Stretching forward-down is probably one of the easiest and yet most useful exercises in horse training. The little exercise produces great results and can provide a good starting point for a human-equine relationship based on mutual trust, politeness, and cooperation.
Most of us have heard about the importance of stretching forward-down in horse training, but do we also know why it is so important? While the benefits for the horse’s back muscles are well-known, both the psychological effects and the impact on the horse’s nervous system are less talked about, although they might be even more significant.
Some background knowledge
A horse’s autonomic nervous system, as part of the peripheral nervous system, controls the involuntary systems such as the circulatory system (heart) and respiratory system (lungs). It has two major systems: parasympathetic and sympathetic. Generally speaking, the sympathetic nervous system governs fight or flight situations. The adrenaline that is produced by the hypothalamus quickens the horse’s heartbeat and increases the blood pressure. The horse’s breathing becomes faster, his pupils are dilated. Digestion slows down. The white in the eye of your horse is showing, his nostrils flare, the jaw is tight, muscles are tense and the horse is ready for flight. This is the side of the horse that most horse owners don’t appreciate so much.
The parasympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, governs rest and digest situations in which the horse is in a safe environment. Heartbeat and breathing slow down, blood pressure drops, and digestion is stimulated. The horse relaxes mentally and physically. He might be grazing, with his head low, nostrils are relaxed, the gaze soft, he might rest one hint leg or close his eyes, and he might be snoozing. We like this side of our horses a lot better.
If we take care to create a training environment in which our horse is relaxed and content, parasympathetic activity prevails, too. Flight modus is switched off and the horse’s emotional state is one of trust and relaxation. As we all know, learning works best in a calm and worry free atmosphere. If our horse is stressed during training, however, due to pain and discomfort (hard rider’s hand, unfitting saddle, rolled up neck), excessive demands, or being confronted with task he cannot perform yet (such as lunging on a circle when he hasn’t found his balance yet), the sympathetic system is dominant with its unwanted effects of tense muscles, high blood pressure, reduced concentration, and excessive sweating. Stress affects a horse’s ability to learn.
What does that have to do with stretching forward-down?
Imagine it’s the first beautiful day in spring and you want to work a bit in the round pen. Due to the bad weather conditions you had to train indoors most of the winter. Naturally, your horse is a bit more excited than usual that day. Instead of listening to you, he scans the horizon for tigers and listens intensely to every bird and rustling in the bushes. He can’t concentrate on you. He holds his head up high to have the biggest field of vision.
If your horse has learned how to stretch forward down, you can use this exercise to relax him. He will lower his head, take a treat from your hand, chew, and tadaa! the parasympathetic system takes over, the horse calms down. If the horse is very excited, you might have to repeat several times until he relaxes though.
Now he can focus on you and the training. The reaction that I usually see from horse owners in this kind of situation is to chase the horse around in a trot or canter so that he starts listening to the person in the middle or runs off excess energy. Like this, you just enhance the flight response and the horse calms down eventually because he is tired, not because he trusts you.
How do I teach this to my horse?
All you need is a calm environment and some treats (we want to activate the parasympathetic system, remember?). You can use a cavesson or a simple halter. Position yourself in front of your horse and present a treat to him in your closed fist with your arm stretched out, so low that he has to stretch down. If he follows your hand with his nose, open your hand and give him the treat.
Important: Don’t give him the treat if he’s demanding it or pushing you! Otherwise he learns to pester you for food and you don’t want that. If your horse gets too eager for the treats, you have to teach him feeding manners first.
Repeat a couple of times. Then add a slight downward impulse on the cavesson or the halter, still present the treat. The horse will learn to connect the impulse with the pleasantry of the food.
Gradually, the impulse on the cavesson or halter can replace the aid coming from the treat. First, still present your hand to the horse, now without the treat. He will probably follow it. Then try to get to cavesson aid only. Still reward him for the right reaction. In the beginning, it is important to reward EVERY right reaction, otherwise the behaviour won’t stick. Does your horse stretch forward-down on a slight cavesson/ halter aid, you can decrease the frequency of the treats, first to every second time, then even less.
It is essential that you don’t pull your horse’s nose down! He has to do it all by himself. This method is called positive reinforcement, and stretching forward down is a great way of introducing your horse to this wonderful learning method. Behaviour taught with positive reinforcement will be shown with great enthusiasm and predictability. Of course, you could use verbal praise instead of a treat, but let’s be honest, what would be more likely to get a good performance out of you, a kind word or a pay check? Moreover, chewing activates the parasympathetic system.
Be patient and wait for the right reaction of your horse. You’re asking him to limit his field of vision, which in itself is already an act of trust. You’re basically asking him to give up full control.
Not every horse can be trained with treats though. Some horses simply cannot manage to see food as a reward and as something pleasant to chew on. They will get greedy, will demand more and actually will have a higher stress level than when you train them without food. Their thoughts will be on what they need to do to get a treat. In a case like that you can of course do this exercise without treats by applying simple pressure and release. You ask for the forward-down with a slight pressure impulse on the cavesson and release the pressure immediately and completely (hand away from lunge line) when the horse yields. Timing is very important here and also to catch the slightest try. If you have to build up too much pressure though have a look if you could use treats for just this one exercise, you don’t have to use it in all you training. There is just a big difference if your horse lowers his head willingly or if you pull it down. You could also try to take less delicious food as treats, such as hay pellets. If your horse doesn’t get a lot of carrots, for instance, and then you use them as rewards during training, it is quite natural that the horse wants to get more.
Why are we not moving yet?
When your horse stands on all four legs, he has the best balance. This way he can focus on the only new element, the stretching forward-down. Once your horse understood that, and you can bend him to the right and the left in standing, on slight impulses, you can start to introduce stretching forward down in walk. You will see that he might not be able to produce the behaviour as good as in standing, and you might have to practice a while. If you are patient, you will be able to lunge your horse without side reigns or lunging aids eventually!
When to use?
Stretching forward-down in halt is a great way to start your training. You will get to know your horse’s emotional state that day and how willing he is to let go and trust you. If you start every training like this, there will always be something familiar the horse can recognise and that he can do well.
Whenever you think that your horse is getting worked up or scared, you can return to this simple exercise. You will find it useful for veterinary checkups, the blacksmith, and unfamiliar situations in general. Give it a try and see for yourself how this little exercise can do wonders for the relationship between you and your horse!
All the best from Warsaw,