You’re sure to get marked down in a dressage test if your horse is tense, right? Well, that depends on the kind of tension we’re talking about.
Did you know that positive tension can go a long way to enhancing your performance in the dressage arena and can even improve your horse’s paces?
Read this article to find out how positive tension can be a good thing for your dressage horse and how you can go about creating it.
Positive tension vs. negative tension
First up, it’s important that we clarify the difference between positive tension and negative tension.
In a nutshell:
- Positive tension is consistent and controllable.
- Negative tension is inconsistent and uncontrollable.
Positive tension creates greater power and impulsion, giving the paces more cadence, expression, and spring, with the horse still remaining supple through his body.
In contrast, negative tension manifests itself in spooking, tightness through the body, loss of rhythm, resistance to the contact, lack of attention on the rider, and even a complete loss of control or an explosion!
Positive tension and relaxation are not mutually exclusive
If your horse is tense, then he’s not relaxed, right? Well, not so fast.
In terms of negative tension, the above statement is true. However, your horse can be relaxed at the same time as displaying positive tension.
Relaxation within dressage
Relaxation is a mandatory requirement for dressage. The horse must be both mentally and physically relaxed in all phases of the training.
However, relaxation does not mean that the horse is half-asleep. He should still be alert, attentive, reactive to your aids, and in front of your leg.
Relaxation means that all the horse’s muscles that are not required for the exercise or work being carried out should be relaxed. But the horse should be ready to use his muscles for the next movement or exercise.
Picture a ballet dancer; tension is needed in the body of a ballet dancer to create those beautiful lines and explosive movements, but there is no worry or stiffness in the movements. They dance in a relaxed and powerful way but he/she is still working and is not slumped on a sofa watching Netflix.
Why is positive tension desireable?
When harnessed correctly, positive tension can take your dressage performance to a whole new level. An otherwise lackluster test can be transformed into one where the horse shows off his power, elegance, paces, and presence.
For that very reason, many top dressage riders favor “hot” horses, but it’s important that they’re the right type of “hot”.
The main aspect of positive tension is that it is controllable; you’re not sat on a horse that could turn itself inside out at any moment. You could ride a highly expressive extended canter one moment and walk around on a long rein with your horse totally chilled the next moment.
How to create positive tension
Step 1 – Establish relaxation
Although this article is about creating tension, we must never neglect relaxation.
If the horse is not relaxed first, both mentally and physically, then you will not be able to create positive tension. Instead, you will create negative tension.
So if at any point during your training, you lose your horse’s relaxation, then stop what you are doing and re-establish the relaxation before continuing.
Step 2 – Establish a connection
Next up, you need to have your horse working from your leg into your hand. In other words, you need to establish a connection between your horse’s hind legs and the contact.
When riding, there should be a constant circle of energy that should flow from;
- the active hind legs,
- over the swinging back,
- arriving in the mouth,
- traveling along the reins to the rider’s hands,
- through the rider’s supple body and adhesive seat to the rider’s driving aids (legs),
- into the activity of the hind legs.
And so on, round and round.
For you to create positive tension, the horse must feel secure and safe working within this circle of energy.
To achieve this crucial connection, you, the rider, must sit in a balanced position, independently from the contact, and without gripping with the legs. That enables you to recycle the forward energy that your legs create through the horse’s back, into the contact, and back again.
Step 3 – Create positive tension
For this, you are going to use:
- Transitions between the pace (such as working trot to medium trot to collected trot)
- Transitions that skip a pace (such as walk to canter and trot to halt)
- The half-halt
The transitions, when ridden frequently in succession, will increase your horse’s responsiveness to your aids, keep him thinking forwards, and encourage him to push more from his hind legs.
At the same time, the half-halt is used to keep the horse light in the forehand and to encourage self-carriage.
Your goal is to increase the activity behind whilst maintaining the same rhythm, tempo, and swing through the horse’s back. At any time, you should be able to yield your hand forward (as in a give and retake) and your horse should maintain the same outline and way of going.
Note: Use of the whip
Depending on your horse’s temperament, your leg aids might not be enough to create the impulsion you need for positive tension. In that case, the correct and timely use of the whip can be helpful.
However, you should use the whip to support the engagement and not simply to make the horse go forward. Greater engagement teaches the horse to close his frame correctly from back to front without running through the bridle.
Every horse’s sensitivity to the whip is slightly different. However, you should aim to use as little contact with the whip as possible. In general, a gentle touch or tap with the whip is all you need to motivate your horse to move away from your leg.
Related Read: How to Use a Dressage Whip Correctly
Step 4 – Re-enforce the relaxation
After demanding more from the horse, allow the horse to take the reins and stretch.
The reasons for this are as follows:
- It helps to keep the horse loose and supple through his back and neck.
- It rewards the horse for his efforts.
- It prevents positive tension turning into negative tension.
- It helps to refresh the pace.
- It keeps the energy flowing over the horse’s back and encourages him to keep stretching into the contact.
Step 5 – Repeat
Lastly, you’re going to repeat steps 3 and 4 continuously throughout your training sessions.
This helps you to build your horse’s expression and power and create positive tension in your horse’s body that is both controllable and consistent.
Important: Take your time!
The expression and power that come from positive tension cannot be created overnight. If you rush the process or ask for too much than what your horse is currently able to handle, you risk creating negative tension which will push you back to square one.
At all times, your horse must be able to easily recover his equilibrium and you should never feel as though he is about to boil over.
How to know when you have positive tension (and not negative tension)
If you have created positive tension your horse will be able to seamlessly transition from bouts of more strenuous work (where you require high levels of engagement, power, and expression), to calmly and rhythmically walking around the arena on a loose rein, and then back into the more difficult work, without any tightness or loss of attention.
In contrast, negative tension will manifest itself in:
- A loss of rhythm (jogging)
- A tempo that is too quick or inconsistent
- Tightness through the horse’s topline
- Spooking and loss of attention
- An unsteady contact
- Unbalanced transitions
- A loss of harmony between horse and rider
If you experience any of the above, even if only slightly, then you must go back to step 1 and re-establish the relaxation.
Negative tension is destructive to the dressage horse’s performance, causing nervousness, tightness, spooking, and loss of attention. A negatively tense horse often bears down on the rider’s contact, the rhythm is damaged, and the whole picture lacks fluency, lightness, and harmony.
However, positive tension can be harnessed to improve the horse’s way of going, creating expression, lightness, and better cadence, all whilst maintaining a supple body and mind.
Importantly, positive tension is controllable and consistent, whereas negative tension is uncontrollable and inconsistent.