So, how do you achieve this elusive way of going without losing relaxation?
In this article, we explore how to create that mark-earning relaxed power in the dressage horse.
What’s so important about relaxation in the dressage horse?
Relaxation in your horse is a crucial quality to develop if you want to be successful in dressage.
Relaxation should be the very first goal that you strive for from the very outset of your horse’s training.
The effect of tension on the dressage horse
Tension in the horse usually occurs when the rider tries to collect the horse and build more expression and activity in the steps.
When the horse becomes tense, he will tighten through his back and neck, making it impossible for you to connect the horse and develop engagement and self-carriage.
Problems with tension often begin in the warm-up when riders ask for too much carriage and collection too soon.
Preventing tension during the warm-up
The following warm-up tips apply to every horse and rider, from the most basic level right through to Grand Prix.
Always begin working in rising trot.
At this early stage in your warm-up, don’t be concerned if your horse falls onto his forehand and lacks self-carriage.
The idea at this early stage is to get the horse’s muscles loose and warm.
Pay close attention to straightness, and make sure that the horse is always moving on one track around circles and through turns.
Use your outside aids to prevent the quarters from swinging out.
Ride the horse into a forward hand so that he’s working in a steady frame.
Don’t allow the reins to become loose or ride with a tight rein so that the horse comes behind the vertical.
Ride circles and curves, keeping the horse working into the outside rein and stretching forward through his neck into the contact.
Throughout this exercise, make sure that the horse maintains an equal inside bend through his body and neck on both reins.
While warming-up, you need to be confident that you can ask your horse to stretch down for the bit and open his frame whenever you ask.
You should be able to give a half-halt, lighten your contact, and push the horse on with your leg with the result that he follows the bit forward, round, and down.
Use lots of trot-canter and canter-trot transitions during your warm-up.
Until your horse can stay soft and consistent through his topline throughout the transitions, he’s not relaxed enough to begin working.
The horse should never shorten his neck or come behind the vertical during this phase of the warm-up.
Never rush your warm-up!
There’s no point in rushing to begin the more advanced exercises until the horse is fully relaxed and swinging through his back.
How long your warm-up takes will depend on your horse’s temperament, age, and whether he’s coming back from a long lay-off.
So, an experienced Grand Prix horse might take 15 minutes to warm-up, whereas a newly started four-year-old could take half an hour’s warm-up before he’s ready to start working towards more engagement. A newly-backed youngster may have the whole schooling session as a warm-up.
Beginning collected work
When the warm-up is finished, you’re ready to begin the more collected work.
A good preparatory aid to asking for collection is to ride transitions forward, and backward, that skip a gait.
Then, begin to use half-halts and specific exercises in canter and trot to develop more collection, swing, and cadence.
If the horse is working properly through his back, the following technique should work to build the collection and encourage the horse to carry more weight on his hindquarters:
- Establish an elastic contact and keep your hands still.
- Push the horse forward from your leg into a very slight restraining hand and sit a little heavier.
- If the horse is genuinely working through his back, he won’t be able to move forward, so he begins to move uphill instead. The swing through the horse’s back should increase, as will the activity behind, and thus the horse’s cadence increases.
In this collection, the horse will remain in perfect balance and will carry himself when you give away the reins. The horse’s frame and the tempo of the rhythm should stay the same.
More stretching …
Now, ask the horse to stretch through his back again.
It’s important to note that some horses get stronger and may become tense when asked to produce more power. If that happens, go back to your stretching exercises to help the horse to relax again. Once the horse has relaxed again, go back to the collected work.
You may have to go back to the stretching exercises several times during a schooling session if your horse becomes tense.
What to do when things go wrong
If the horse is not working forward through a swinging back, you’ll find it uncomfortable to sit. Instead of becoming more active, the horse’s stride shortens, and the tempo of the rhythm often increases.
These problems usually arise because the horse has dropped behind your leg and you’ve lost the connection from the hindquarters through the back to the bit. The contact will feel less elastic, and you won’t be able to collect your horse on the outside rein.
Most often, the horse will stiffen against your hand and become too short or too high in the neck. That often causes the rider to try to hold the collection with the hand. Sometimes, the horse may come behind the vertical, and the poll will no longer be the highest point.
In both cases, you’ll need to use the following technique to correct the problem:
Bend your horse around circles on both reins.
Ride the horse from your inside leg to your outside rein.
Your aim is to persuade the horse to accept your outside hand and soften to the inside, which will encourage him to relax and stretch more over his back.
It’s much easier to achieve that on a circle than it is on a straight line.
Next, ask the horse to work forward towards the bit and lower his neck.
You must have the horse’s neck lowered before you can encourage him to work forward and be more open in his frame.
Once you have the horse in front of your leg and connected to the outside rein, all the work will be loose, fluent, and swinging, and you can start to build the power and collection again.
Your first goal, no matter what level you are working at, is to establish relaxation within your horse. Only then can you build the necessary power needed for the higher movements.
When tension builds, revert back to your relaxation work and encourage your horse to accept the outside hand, stay in front of your leg, and reach forward and down into the contact.
This concept applies to all the levels of training from the very early days, right through to Grand Prix level.
- How to Create More Expression in the Trot
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Relax at Dressage Competitions
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Stretch
- How to Develop Self-Carriage