Most of the time when someone talks about being “down and out” it’s considered a bad thing. But not in the dressage arena. Riding “down and out” is one of the best exercises for a rider learning about contact and forward, giving hands. It’s also excellent for getting a horse stretched and warmed up, really loose and swinging over the back and carrying the rider freely forward.
If you look at pictures of typical dressage horses, especially what you seen in magazines, what you are looking at is mostly the finished product. It is dressage-bred horses performing at upper levels and often in competition. The arched neck and vertical face are easy to identify and have become what many people strive for when “riding dressage”. Unfortunately, it is all too easy to get on a horse and pull on the reins until the neck is arched and the head is vertical. This type of riding doesn’t get you anywhere though, as the horse is not working correctly from behind and over his back, so there is no connection from the reins to the back end of the horse, and as soon as the rider stops pulling the head in it will pop right back out. For many riders it is hard to tell if the horse’s face has been pulled in, or if the horse is working correctly from behind. Of course, over time the riders will develop the ever elusive “feel” and that will solve their problems, but in the meantime here is what I have them do.
Look at where the horse carries himself naturally. The natural carriage varies from horse to horse. For example, my quarter horse, Diamond, has a neck that is set on low and comes almost straight forward out of his shoulder. To force him into the arched neck frame would be quite uncomfortable for him! But to ride him in a hunter type frame, with his neck stretching straighter forward out of his body is a very natural frame for him. Cava on the other hand has a much higher set neck. She prefers to go with the more arched neck, and does it on her own. Look at each horse as an individual when determining where the natural carriage is. Then when you ride, try to ride the horse’s neck a few inches lower than the natural carriage. Ride it as if you were asking the horse to stretch down long and low, like you would in a free walk or a stretchy trot, but don’t ride quite as low as you would in a free walk, just enough that the horse is stretching down lower than his natural carriage, and still reaching out into the bit.
You should have the feeling in your hands that you could easily give a little more rein or reach your hands a little more forward and your horse would reach down and out a little more to follow the bit. Until you know what this feeling feels like, practice stretching the horse a little lower, than picking the horse back up, and then stretching lower again… always keeping the horse just a little below his natural carriage. When you have the correct feel in your hands, it is easy to stretch the horse a little more. When you don’t have it quite right, if you try to stretch the horse a little more you will only get slack in the reins.
Here’s Cava going in her preferred, natural carriage:
Here she is stretching down and out a little lower:
Notice that when Cava is asked to reach out and down into the bit, it frees up her back as she reaches down, and causes her back to become rounder under me, which helps her back legs to engage more – she is able to reach all the way under herself with her back legs (tracking up – hind feet step into or in front of the hoof prints left by the front feet). As pretty as her head and neck look in the first picture, the quality of the trot is not the same. She is more on the forehand, and she does not track up all the way. As a horse progresses in training, they become strong enough to bring the head up and keep the back up and hind end engaged at the same time, instead of bringing the head up by hollowing the back and disengaging the hind end. As the rider learns to feel the horse’s back and hind end, the rider can tell if the horse is moving correctly or not with the head up. Until then, riding out and down will help the rider learn the right feeling since it is hard to fake in this position.
When you are just learning about riding the horse on the bit, this is a great exercise because it makes you ride the horse to the bit, instead of pulling the horse into a frame. If you try to pull the horse into a frame, his head comes up. To keep the horse stretching a little below his natural carriage, the rider has to keep the horse reaching for the bit. Adding in the stretch him lower, pick him up, stretch him lower again part of the exercise teaches the rider to have hands that give without dropping the contact.
I tell my riders that there are 2 kinds of contact. The first kind is the kind where the reins are slack and the rider gathers them up and pulls on them and then has contact with the bit. The second kind is where the rider holds one end of the reins and the horse holds the other. The second kind is the kind we want, and when you are asking your horse to stretch into the other end of the reins, it gives you instant feedback about your contact. Basically, if you have contact it is because your horse is reaching into the bit!
So, go ride your horse down and out and see what happens!