Is it possible to have real throughness and engagement/collection with long, even loose reins?
BILL— Many arguments occur because there’s no agreement among the participants as to what the words they are using mean. Let’s begin with throughness and borrow the German term Durchlässigkeit which translates to the quality of being porous or permeable. It’s the energy which comes through from the hindquarters through the horse’s back and top line to the hand. All these words imply a connection through the horse which we would expect would be felt and measured by the ability to lengthen or compress him—things which are very unlikely to happen on loose reins.
Another term worth throwing into the mix is Losgelassenheit. This is one of those complicated German phrases that encompasses looseness, suppleness, an absence of negative tension, and a willingness to listen. It’s a mental as well as physical quality and translates approximately to “loose-letting-ness.” This CAN be demonstrated on long reins and conceivably on reins which morph into loose ones with the horse stretching long and low, swinging, and reaching towards the bit. That said, it doesn’t usually come from just riding the horse long. There has to be a component of putting him together, teaching him to seek the bit from the pushing aids, and then allowing a controlled descent which stretches his top line. Once you have established this stretching relationship, it’s conceivable that it could be sustained for a while on loose reins, but that’s not how it is derived.
Based on his conformation and desire to move, each horse has a natural amount of engagement and collection. The job of dressage is to enhance these qualities by modifying the horse’s behavior and developing his muscles. Riding on long reins has some benefits, but fostering these changes is not one of them. From a competition standpoint, the balance and frame which the judge wants to see changes as the horse moves up through the levels. A horse trying to show with long reins or a long frame at a level where collection is called for will not score well. That’s a guarantee!
There is one caveat to all this. If you are familiar with the term Überstreichen (yes, it’s those Germans again!), this is an exercise where the rider’s hands are extended forward and for several strides the reins are loose. They are not long, however, and the horse is not invited to extend his neck or further lengthen his frame. It is a test of self carriage and a proof that the horse is not being supported by the hand.
To sum up and return to the original question, the short answer is Sorry, no dice. That’s not how the system works.