How to benefit from warming up in a long and low frame
Dressage training tips from Conrad Schumacher: part 1
Thursday 19 November 2009
The Benefits of Warming Up in a Long and Low Frame
You may have heard a variety of opinions on the best way to warm up your horse before dressage training or a dressage competition. I have found that to get my horses relaxed and supple that the first part of my working program should always include exercises in a long and low frame.
What are the merits of having your horse in a long and low frame?
If you think about the skeleton of the horse, imagine the length of his spine from croup (above is tail) to poll (between his ears). Now think of your spine from your tail bone to your neck. Imagine how you feel when you have been on a really long flight in an economy seat, your back is stiff and your movement is hindered. Horses which have tension in their backs also have their movement hindered. By stretching out their spine in a long and low frame, they loosen up their muscles which releases calming endorphins and helps them move in a more relaxed and elastic way. This is particularly important in the hind legs which are their “main motor” and impulsion force. Once they are loose and working at full capacity, through a relaxed spine, the horses’ movement, impulsion and expression improve!
What is a long and low frame and how do we get it?
In this photo, Claire Almett is riding her horse Max in a short frame. Max has come out a bit tense and spooky and is looking about at various things, shortening and tensing in his frame and hollowing in his neck . Our first goal is to get him to relax and we do this by bringing him back to walk and encouraging him to settle in to a more secure contact. We use the neck almost like a thermometer, taking the temperature of the relaxation in his back by seeing how much he is willing to stretch down to the bit. We do this on a 20m circle to encourage a gentle bend through his frame and keep in familiar surroundings so he gets comfortable with his environment.
Claires hands are just in front of the saddle, evenly placed and resting lightly above his neck. By turning the wrists into the neck quietly and gently, first inside then outside, she encourages Max to relax in his neck and stretch down. This stretching for him is like us trying to touch our toes when we get out of bed first thing in the morning. He reacts almost immediately, his neck dropping a little lower and his stride lengthening a bit. We continue gently flexing every half circle or so until his stride becomes rhythmic and he pushes his nose out and down.
Here we see Max starting to drop his poll and relax a bit in his work. We always start this work in the medium walk, working towards an extended walk on a long rein but being careful not to give away all of the contact and ensuring we always feel some contact at the end of the reins.
Next , Claire picks up rising trot and continue this exercise of flexing and staying on the 20 m circle. Max starts to relax and maintain a steady rhythm in the trot. Using our “neck thermometer” we can see that Max has lengthened in his body, his quarters are underneath him and his neck is long, round and soft. Claire confirms that she feels a lovely, consistent contact and that Max is generating his own energy from behind.
How does the long and low frame effect the physiology of your horse?
The ultimate goal of top dressage riders is to take their horses as far as they can go: Grand Prix. In order to get to this level, their horses need to be like finely tuned athletes; muscles supple, joints well oiled and fitness levels high. This all starts with a healthy back and spine. Horses must carry a riders’ weight on their spine so of course a well muscled, strong back is essential to their willingness to do more advanced work. Ok, most of you are not riding to that level but the principle is the same – a supple, strong and relaxed back will give your horse a better attitude to working and keep him on the path to less injuries!
The long and low frame in warming up is the cornerstone to equine strengthening. Only when a horse is strong in his back, will he be able to collect and offer the expression we as for in the extended trot, canter, transitions then onto Piaffe, Passage, etc. So, long and low is essential in the overall sculpting of your horse's body. With regular work like this, his top line will improve: a rounder, more muscled neck, a rounder and more muscled rump will be evident.
How do you know when your horse is tense and needs to work in a lower frame.
The first and most obvious clue is a hollowed neck and inconsistent contact. Next on the list is lack of impulsion - you keep kicking and he keeps moving like a snail. The third clue is straightness in his frame: does he move like a crab with his quarters swinging behind? These are all clues that your horse may have a stiff back with tense muscles.
How long will it take me to teach my horse long and low.
It depends on all sorts of things! Some horses happily stretch down within minutes (you can almost hear them sigh with relief!) and others are a bit phased at what your are asking and continue to trot round with heads held high (I like to call that camel neck!). Keep asking patiently with gentle flexes and remember to keep pushing them forward when you do this otherwise they misinterpret the gentle flex for a half halt into STOP or slow.
How do you know when the long and low exercises have worked for your horse.
When you see the neck stretch down, and stay round and relaxed, and you feel your horse moving forward easily without you having to remind him to stay active with undue encouragement, you are on your way!
Why is long and low different than being on the forehand
When I first started my dressage training (many moons ago) I was warned fiercely about the evils of the dreaded forehand and told to keep my horse on the bit and uphill at all costs. As he was 18 hands, stiff in the back and not the most forward of creatures, this was not an easy requirement to fulfil. Despite holding him in at the neck I still got marked down in tests for being on the forehand When I kept getting comments on my sheet saying, “ not through in the back”, I didn't understand!
Being on the forehand is not the same as stretching down long and low because the horse is still tense in the back and the quarters are not underneath but rather out behind the horse forcing his weight to the front end. His croup is higher than his shoulders because he is not using his back in the correct way, hence “not through in his back”. However I believe an even bigger concern about working on the forehand is that undue weight and pressure are being put on the forelegs of the horse which can result in tendon and ligament damage.
For those of you still scratching your head and wondering whether long and low routines are for you, I suggest you come to the Conrad Schumacher Preparing To Win Seminar at Patchetts Equestrian Centre on November 25 and learn more about this invaluable warming up exercise from the Master!
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