Stretch It Out

Master gait extension by understanding what it means and how to ask your horse to lengthen his stride for extended gaits.
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Master gait extension by understanding what it means and how to ask your horse to lengthen his stride for extended gaits.

I commonly see two related misconceptions about extended gaits, both as a judge and a trainer: Extensions equate with going faster, and they’re only needed if you want to add speed to your horse’s repertoire. Those two ideas couldn’t be farther from the truth.

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First, a gait extension is a lengthening of the stride. Sure, your horse winds up traveling a bit faster in the process, but the longer stride is key. Adding speed could simply mean a bunch of fast, jarring steps; whereas an extended gait has long, sweeping strides, whether at the walk, trot, or lope. Second, the ability to extend your horse’s stride is just as crucial as a lead change or backing up—it’s a core skill for your horse to possess both in and out of the competitive arena.

Here, I’ll explain gait extension and how to achieve it. To start, I suggest riding in a snaffle bit with two hands. The horse I’m riding is highly trained and has progressed to a curb bit with romal reins. I’ll use two hands when necessary to achieve collection.

1. For comparison, let’s first discuss what a regular jog looks like. In this two-beat gait, my horse’s left hind and right front are hitting the ground at the same time, indicating solid cadence. My horse’s ears-up, eyes-forward expression shows that he’s alert and listening for my cues. His head and neck carriage is consistent with his conformation, and therefore is in a natural position. His natural, unaltered tail carriage complements his appearance as well as provides necessary balance as he travels.

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2. This photo shows some extension. Depending on a horse’s conformation, this might be as much as he can stretch his trot. An athletic horse with a nice, sloping shoulder; a short croup; and low hocks will be able to achieve optimal extension. If he’s straighter-shouldered and built more upward in front, with long cannon bones, he’ll have a harder time being fluid in his movement. I work with each horse individually to find his extension potential and show it off to the horse’s best ability.

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3. You can’t miss the extension of my horse’s stride in this photo. Note that his head, neck, and tail carriage are similar to the shorter-strided pace—that carriage is natural for him and provides him with the best balance as he travels. His natural self-carriage, including his tail, helps him achieve this great length of stride while being comfortable to ride. If you compete in ranch riding or classes that call for extended gaits, you don’t want the judge to ask himself, “Did she extend her horse’s trot?” You want it to be a black-and-white—and, hopefully, credit-earning—maneuver. If you don’t compete, smooth, stretched-out extended gaits provide efficiency and comfort on trail rides, while moving cattle, or in any riding situation.

4. To achieve the desired extension—not just a quicker step—requires work and focus. I combine two elements to extend gaits with collection: driving my horse forward and collecting him with the bridle. In this driving photo, note that I’m riding “behind the motion”—that is, I’m driving my horse from back to front with my seat. I use a lot of leg pressure to encourage his forward motion and drive him into the bridle (the next step).

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5. As I drive my horse forward, riding from back to front, I take light contact on his face. Here, I’m using a curb bit, but I’d suggest a snaffle for a horse that’s just learning this collection. This, in combination with driving my horse forward with my seat and legs, encourages the impulsion and drive necessary to lengthen his stride rather than just speed it up.

6. When it’s all put together, my horse reaches far in front of him with his extending leg, pointing his toe to get the most extension possible. His left-hind foot reaches far underneath his barrel, demonstrating the strong impulsion from behind. He’s flexing at the poll, which helps round his back in collaboration with the rear-end impulsion. Once he can extend his gait in this frame, I’ll turn him loose to achieve full extension with balanced, natural self-carriage and drive from behind.

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7. If you’re competing in ranch riding, you can either sit the trot, as I am here, or post (as long as you’re on the correct diagonal) or ride in a two-point position (with or without holding the horn). Whatever you choose, just be sure that you’re not too vertical or rigid, because you risk losing the connection with your horse.

Laurel Walker Denton, Skull Valley, Arizona, is a lifelong horsewoman and competitor. She grew up on the Bar U Bar Ranch where she and her husband, Barry, reside. Denton, an AQHA and NRCHA judge, has trained and shown horses to great success in working cow horse, reining, and ranch riding. The Bar U Bar Ranch has earned the AQHA 50-Year Breeder award. Learn more about her program at barubar.com.