculature you get this lovely roundness in the pelvic hind leg step, torso, and neck. All of these things coming together create a bridge on which we can sit and be supported. This is why the horse has to be athletic eventually; because it has to use its musculature in a way similar to Pilates in order to be able to carry us without detriment. If the horse doesn’t carry us like that, every step it takes is a concussive step. Every concussive step that it takes is going to take its toll on the bones inside the foot, the bones around the joints, the spinal processes, the hock, hip, stifle. Everything is going to be impacted with a concussive step, unless we start to teach the horse to lift us up with a supple step that includes all the joints bending and then levering back up. The idea of the Number Six Stretch is that the hind legs are performing to a high level with the back lifted; if the symptom of that is that the horse drapes is neck down and lowers its poll, then this is the start of what we call an uphill position.

If you ask most people what they think an uphill position is, they’ll visualise a horse that has the poll as the highest point. Now that’s not incorrect, but like a lot of the jargon we use, like ‘on the bit’, or ‘uphill’ it is referring to the end of a process, not to the starting point. A lot of people take concepts like contact as being a starting point, whereas I see them as a result. There are other things that should be a starting point, like good balance and relative straightness, but contact is an evolved thing. Cadence is an evolved thing. So, when people say ‘the horse has got to be in the contact’, I would say yes – eventually.

The horse is actually uphill when the croup is lowered, the withers are the next highest point, and eventually the poll is the ultimately the highest point. Now if you start it the other way around, you completely ruin the horse’s ability to do the first two points. However, if by working our Number Six Stretch we get the croup to lower because the hind legs are taking a more bending step, which lifts the back, which then lifts the wither, with the neck relatively lowered as a result of that, then we have the prerequisites for our collected work. Teaching the horse to carry you with the hind legs and back like this, and allowing the neck to be low so we emphasise the throughness, is the first point of collection.

Throughness is the lovely feeling where the horse stretches down, when the movement of the horse seem unimpeded. Engagement refers to what the horse does with its hind legs, which should involve lowering the croup. A horse can be very engaged in that sense, with a very short top line, and you could say it was engaged because it’s underneath – but it lacks throughness completely. If you go the other way around, and put the neck right down but with no engagement behind, that’s 10 % throughness but no support.

What happens when you have a canter that is a little bit short and braced and I interfere and get you to put the horse’s neck out? It trots. Because the horse can’t handle that degree of stretch, so you get 80 % throughness, 5% engagement. What I want to pitch is how we can get the maximum throughness with the engagement that will support it. We need to bring engagement and throughness together. The idea of engagement is that the horse supports before it transports. The symptoms of horses that are the other way around is that it might run, or come against the rein. A horse that is engaged but not through might even look like it is able to stretch, because the horse coming against the rein with a lowered neck can look like a stretch, but if you look at the hind legs you will see that they are not doing what they need to do as a way of carrying the rider, which is to support first and then go forwards. So going back to the whole fifty shades thing, I believe that when people start seeing the similarities between things they are a bit more evolved than someone who sees the differences.

What I see a lot of in horses that are hollow or tight in the back is that the hind legs are straight. If you urge that horse more forward it has to go faster to cope with a lack of articulation in the hind legs. When you slow a horse down, people think it’s being lazy – well you try running really slowly with your knees up all the way round the arena. Our first point of reference with the Number Six Stretch is how do we get those hind joints to bend, so that instead of pitching you forwards it carries you upright.

So, if a horse has a straight hind leg, it’s unlikely that is something that happened yesterday. It has happened over time, where the horse has developed stiffness from bracing. A stamping hind leg then ricochets through the back, and results in the horse coming ‘against the hand’ or hollowing. So the horse isn’t really coming ‘against the hand’, it’s making a gesture to cope with what is going on in the back and hind leg. To cope with discomfort. It just so happens that the bit is in the way. And horses can kind of budget for it. They’ll sneak a little bit ‘behind the bit’ or develop a head tilt, or go a little quarters in, and they find a way to cope. A horse can cope for weeks, months or years by putting itself into a defensive body-and-mind-set that unfortunately can be made to look respectable by putting draw reins on, or with a double bridle. A horse can be forced to look ‘on the bit’ when everything about it is screaming discomfort.

When the horse is uncomfortable, its mind is disquieted. And then it doesn’t matter that you feed it three times a day, give it sugar cubes and tell it that you love it, the horse is going to be tense, because it’s worried. Sometimes the issues are conformational. A horse like an Arabian that is built to take a low long step to allow it to gallop over sand will step forward 1/3 of the way and then push out behind the other 2/3, so it’s not a lifting supporting step. The Arabian’s reasons for moving like this are perfectly legitimate, but if we want it to properly engage and to carry us in a way that doesn’t do it detriment we still seek to change that. Luckily the answers are the same as with the stiff horse, and the number six stretch is still a key part of training horses that don’t step under for conformational reasons.

On the whole we don’t deal with horses that are at the top level – although those horses would be better if they had this kind of work – we deal with quarter horses, arabs, thoroughbreds, native ponies, Irish sports horses, Iberians, warmbloods that have maybe been screwed up and young horses. The neck is the least important part of the horse’s body at the beginning, because it’s only a reflection of everything else that’s going on. When the horse is ridden in a correctly stretched profile the spinal processes are pulled slightly apart, leaving room for movement and a degree of cushioning. If the horse is hollow and tight in its top line, the spinal processes close together and may begin to press on one another, causing the horse to suffer discomfort. That’s why I say that I prefer throughness without engagement rather than engagement without throughness.

When a show jumper bascules over a fence would you say that stretch is deflated? Absolutely not. My pitch with the Number Six Stretch is that a stretch should be athletic and dynamic, with the engagement gradually increased so that it stops being a downward looking movement and ends up with a horse that has the poll as the highest point – but in a stretched way, with the back open and lifted and the hind leg supporting. If you look at a good piaffe, the horse should still look like it’s craning up and out. There is no book that I’ve ever read that says you should shorten the horse’s neck. You can shorten the horse by bringing its hind legs under, but no one has ever said that you shorted the horse’s neck. Because the neck is a symptom – it isn’t the point.