Tag Archives: relaxing the horse

IMBALANCE – Gosh, that many?

We hear a lot of talk about achieving balance for both horse and rider.  Clearly, perception of imbalance really depends on the discipline you choose.  We choose dressage, which means that certain behaviours and characteristics of how a horse moves in the field are not required  or desired under saddle.  That is not to say that there’s something wrong, just that we don’t want any imbalances in the arena.


Take a look at the list below to see if you can identify any issues that may indicate some type of imbalance that needs addressing in your training.

  • Ability to do something on one side but not the other
  • Turning like a boat instead of a train
  • Falling in on the inside shoulder on a circle and corners
  • Falling out over the outside shoulder on a circle
  • Hard in the mouth and or holding on to the bit  on one side
  • Heavy in the hand and leaning on the reins
  • ImbalanceUnable or unwilling to stretch the neck
  • Incorrect strike off in canter or going disunited in canter
  • Moving laterally when not asked
  • Unable to execute a square halt
  • Speeding up, jogging, shortened steps
  • Irregular rhythm or bridle lameness
  • Head tilting or shaking
  • Grinding teeth
  • Tongue hangs out of mouth
  • Swishing tail

Every horse bends more easily to one side than to the other, this is known as ‘lateral asymmetry’ but if your horse is excessively so you need to address the problem with exercises to help stretch out the contracted side and contract the strung out side.Imbalance

He may have a ‘horizontal imbalance’ (commonly known as on-the-forehand) or a ‘diagonal imbalance’ when the point of the horses weight is off-centre and he goes ‘out through the shoulder’.

Finally a ‘vertical imbalance’ is when the horse does not give an upright impression but one of leaning (especially in canter) – like a barrel racer.

Sometimes I feel a little ridiculous when I think of some of the things I say “oh, my horse’s tail is swishing, that must be an imbalance”!  Really????? Yes, really.  In the pursuit of perfection every detail counts and whilst I am happy for my horse to swish her tail, if she does it excessively she’s telling me she has a problem.

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster





The rhythm that a horse maintains in all its gaits and paces is fundamental to Dressage riding.

Rhythm and relaxation go hand-in-hand because it is nearly impossible to have rhythm without relaxation.

When considering relaxation of the horse we must think about the horse’s mental state; calmness, without anxiety or nervousness and the also his physical state; the absence of muscular tension (other than the contraction needed for optimal carriage) strength, range and fluency of movement.

RhythmRelaxation of the horse’s emotional and physical state also goes hand in hand.  Rhythm is the first element of the training pyramid and contributes significantly to work at the upper levels.  Preparing the horse mentally and physically is vital to your horse’s future as a dressage horse.  No exercise or movement can be considered good if the rhythm falters.

Developing rhythm and relaxation

Your training should be designed to gradually strengthen the horse to be able to do the movements that will require great physical strength later in the training.   It is this looseness that enables the horse to work free from tension or constraint.

Suppleness plays an equally important role in the horse’s relaxation. A horse that is stiff or rigid in any part of his body will not be capable of utilizing his body effectively, thus resulting in irregular gaits, unwillingness and a general displeasure in his work.

What to do … The first major test of relaxation is to find out if your horse will stretch its head and neck forwards and down in all three gaits.  In order to work effectively on R&R you need to work on your own balance and not rely on the reins or gripping with the legs for support.  (long and low)

As ever, have fun with it!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



on the bitHello there Dressage enthusiasts …

I have received a message from a ‘Real Life Rider’ who is “struggling with a green horse curling at any contact and getting anxious and rushy when asked to rebalance and slow the tempo”.

My Advice: 

Maintenance of the contact or for your horse to ‘accept the bit’ she must have total trust and be relaxed with your hands (via the reins) in the mouth.  To truly have a horse on the bit or to have your horse accept the bit will take many months of hard and sometimes frustrating work.

Curling, or over-bending is the lesser of the evils associate with bad contact.  You must keep your horse going forward and as you say work on the tempo. However, don’t be tempted to slow too much with a horse that over-bends; much better that you stay forward, even TOO forward initially until the curling is sorted.  Slowing will just settle the horse into a false sense of security and will be more difficult to deal with.

So, send her forward and give forward slightly with the rein from the elbow.  If she leans or pulls – work on transitions.  You should, as soon as possible, take a light but positive contact with the reins.

You should work on short bursts of hard work.  Take up the contact, send her forward, be real steady in your hands, hold her in position, work the arena to keep her thinking and then, back to walk and drop the contact to the buckle end allowing her to stretch.

If she has worked hard enough her nose will hit the floor!  This will start to build the top line and musculature she needs to hold herself in the contact.

If your horse pulls on the reins in an effort to go faster, then you should do many (and I really mean many) downward transitions and repeatedly give and re-take the reins.  This will encourage balance and rhythm on a lighter contact.

Use the exercise of spiralling in and out of a circle laterally. i.e. Making the circle smaller, say 10 meters, with the outside leg, then make the circle bigger, say 20 meters, from the inside leg and a soft or giving inside rein.

on the bit

Change the rein often.

When you feel your horse has stopped pulling on the inside rein, use your inside hand with the inside rein to stroke your horse’s neck. This has two benefits.

  • Firstly it rewards the horse for not pulling on the inside rein.
  • Secondly it will prove to you that you do not need the inside rein to bend or turn your horse.

If you are struggling with contact issues, enter the word ‘contact’ into the search at the top of the page and you will get all my posts relating to this issue.

Here to help!

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster



I was reading a study the other day by ISES (International Society for Equitation Science) in which Dr Andrew McLean and Professor Paul McGreevy suggest that “Patting – rather than stroking – may not be the positive reinforcer we think it is”.

In this report McGreevy cited unpublished data that shows that 2/3 (two thirds) of horses at the 2012 Olympics accelerated on being patted, whereas horses stroked on the wither displayed more ‘affiliative behaviour’ Power(friendlier for those of us who don’t speak equitation science).

This theory is not new and was bought to my attention many years ago.  It is suggested that giving a little rub on the wither will help lower a horses heart-rate and settle them better than a pat.

For me the issue is not should we pat or should we not pat – it is how the pat is delivered that is the key. A hearty loud slap on the neck may not mean much to a horse and for me a quiet, delicate touch that sends a gentle sensation through the horse creates a much more pleasant sensation and as with everything in dressage, when you are pleased with your horse and you want to reward him – less is more!

patMy personal view is that I’m not sure how necessary it is to make a scientific study of the subject.  Most equestrians know when their horse reacts positively to the delivery of their reward (be it a gentle pat or a scratch) whether the delivery is right or not and given that horses learn through repetition the hearty slap might not feel the best but if this is what you do when you have just finished the jump off and you have gone clear, it will be associated with pleasing circumstances and a happy rider.  Surely this will therefore reinforce the positive outcome.


Bit like the ‘Pile On Celebration’ in team sports.

Can’t imagine for a minute that it feels good physically but it sure does feel good emotionally!

  • Any thoughts? What do you think about the patting principal?
  • Given that most scientific studies throw up more questions than answers. What do you think about science in equestrianism?
  • Is this type of study helpful? Necessary?

Patricia – The Dressage Tipster







BreathePromoting relaxation when you ride is really quite simple, when you know how.  You should breathe.  Yes, I know you are breathing, but are you really breathing or are you just breathing?

Try this exercise to promote relaxation.  Your breathing must be a little deliberate – put one hand on your stomach and the other hand on your shoulder.

Walk your horse. 

  • Inhale. Keeping your shoulders down, let your stomach expand and get “fat” while you keep your shoulders down. By doing so, you’re lowering your diaphragm and taking in a really deep breath.
  • Exhale. Keep your back straight (don’t collapse in the saddle), and feel your seat getting heavier in the saddle.

 It’s as simple as that … the better you breathe, the more quickly you’ll get relaxation.

Patricia –  The Dressage Tipster


Are you aware you have Arms?

Feel your arms down by your sides and relax them from the shoulder.

The sensation of feeling your arms gently against your side will automatically bend your elbows, give you soft shoulders and soft giving hands.

This very small element of posture correction has been a huge positive force in my riding. Feeling my arms by my sides gives me a sense of what is happening with my upper body. If I am leaning forwards or backwards I feel it with my arms.

Now I am not a student of the Classical Masters, but one of the things (and there are many others) that I always notice about the Classical Masters photographs is the way they hold their arms. Or should I say, the way their arms look so soft and effortless. You get the sense that all the messages are coming just from the fingers.

Next time you are on board make a conscious decision to be aware of your arms. Notice when they are by your sides how much more “at one” with your horse you feel. As soon as you start flapping those elbows you will feel the difference in your horse. Somehow, gently feeling your arms by your sides gives you a reassuring feeling of control! Try it and let me know how you get on.



Patricia – The Dressage Tipster