Long, Low Frame
The basic theory behind using the leading rein to get the horse stretching and relaxed in his topline is based on a technique advocated by Boucher. He understood that, in order to raise the head and invert the topline, the horse has to brace the muscles on both sides of the neck. Bringing the head to one side with a gentle leading rein (he employed a lifting hand for this) disengages those braced muscles and allows the head to lower, which in turn allows the rest of the topline to begin to relax.
So what I play with when relaxing a stiff/inverted horse, or teaching a horse to accept contact or carry himself in a low frame, is this leading rein.
“Long and low” means a lot of different things to different people. I define it, not as a horse with his head between his knees (stretching,) but one who is relaxed and round in his topline while maintaining a “long” frame, i.e., no collection. Typically, in this frame the horse’s nose does not drop much below his elbow at the lowest point, and there is no loss of balance, rhythm or impulsion.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t think one starts with a horse in a high, round carriage and then works on gradually lowering the frame to get “long and low.” For me, I start with the long, low, relaxed frame offered naturally by the horse once this relaxing work begins, and build up very gradually to greater collection and weight-bearing by the hind end, which will eventually raise the frame…. This lower, longer frame becomes “home base,” and we go to it at the beginning and end of rides, between more advanced exercises, and anytime something isn’t going well as a kind of relax-and-reset button. So it’s well worth it to take the time developing the horse’s comfort with this way of going early on.
- Begin at the halt. With hands light on the reins, take the inside hand to the side out away from the neck, lifting the bit into the corner of the horse’s mouth (this will work also in a bitless bridle, cavesson or halter as well.) Give with the outside hand to allow the head and neck to bend.
- The horse will bend in front of the wither only. Do not try to “create” lateral bend in the body with legs or by any other means.
- As the horse flexes his neck to the inside, the bracing muscles relax, and the horse will tend to lower his head, even if only a little. Bend the horse only as much as is necessary to achieve this response.
- It is important to release the rein aid as soon as the horse responds and reward him.
Once that has been practiced and established at the halt, try it at the walk. It may be easiest to start on large circles. It’s important to remember that the “Direct (Leading) Rein” aid has the effect of pulling the horse a little onto his inside shoulder; so this aid, when used alone, can cause the horse to gradually spiral in. This is nothing to worry about at this early stage, and it’s best not to confuse the horse yet with corrective rein aids or opposing leg aids. A brief bit of inside leg just as you ask for the inside neck flexion, however, can be a good reinforcer during the exercise, but 90% of the aid should come from the hand. Direction changes can help avoid complicating the issue of staying out on the circle if you find the horse falling in too much.
When riding on straight lines, keep the contact even until you want to relax the topline or lower/lengthen the outline—then flex the head and neck inward briefly until the horse responds; release; and continue riding as before. Now you will begin to use the leading rein flexion only as a means to an end or a correction, not a sustained position. This is also how this aid will be applied as the training advances; a more subtle version of this exercise will serve you throughout your horse’s future training.
Once established at the walk, try at an easy trot, etc..
At this early stage, don’t worry about the horse being round from nose to tail. This is initially just about correcting inversion and teaching the horse to relax, lower and lengthen the frame with basic lateral flexion in front of the wither. As I said before, from there the rest is built, moving on to true lateral flexion in the body and then various degrees of longitudinal flexion (roundness, collection.) But this is where it all begins.
I’ll try to post more on the next steps if anyone is interested. Let me know if I can clarify any of this. And if anyone tries this at home, let us know what you think.
A nice introduction to this kind of work, or a good complement to it, is work on the longe or in long lines. A subtle version of this lateral flexion of the neck can be done with just an ordinary halter/cavesson and longe line, simply asking for a brief inward bend every few strides, keeping the pace forward.
One of my favorite ways to help the horse learn the long, low position is in the chambon. Used properly, this is one of the mildest, clearest and most humane tools of training, imho. It is the only auxiliary or training rein I use; I don’ even use side reins, but I love the chambon and the horses seem to like it too.
If using long reins, have the inside long rein run from the hand, through the cavesson/bit, to the surcingle—this creates a “direct (leading) rein” effect. This is different than the more common attachment, which runs from the hand, through the surcingle, to the cavesson/bit, giving a “direct rein of opposition,” which is incompatible with both the long frame and any kind of inside flexion. Attachment of the outside rein should pass from the hand, through the surcingle, to the cavesson/bit. This rein will give a “direct rein of opposition” aid, so use sparingly and be sure to give generously when bending with the inside rein.