How many times have you read the judge’s remark, “Tense,” on your dressage score sheet? Most riders have seen that with a sinking heart and marks to match!
Tension is a mark-losing problem that most dressage riders have experienced at some point in their career. But is the horse tense because of the rider, or is it the rider that is tense because of the horse? It’s a vicious circle that you must break if you and your horse are to make progress in your dressage career.
In this article, we discuss what you can do to reduce tension in your horse and persuade him to relax in the dressage arena.
Why is relaxation so important?
Relaxation in dressage is crucial if you’re to gain good marks in a test.
If the horse is tense, several negative things happen:
- the rhythm will become inconsistent or irregular
- the horse will become tight through his topline
- the contact will become unsteady
- the horse will come against the rider’s hand or duck behind the bridle
- the tempo may become too quick or inconsistent
- the horse will stiffen against the rider’s aids to bend
- the horse may become crooked
- transitions will be unbalanced and rough
- harmony between horse and rider will be lost
As you can see, all the dressage Scales of Training are impacted negatively by tension. So, relaxation in both horse and rider are essential for good dressage.
Dressage is about creating tension but in a relaxed way. The German’s call that, “losgelassenheit.”
The term means a combination of looseness, suppleness, and relaxation, and it can’t be achieved in a horse when the rider is tense.
Tense rider syndrome
When the rider is tense, the horse becomes tight through his muscles, ligaments, and joints. Tension in the rider manifests itself through:
- Gripping the reins too tightly
- Tension in the buttocks, creating a bounce in the saddle
- Locked hips that don’t follow the horse’s movement
- A clenched jaw
- Knees gripping the saddle, pushing the seat upward and away from the horse
If any part of your body is tense and tight, that will affect other parts of you too. For example, clench your jaw and feel how tight the muscles in your shoulders, upper back, and neck become.
When you are tense, your mount will reflect that tension back at you. The horse may shorten his stride, hollow his back, or carry his head too high, depending on his own personality and susceptibility to tension.
Tackling rider tension
As prey animals, horses have a very powerful flight response, which can be triggered in an unfamiliar situation when their rider is tense and uptight. As a rider, you need to be confident and in control of your own nerves, as your horse will take his lead from you.
To do that, you need to learn how to ride in balance and with good posture, and you must be able to mirror that whenever your nerves begin to take over.
Focus on maintaining the correct position and good balance regardless of what’s happening. That trains your brain to tell your body to automatically default to that perfect posture.
Bottom line: Learn to focus on your position, rather than on the source of your tension.
Here are a couple of other helpful tips to help you to achieve relaxation, no matter what’s happening around you and your horse.
Tip #1 – Focus, focus, focus!
Concentrate on right now. As soon as you begin to feel anxious, ignore the spooky corner in the arena or the paper bag flapping in the bushes. Instead, focus on your body. Keep your body balanced and aligned correctly.
That focus helps to keep your body relaxed, telling your horse that everything is okay, and there’s no reason for him to be concerned.
So, if your horse spooks at something, ignore the spook, focus on your position and balance, and move on.
Tip #2 – Don’t forget to breathe!
When you’re stressed, you tend to breathe quicker and higher in your chest. That triggers your own fight or flight response, tensing your muscles and making your body stiffen. That translates directly to your horse, and so the cycle begins again.
So, when you begin to feel anxious, slow down your breathing, and make sure that you breathe deep into your belly. Drop your shoulders, allow your hips to soften, and feel your horse respond.
As you rise to the trot, count how many times you inhale compared to how frequently you rise. Repeat that, but this time, count how often you rise for every time you exhale. The number of rises per inhale and exhale should be equal.
That exercise ensures better oxygen saturation in your body and, therefore, better muscle effectiveness. If your body is deprived of oxygen, your strength and coordination will be compromised. So, don’t forget to breathe deeply and slowly!
Now, let’s look at tension in the horse.
Is your horse hot or tense?
These days, many top dressage riders favor “hot” horses. If you can control tension in a hot horse and translate that into expression and power, you can achieve some really big dressage scores.
However, it’s crucial that you don’t mistake tension and spookiness in a horse for a hot temperament.
Many hot horses have lots of energy and tension, but it’s consistent, unlike the spooky horse that can be calm one moment and unsettled the next.
Tension in hot horses can manifest itself in different ways. Some horses shut down and drop behind the rider’s leg. Others pull against the rider and try to go faster and faster. How you handle a hot horse depends on what kind of “hot” he is.
Here are a few useful tips and exercises that work very well on both hot and tense horses.
Speed versus forward
All horses must remain in front of the rider’s leg. Impulsion and speed are not the same, but it can be difficult to keep your leg on a horse that favors “go” to “whoa.”
A horse that’s strong can also be behind the leg. You must ensure that your horse is responding to your leg and moving away from it, rather than simply running through the bridle because he wants to.
Your first job is to teach the horse that he must accept your leg and that it’s going to be there, no matter what happens.
Exercise #1 Spiral on a circle
Moving the horse in and out of a circle is a very effective way of teaching him to accept your leg.
The exercise can be ridden in canter and trot, depending on what works best for your horse.
- Ride a 20-meter circle in trot or canter.
- Use your outside leg to push the horse onto a circle of 18-meters. Now, use your inside leg to move the horse back out onto a 20-meter circle.
- If the horse tries to go faster or tightens up, make the circle smaller to control the tempo.
If your horse is unbalanced and tends to break the canter, ride the exercise in trot. Making the exercise easier for the horse will help to reduce tension and anxiety.
Exercise #2 Leg-yield on the diagonal line
When you can safely apply your leg without an explosion, you can work on teaching your horse to listen to the leg aid.
- In working trot, ride leg-yield or half-pass from the corner of the arena, across the diagonal line.
- As you approach the end of the diagonal, ride a few steps of medium trot.
- Focus on keeping the rhythm and tempo of the trot consistent. The horse must learn not to go faster but to take bigger steps to cover more ground.
The exercise works because the horse cannot run away from you while he has his legs crossed!
Letting go through the back
Tense horses are usually very tight through their topline. Lateral work can be extremely effective in encouraging mental and physical relaxation in a tense horse.
Exercise #3 Head-to-the-wall leg-yield
- In working trot, ride down the long side of the arena. Turn your horse’s head to the fence, and ride leg-yield with your horse’s shoulders on the fence and his quarters to the inside. You don’t need any bend in the horse’s body, and there should be no outside flexion. Ideally, the horse should move on three or four tracks.
- Make the horse straight before you reach the corner.
The fence acts as an extra brake, preventing the horse from running away from you. As you apply more leg to drive him forward and sideways, the horse’s sideways steps should become bigger.
The exercise works because the crossing of the hind legs loosens and lifts the horse’s back, removing tightness and tension.
Exercise #4 Leg-yield on a circle
Exercise #3 can also be ridden on a circle.
- Picture your horse as a carousel horse with the pole running through his belly button.
- Now, place that pole on the line of the circle. Keep the horse’s body straight with his shoulders to the inside of the line and his quarters to the outside.
- Keep the circle at 20-meters, and don’t allow the horse to fall in to decrease the angle that you’re asking him for.
It’s crucial that you keep the tempo consistent. The horse should gradually increase his length of stride without hurrying or getting faster.
Other relaxation tips
Every horse is different, and different things can trigger tension in individuals.
Some horses hate being stabled for long periods and become tense as a result. Often, that tension is expressed as excess energy and spookiness under saddle. So, if possible, make sure that your horse enjoys some turnout every day.
If you can’t turn your horse out, you may find that working him twice every day is the key to relaxing him.
You can mix and match the exercising sessions. For example, you might lunge in the morning and hack out in the evening one day, and then school in the morning and lunge in the afternoon the next day.
- How to Lunge Your Horse
- How to use Poles to Improve Your Horse’s Way of Going
- How to Use Cavaletti for Dressage Schooling
- How to Structure a Dressage Training Plan for Your Horse
Many horses enjoy having a toy to play with in their stable.
A soft ball or treat ball can be useful in keeping the horse’s brain occupied. If the horse is mentally tired, he won’t become frustrated and tense physically.
If your horse primarily becomes very tense and stressy on show days, try working him at home before you leave, and then ride him again when you get to the competition.
If that’s not possible, get to the show early so that you can work him twice before your dressage time.
- How to Encourage Your Horse to Relax at Dressage Competitions
- How to Improve Your Horse’s Confidence
A chilled-out team
The horse is a herd animal that takes his emotional cue from his herdmates.
When you’re on board, you become a member of the horse’s herd. If you get tense, your horse is immediately on red alert, expecting trouble. When you’re chilled out, your horse is too.
Keep your focus, don’t get distracted by outside influences, maintain your position, and control your breathing. In no time, you’ll see a difference in your horse and in your dressage scores!
Tension is the curse of the dressage rider! And uncontrolled negative tension is a sure way to lose marks in a dressage test.
Use our top tips and simple exercises to help reduce tension and get your horse to relax.
How did you do? Tell us your stress-busting tips and experiences in the comments box below!