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Down and Out

Acquired Natural Carriage in Dressage

by Kristin Hermann                                     Printed in Horseplay Magazine, March 1986

As dressage riders, we want the horse to carry us as if unburdened, the back not concaving under our weight, but rounding, filling out our seat elastically with every stride. Developing in the horse's back and neck muscles the ability to stretch down and out will help to establish this acquired natural carriage with a rider. This stretching down and out is one of the major suppling exercises to develop a pulsating back (top line)  with an elastic strength coordinating the activated muscles to reach for the bit, soften at the poll, and consequently chew the bit.


The only requirement before beginning is that the horse allow itself to be driven forward. The horse must basically move quietly off your leg, so you can activate the hindquarters into your hand. We want to harness the energy, not by constraining the gait, but by displaying its elastic elegance between our aids - legs, seat, and hands.


No attempt should ever be made to slow the horse by framing it unnaturally, or by forcing it onto the bit, for these actions stifle the freedom of movement in the gait. The horse must always be allowed to stretch and seek contact with the bit. If the hindquarters are not activated, and the back is not allowed to pulsate and stretch through the neck to the poll, the horse will never arrive naturally with acceptance of the bit.


Basically what happens with down-and-out, or chewing the reins out of  the hands at a trot, is that the hind end is activated into the receiving hand, which resists until the horse nods  or gives at the poll. At this moment, the hands give or yield forward, encouraging the horse to stretch its neck and back muscles forward and down. The flexion or nod  that occurs at the poll relaxes the muscles of the poll and jaw allowing the back to reverberate through the horse's neck resulting in the  start  of forward and down. However,  only as far as the  horse's back or top line  is supple.


The nod will bring the nose momentarily behind the poll, or behind the bit, but only for a minuscule moment, for immediately the reflex will return the nose forward.  With the hands already given in response to the nod, the  horse's top line muscles will continue to move forward  the neck  stretching down.


If  the horse lowers its head only six inches to a foot, you must ask it again from whichever point it stopped stretching.  However, more than likely, before you have the chance to adjust the reins and get a steady contact to ask again, the horse has already raised its head back to normal.


Here is where tact and skill come into play: driving, resisting, giving, and receiving must work together in one harmonious flow! 


The rider must acquire the feel for lengthening the reins and shortening them practically all at once. One suggestion is to widen the hands to take up the slack in the rein when the horse suddenly raises its head,  then bring them to center again and follow the neck back down after getting the nod.  The independent action of the rider's hand, elastic elbows  and shoulders is as vital to the down-and-out as the nod.  The rider must be able to bring the elbows back behind the hip to absorb the instant slack and forward again while maintaining balance. Many riders find this difficult, because their shoulders are stiff, or they lack the stability of balance in their over seat, or position and were told to never move the hands. 


We have to understand that during the process of developing these muscles to stretch elastically, it is natural for the horse to raise its head suddenly. Therefore, it should not be punished for doing so. This stretching must be a gradual process. Eventually, the regular stimulation of stretching will give way to the muscles developing a lengthened resting place of wanting the stretch down and out. 


Achieving Down-and-Out

A good way to discover the feel of the horse's nodding is to practice this sequence at a halt.  This is called Chewing the Reins out of the Hands.  Learning to feel for the  the nod, or giving at the poll,  is vital for knowing when the horse is submissive and ready to stretch down-and-out, or even just willingly come to the bit and accept being on the aids.


Establish a halt with the horse on the aids seat, legs, and hands. The hand's remain closed, telling the horse to stand still. The legs hold the horse into the bit and are ready to ask the horse to move forward when necessary.  Of course this does not mean that the hands are pulling or the eg is constantly squeezing. 


When the nod comes, it is minuscule,  the horse will drop its nose about an inch or less toward the chest.   John Lyon's teaches this and he calls it when the horse nods either , "a baby give, a  good give or a great give." Certainly, we want the "great give," but often we get a series of "baby or good gives!"  After the nod, give slightly with the reins by moving the elastic elbows forward.  As the horse begins to seek contact again, ask it again to soften at the poll by resisting slightly until the neck gradually lowers and the nose stretches forward pointing down-and-out.  Consequently, the horse will begin to chew the bit out of your hands.  Not as easy as it sounds, as most riders get caught up in the asking and forget to allow.  Riding requires tact and feel, because oddly at the same time as we are talking to the horse with our aids, we have to be listening simultaneously..


After achieving Chewing the Reins out of your Hands at a halt, practicing these subtle tactics at a  walk can be more effective, since there will be slightly more impulsion, provided the horse walks freely forward.  However, the trot is the foundation gait upon which to base the real work of down-and-out.  The rhythmic impulsions established in the pulsating diagonal stride  of the trot creates an  elasticized naturally activated back which then results in the stretching  forward and down. Nevertheless, one must first learn the sequence described above of what to feel and how to ask before beginning this work at a trot. Practicing at the halt helps to refine the rider's asking  and listening aids.


Even so, the goal will still be difficult to achieve.  At first, some horses, as they begin to stretch forward and down, will lose momentum as muscles of the back become tensed from the unaccustomed forward stretching.  The pulsations created from  the trot, however, help to loosen the tight muscles.  When the gait slows, be patient with the horse and keep trotting, though do not force the gait if discomfort persists. Let the muscles relax before pursuing the down-and-out at a trot once again.


Work over Cavaletti

Tight and constricted muscle fibers can be relaxed with work over cavaletti, and soft and undeveloped muscles can acquire supple strength, with their use.


A good down-and-out is acquired when the head remains lower than the withers with the nose leading the way until you ask the horse to raise its pulsating back up and into your hands for a harnessing of its  back's elastic slack.  The day the horse's nose is practically rotor- tilling the arena  (the German's saying is translated as plowing potatoes) is the day the horse has acquired maximum stretch of forward and down.  This stage of elasticity is usually only obtained after consistent training of loosening exercises on a regular bases.   Remember, the goal is not to harvest the potatoes the first time out in the field, but to prepare for the coming harvest.


Work on the Lunge

One can also supplement the horses development of down-and-out  under saddle with with work on the lunge. The advantage to lungeing is that having no rider enables the back to elasticized more easily. Side-reins are obviously not attached, since we want to encourage a self-carriage sought through a long neck not a constrained one.   Side reins have in a different purpose as they train both longitudinal and lateral balance   in the horses. And, help to train the horse to yield to the bit and stay in a frame....Lunging  to develop down and out is best done with a   bridle  that has no reins,  Reins that are tied over the neck or even looped under the throat latch seem to hinder the horses freedom and willingness to stretch forward and down.  The advantage to lungeing with the bridle is the effectiveness of the half-halts, helping to determine the rhythm and cadence of the horse. Fastening the lunge line over the poll  and clipping it to the outside ring of the bit is effective for this control as well as encouraging the downward stretch. Using a lunge line with a chain would not be nice, so avoid it if you can. 


Blythdale stretching down & out on the lunge line.
Note overstride and full stretch through  out the top line. (Placing the lunge line over the poll is way more effective than under the chin  to encourage stretching.)

Allow the horse the advantage when lungeing; do not demand a perfect circle. You will acquire more respect and trust from the animal if constant pulls and tugs on it head are not endured to keep it on the prescribed arc.  Remember, the goal of dressage is to harness the energy, not to stifle it, so when the horse bucks, most usually out of happiness, it should not be punished, but driven forward into the buck, capturing this energy back into its gait.


One should work slowly with a green horse, so the muscles will gradually become accustomed to the constant curve. Relaxed trots help to loosen the muscles because of the rhythm in the stride. Any new training techniques should be introduced gradually, allowing time for muscles, ligaments, and tendons to adjust, lest they become stressed. Also, allow the horse  a large enough circle.


As the horse increases in flexibility, a small circle (10 meters) in between the larger circles is advisable, as when riding. More bend is created between tail and poll, creating a more fluent and flexible horse, and encouraging the the shoulder to release and the neck to stretch down.


On the lunge line, the process for training the down-and-out is the same as driving the  horse's activated back into the hands.  You will not feel the nod as well as the rein will be about twenty five feet long as opposed to three feet long. Because of the longer rein or lunge line, you will have to depend more on your eyes   when the horse nods or gives at the poll.   Your driving aids when lunging are obviously the lunge whip and not your legs.  Half-halts are applied as needed, encouraging self-carriage, and the rhythmic drive forward is maintained. Spiraling  in and out  when lungeing is  the best techniques for  getting the horse to step under itself  without rushing and consequently lightening  the shoulders  (a frequent area of tension) and, thus achieving the  stretch forward and down.  If the horse does not soften in the shoulder and lower its neck, when lunging, do not remain on the smaller circle; let it spiral out. You cannot force the muscle to change.


Once down-and-out has been achieved in the horse's muscle, stretching the horse should be practiced constantly in order to maintain the elasticity in the muscles as initial training for young horses; as retraining for stiff, older horses; and for maintaining elasticity in advanced level horses. Down-and-out is best practiced as warm-up to loosen the back and in between sessions of "on the bit.* Of course, riding a horse while stretching he should still be "on the aids just with a longer rein,"  but that is a whole other article!  Ending a riding session  with down-and-out is a relaxing way to return the horse to the stable.


While mastering stretching the horse  down-and-out is not easy, the rewards are most pleasurable, for what rider  would deny the chance to have his seat massaged by  the horse's elastically  swinging back  underneath him while being carried lightly with the upward swing and  spring of the horse's back arcing under the seat  through corners, across diagonals and into transitions?

*A correctly ridden down and out still has the horse on contact, "the horse is still in a frame just with a longer rein." KH

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