Since starting Hannah under saddle three years ago, I've been willing her to either shrink or grow. A few inches shorter and she'd be a super fancy large pony. A few inches taller and she would be the 3'6" hunter I envisioned when I bred her.

Dr. Hilary Clayton recommends riding your horse round and with an upward feel to increase the suspension phase of his or her stride.

Photo: Courtesy Alexandra Beckstett

Unfortunately, having just turned 6 a few weeks ago, she's holding steady at 15 hands, which in the hunter world is a bit like the kiss of death. As my trainer likes to say, "She's half a horse."

But I'm sticking with what I've got. Hannah, with her compact frame, is incredibly balanced (hurray for automatic lead changes!). And her small stature means she gives an impressive effort over every jump. To hold our own in the show ring against "the big horses," however, we need to be able to canter down the lines in the same number of strides as they do.

Enter stride-lengthening exercises.

Since I rejected one trainer's recommendation to inject everything from Hannah's coffin joints to her hocks and stifles (to which my vet laughed and rolled her eyes) in order to get a couple more inches out of her canter, it's up to me to strengthen and condition her to reach a bit farther with each stride.

Hannah checks out the hill that she gets to canter up regularly now as part of our strengthening and lengthening exercises.

Photo: Alexandra Beckstett

I called on Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, Dipl. ACVSMR, MRCVS, McPhail Dressage Chair Emerita at Michigan State University and president of Sport Horse Science, in Mason, Michigan, who has studied the biomechanics of equine gaits extensively, to provide me with some realistic exercises and expectations.

First things first: Can you really lengthen a horse's natural stride? According to Dr. Clayton, to an extent, yes.

She explained to me that at the trot and canter, the suspension phase of the stride contributes largely to stride length. "As the propulsive muscles get stronger, the horse is able to push off into a higher suspension and will then cover more ground while in the air," she said. "Therefore, exercises to increase propulsive strength will help to lengthen the stride."

Such exercises include:

  1. Cantering up hills;
  2. Working in medium and extended gaits;
  3. Schooling frequent transitions between and within the gaits;
  4. Trotting over raised rails; and
  5. Gymnastic jumping.

[youtube url="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=slmE0AzpeUI"]

Trotting over poles can help build your horse's propulsive strength.

I've already started incorporating more rails and gymnastics into my training, but I can easily add the other exercises to my to-do list. My trainer and I also place landing poles on the backside of jumps to encourage Hannah to take a nice forward stride upon landing, and for what it's worth I do carrot stretches with her before and after riding.

As a final note, Dr. Clayton said: "An important point is that increasing the suspension requires more upward propulsion; just driving the horse forward is not effective. So ride the horse round and with an upward feel--not long and flat--to increase stride length."

How have you handled a horse with a short stride?