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Why Not...






Work & Stretch


Shoulder-in Volte


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Janssen & Schrijer


Work & Stretch

Alternating Muscle Work to Optimize Training & Motivation

Alternation, Alternation...

This article has lately had a revival in my daily conciousness. The horses I have worked with lately have demanded that I pay more focus on the stretch and work alternation. It's not like I alternate and stretch more than before, I have just become aware that I actually do.

Alternating between work & stretch
Alternating between work & stretch.

I have felt quite alone in this practice, apart from apparently a Dutch dressage training couple, who describe how they alternate the bearing of their horses in quick succession. I don't share all their views and theories, and I don't practice "LDR" or "working" when "deep and round", so don't think I'm anything like them. They are just the only ones I have heard explain that they alternate as much as I do. Until I met Colonel Carde...

The French Connection

This true gentleman and former director of the Cadre Noir truly surprised me as I audited his clinic. I was expecting to se the mirror image of Philippe Karl or some other prominent rider from the Black League, that ride baroque breeds and use the erection of the neck to transfer weight back in a typically Baucherist way. But what I found, was a person who used the same principles as myself, when it comes to how to use the neck and back.

Many of the riders in this clinic didn't really know how to lower the horse's head. Indeed, some apparently didn't know how to let go of the death grip on the rein at all, but managed to learn by a little psychological manipulation from Col. Carde. Not anyone came there with a notion of just how much he wanted the horses to collect for a brief moment, and then stretch out again, alternating work and stretch. Not even I. But we learned.

I think his use of alternating work and stretch comes from his lifelong experience with horses, his talent for motivating (that seems contrary to what one would expect come from the army,) and his knowledge of the horse's biomechanics and muscle work in general. I don't have the same long experience with horses, but I have some, and I can only imagine what one would have after a life with horses added to inbourne talent.


All the horses got to stretch more in this clinic. Some maybe for the first time. Noone becomes a fully fledged rider from attending one clinic, but I must say that I could see the cartoon lightbulb lighting up above the heads of both riders and horses.

Motivation, Motivation...

Most of the horses became very much more motivated. And I think that is really the main issue with alternating work and stretch. It is not only a "check" that the horse is working correctly if he will stretch down. It is an incentive to work if he knows that he will then be allowed to stretch down immediately after a burst of hard work.

Rinse out the Pain

But why? Well, simply because muscular fatigue hurts. Going on and on working in the same posture demands the same work from certain muscles in the body. These muscles use up energy and create waste products. If the muscles work hard, the muscle fibers are tensed, the muscle is hard and swollen, and the waste products cannot be rinsed away by the blood stream and lymph. They are acidic and start to hurt the muscle. A tired muscle hurts because it's filled with acid. It must be rinsed away to make the pain go away and motivate the horse to put in an effort again.

The absolutely best way to do that is to let the muscle relax while the horse keeps moving. The pumping movement of the horse's body and the circulating blood transports the metabolic by-products away from the muscle, and brings new energy to the muscle, so it can work hard again.

Efficient Muscle Build-Up

So motivation is a big issue with alternating between working and stretching. And so is getting efficient muscle build-up. The acid by-products that develop in the tensed muscle, actually tear down the muscle fibers. It is not good at all. So getting a work-out that minimizes wear inside the muscle, and that is easy to obtain because the horse is motivated, is much more efficient. You don't have to work your way through a mass of resistances that the horse has come up with to get away from fatigue and pain, and you more often get the "right" response because the horse is motivated.

A third reason is that a stretch sets everything up to success. If the horse is stretching, before and after you collect him and ask for hard work, odds are higher that he will do the collection part better, using the right muscles, because he is set up for doing the right thing, stretching over his back. It's harder to do wrong because the relaxation of the topline is already there, so it would take a shift in tension to do wrong. We must always strive for setting the horse up for doing right. Not make things harder because of some fuzzy notion that you have to "really earn what's good". Instead, "set up for success"! Make it very very easy to do right.

The Two Levers that Manage the Back

How to Work and Stretch the Neck and the Hindquarters to Get a Supple Back

The horse's back is supported by the hindlegs at the rear end, and the forelegs at the front end. The back is suspended between these 2 sets of pillars, pretty much like the top of a kitchen table. The spine is fairly ridgid, but not entirely. It needs external support, or it will give and sag more for every year the horse lives.
So what supports it? The levers at the ends...

The rear lever is Orange, the front lever is turquoise
The rear lever is orange (the pelvis), the front lever is turquoise (the neck).

The chest hangs between the shoulders
The chest hangs between
the shoulders.

In the drawing, the locations of the joins of the hindquarters and forelegs are marked with Red and Blue respectively. The hindlegs are joined to the spine with the sacro-iliac "joint" which isn't really a joint because it doesn't move. The pelvis is like glued to the sacrum of the spine. In the forelegs, the spine attaches in a much more mobile way. Mainly the M. Serratus Ventralis & Capitis hold the spine up from the inside of the shoulder blade to the flat sides of the rib cage. The M. Pectoralis Profundus also help in this.

The Balancing Rods

Beyond these points, the spine continues out in both directions. In front we have the neck, and at the back we have the tail, but for use as a lever, the flimsy tail is not much to count on. Instead, since the pelvis is completely fused to the spine, and has a lot of super-strong muscles, the horse uses it as a lever.

The rear lever is Orange, the front lever is turquoise
The rear lever is orange (the pelvis),
the front lever is turquoise (the neck).

When these levers are in use, they arch the back up, or passively stop it from sagging down. This is why it is so important to ride the horse engaged (hind lever), and on the bit (front lever) so it can handle the rider's weight on the back. But as you can see from the drawing above, the pelvic lever is much shorter than the neck lever. If you also count into the equation that the rider sits closer to the torquing point of the front lever, you will realize how different they are. the hindquarter lever is powerful but since it's shorter it can use less torque. The front lever is thin, but since the counterlever that it will be lifting (the back with the rider) is closer to the torquing point it's stronger than it looks. The rear lever is also many times wider, and has much more muscle mass than the front lever, and the frontlever is not solid - it's made up of 7 mobile vertebrae, and a head! Now, I will try to explain how both of these work.

The Front Lever - The Neck & Head

The stretched down neck supports the back
The stretched down neck supports the back.

For the young horse, getting used to the rider's weight on the back is a major issue. They only have muscles for standing around or possibly playing in the field for a little while, and then they are tired. Of course they can graze grass for hours on end. They actually need to, not only to keep from starving, but to support the back. If you tie a young horse up so that he cannot lower his neck or lie down, he will begin to suffer fatigue in the back, and eventually pain. Why?

The lamellar part of the nuchal ligament support the head and neck hanging from the withers
The lamellar part of the nuchal ligament support the head and
neck hanging from the withers.

Because the back is supported by the neck. The neck spine is supported by the nuchal ligament, the lamellae and long fibrously interwoven M Semispinalis, and the nuchal/lamellae and muscles are supported by the back. As the head is lowered, the nuchal ligament goes from slack to taut and is pulling gently on the processes of the whithers causing them to fan out forward and support the back behind the withers by lever action. The muscles of the neck pull on the musles of the back to make them elongate and lift the ribcage.

The Grazing Position Supports the Back

This function is used as the horse grazes on the ground, which he would do for hours on end in the wild. Think about that the next time you load your hay net and place it up high... The lamellae also keep the alignment of the neck vertebrae from going to the end of their range of motion or dislocate, without any conscious effort from the horse. The lamellae drape the vertebrae in a neat row forward. When the head is lowered, the neck is straightened, stretched and telescoped down, and can be used as a counter-weight.

The main stretch from the front lever of the neck does not come from the nuchal ligament, though, although most people who say anything about stretching the neck down talk about the nuchal ligament.
The real heavy duty work is done by the muscles that run along the topline of the neck and withers.

The Semispinalis and Multifidus support the back from the front. Crossections show their thickness at different locations along the back
The Semispinalis and Multifidus support the back from the front. Crossections show their thickness at different locations along the back.
The Muscles do the Work

The Semispinalis and Multifidus muscles were "designed" to pull the back up. You can tell by their diagonal direction pulling from behind/down in the direction of forward/up over the withers. (In comparison, the M. Longissimus Dorsi is diagonal in the opposite direction from in front/down they go rearward and up. We will get to that later.)

It is clear from the illustration that the multifidus is quite thin behind the saddle, and is not doing much work there. The main lift that it provides is right behind the withers, where it is thick and overlapped by the Semispinalis. The Semispinalis is deceptively a very strong muscle, although it is quite thin, since it has strands of fibrous tissue woven into it. That multiplies its stamina and strength.

The Neck Helps Support the Rider's Weight

Stretching down and out of free will, raising the back behind the withers
Stretching down and out of free will,
raising the back behind the withers.

Stretching the neck down as in grazing lifts the front of the back. The front of the back is where the saddle and rider are placed. Strengthening these muscles and letting them work in the young horse that is learning to handle the rider's weight, helps the horse from hollowing under the saddle and sustaining injury there, or experiencing cramps and pain while ridden.

A Facilitation Posture - Not a Theraputic Stretch

Stretching down and out of free will, raising the back behind the withers
Stretching forward and out but not excessively low.

The ultimate stretch is not the one you would probably get if you could get the horse to stretch down to the ground all the time, or at least as much as in this picture of the unridden bay horse above. It is most of the time not convenient or possible because of the compromised balance of the horse. Especially with the added weight and balance of the rider just behind the withers.

The muscles should also not work in their utmost extension, merely be set to work in a slight extension where they would have to put up less effort compared to being 100% shortened. Working with muscles completely shortened makes them cramped. But we don't want the horse's head just hanging on the passive muscle, either.

We don't really want a physiotherapist's stretch to cure some illness in the muscle or to pull it out to make it permanently longer. We simply want the muscles to engage in the lifting process, and for that they need to be slightly stretched out (a lower neck) so they don't have to contract so much. As the horse builds his strength, this lifting can be done with shorter muscles (a more erect neck), but this is still a young horse. If you ask a young horse to work with his neck up high (short muscles), he will just hollow.

The head must be dropped to be used as a weight, the neck vertebrae must be aligned straight in order to work as a lever, and the back must be allowed up by loose back muscles for the horse to find it easier to lift it.

But that's the front half. That's what the young horse can and should do in order to carry the rider. But as soon as balance and relaxation allows, the other lever must be set to work, too, to relieve the forehand and to arch the back fruther back...

The Hindquarter Lever - The Croup & Hindlegs

The Iliopsoas Group tucking the croup, and M. Gluteus and the rest of the rump pulling the back backwards and up.
The Iliopsoas Group tucking the croup, and M. Gluteus and the rest of the rump pulling the back backwards and up.

Just riding along with the nose on the ground might be comfortable to the rider, but it's not useful in the long run. The horse is more or less on the forehand and will become very relaxed but hardly fit and athletic. For that, the horse also needs to carry himself from behind.

The Hindquarter Lever Balances the Horse

The muscles that arch the back from behind are basically the M. Psoas Major and Minor, the Psoas Group, supported by the Rectus Abdominis. They cannot be seen from the outside, and that's why 99% of the dressage riders of this world don't know they exist. Butchers and meat-lovers know they exist, because these are in fact the "filet" muscles. As you can see from the cross-section (of the lumbar region) they are quite substantial, but as one can tell from the dinner plate, they contain almost no fibrous tissue. Tender. That means they are not meant for continous contraction, like for example the M. Semispinalis of the neck is. No, these muscles are supposed to work in bursts, pulling each thigh forward in protraction and support the tucked pelvis while supporting the weight on that same side, and then relax as the hindleg is extended backward and bears no weight.
Read more about the metabolism of muscles here >>  

Alternating Work & Stretch using Trot

In trot, the Psoas Group on one side shortens, while the other side elongates
In trot, the Psoas Group on one side shortens, while the other
side elongates.

In trot this is done on one side at a time, while the right protracts and supports, the left releases and lets the leg move back. Then the other way around, left, right, left, right... This means that they "pump" their nutrients, blood and wasteproducts automatically when working in forward locomotion. In piaffe, both sides need to support the tilt of the pelvis, and they never relax and release, because the hindleg is never stretched out behind the horse. These muscles can't relax and "pump" in piaffe, so they tire pretty quickly. So don't piaffe for 10 minutes. Not like you could, anyway.

Their action tilts the pelvis. But the joint between the sacrum and the last lumbar vertebra is quite mobile and allows for a mere tilting of the pelvis, which has little effect on the rest of the horse, the back, its arching and the degree of collection. So something else has to help. The butt.

The gluteus group pull the back over the croup
The gluteus group pull the back over the croup.

The M Gluteus Maximus goes from the hip trochanter across the croup to join the back via the large tendinous sheet that spans the back. This makes it pull on this sheet, pull it backwards and over the fulcrum of the group. When the pelvis is tilted and the hindleg is grounded, the Gluteus can really help to pull the back up and over the support of the hindleg hoof. If the leg is not grounded, it pulls the leg back, as in pushing the animal forward.

It can clearly be seen on a muscular (not too fat) horse, rearing or standing on his hindlegs while playing, how the gluteus works in lifting the forehand. Its work is also aided by the M Biceps Femoris, M Semitendinous and M Gluteofemoral to some extent. But it needs more than that. It needs the hindleg stabilized on the ground with all the joints bent, to be able to pull on the back at all. It needs the knee benders.

Stabilizing the Hindleg

Poor muscling in the quadriceps triangle
Poor muscling in the
quadriceps triangle.

The triangle between the flank, the hip trochanter and the knee is very revealing when it comes to the training of the horse for dressage. In an untrained, young or green horse, this area is basically flat or even concave. The muscles spanning the area are not very developed. In the well trained horse they are fully developed because they are needed for impulsion and collection. How?

Engaging the hindlegs using speed
Engaging the hindlegs using speed.

Well, they pull the thigh and knee up and forwards towards the flank and hip trochanter, and thus advance the hindleg. But it's more to it than that. When they pull the thigh up, it effects the entire reciprocal system of the joints and tendons of the hindleg. It bends all the joints of the hindleg, by bending the hip and knee.

Now, one might find it a menial task to bend a joint and lift a leg, compared to pushing a 1500 pound body forward, but it isn't the only thing it does. The protraction of the hindleg and the bending of it whilst airborn is easy. The hard part is working to stabilize the bend when the hindleg is grounded, to let the other muscles work with the hindleg as the base of support on the ground.

The Quadriceps group stabilizes the hindleg to use as a fulcrum for the rump-muscles
The Quadriceps group stabilize the
hindleg to use as a fulcrum for the
The reciprocal system
The reciprocal system.

The weight of the horse works to bend the hindleg by pressing down, so there's no need for an effort of active bending of the hindleg. What is needed is work to stabilize the bend and position of the hindleg pointing down, so it doesn't sprawl backwards when the powerful rump muscles pull the back and forehand up over the point of the croup. The gluteus actually pulls the hindleg backwards, as in propulsion, if the leg is not stabilized in its forward stance by the hip-benders and knee-benders.

The levade is a good example. The levade is the highest degree of collection there is. Collection progresses from the hurried forward trot of a green youngster to the high-school horse doing levade. In the progression, the horse first learns to push off and protract the hindlegs energetically, by trotting forward. To push he uses the muscles of the croup and rear thigh. To protract he uses the psoas group and the quadriceps group. These muscles work in alternating contraction and extension as the leg is moves forward and stretched backwards. The pumping allows for good metabolism of energy and nutrients.

Strengthened Muscles are Fit to Work More Statically

All the muscles of the croup and hindlegs work
The Quadriceps group pull the hindleg forward.

When these have been strengthened enough in the alternating work, the trot begins to become collected. The psoas group and the rectus abdominis work to arch the back and tuck the croup. The quadriceps group stops/slows (for a short while) the hindleg from being pulled backwards while on the ground, bent and supporting the body. This opposes the Gluteus group as they pull the back up. The longer the duration of this collected stance in the phases of the steps of the hindlegs, the stronger all 3 groups of muscles need to be.

Next in progression, in the very collected piaffe, the psoas group and rectus abdominis work in constant contraction, or should I say measured synergy with the others, either achieving the tilt of the pelvis (grounded hindleg) or pulling the thigh up (lifting the other hindleg). The gluteus group works intermittently to pull the back and forehand up on the grounded hindleg side, and releasing to let the lifted hindleg be pulled up and forward. The quadriceps group works constantly, shortening while lifting and bending the hindleg, and stabilizing the grounded hindleg on the ground.

Perfect Synergy

All the muscles of the croup and hindlegs work
All the muscles of the croup and hindlegs
work hard and statically.

In the leavde, there's no lifting of the hindlegs. All 3 muscle groups work in constant contraction, fixing the hindlegs in a bent stance. There's no pumping action, because the hindleg never stretch out backwards. The muscles thus can't rid themselves of the metabolic wasteproducts, and thus tire quickly. Of course the fitter and better trained the muscles, the less they need to work in 100% contraction and the less they get filled with lactic acid.

The rear lever, the croup, thus works on the back by leverage against the ground (via the hindlegs). For that to work, all the surrounding muscles need to work to stabilize the hindlegs on the ground in a stance where all the joints are bent. But since you can't begin right away with levade, you have to use the forward gaits to contract and stretch the muscles.

The neck on the other hand, hangs more or less like a dead weight on the semi-spinalis from the withers. The serratus suspends the neck some, but since it's connected to the shoulderblade, it pumps with the steps. The neck muscles also need a rest every now and then, even if it is inter-woven with fibrous tissue. With a lowered head the muscles of the neck work less, and with a higher one they work more. And then it needs a complete rest, by walk on the free rein frequently. In walk, the neck moves up hand down with the footfalls, and in a way pumps the muscles to rid them of waste products.

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Why Not...






Work & Stretch


Shoulder-in Volte


Uphoff & Thiess


Janssen & Schrijer

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