Stretch That Topline

Learn a simple horse-training exercise used by reining and dressage riders.

Reiners and dressage riders both incorporate a good topline stretch when they work a horse. It’s simple: Allow the horse to stretch down with his neck, reaching down to his knee. In doing that, he stretches the entire topline muscles from his neck on down the back. When he stretches his neck forward, the back comes up and makes a better stride and topline.

It’s a great exercise for every event, but it is just a warm-up. It is not how your horse’s head should be carried all the time.

How to Do It

To do it, allow your horse to pull lightly on your hands and reach down with his head. In dressage, we call it “chewing the reins out of your hands.” It is a soft pull, not a jerk or a pull as when the horse is resisting or fighting your hands.

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At the same time, you continue his forward motion. Squeeze with your feet and legs to keep going forward. Don’t let him go to the forehand: Drive him forward into the bridle and ask him to soften, while stepping under with his hind leg into a bigger stride. As he steps under behind and reaches with his nose, that deepens the topline stretch.

To teach your horse to do it, move your horse up to your hands and into the bit so he pulls lightly. When he pulls, release the pressure in the reins and your horse will lower his neck. Keep driving forward and repeat that, giving the horse the opportunity to lower his head. For a reiner, simply allow your horse a moment to relax and lower his neck.

Why Do It

I use this stretch throughout a training period. I’ll take a break and walk or trot in a 20-meter circle and let my horse stretch. I do it usually for one or two circles and then gather him back up into collection. When he comes back up, he’s usually stronger in his self-carriage in his hind end.

For reining, this lengthening and then shortening teaches a horse to rock back on his haunches and balance. In lower-level dressage, the stretch and return to collection is used to show a horse’s feel and self carriage. It’s great for working on the topline in reining large fast circles or a dressage extended canter.

My horses love to do this because it feels good. You have to watch the horse – sometimes I will have one that tries to do it all the time!

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Carla Wennberg was chosen as the Professional’s Choice AQHA Professional Horsewoman of the Year in 2009. She is currently the western team coach at St. Andrews Presbyterian College in Laurinburg, North Carolina, where she has been coaching since 2006. A former youth world champion, Carla has trained and instructed young riders and horses for more than 20 years. She has been an AQHA judge for more than 20 years, and she spent 18 years as a National Reining Horse Association and National Snaffle Bit Association judge. Carla has also earned a bronze medal in dressage.