I had a note from Anna who is struggling with tension in her horse and all the associated issues and whilst I have regularly written on the subjects of Rhythm and Relaxation it occurred to me that I have not really addressed tension and how to deal with it.
The enemy of harmony is tension; rhythm and relaxation are at the base of the dressage training scale and the biggest challenge to relaxation is tension. It is both mental and physical the tension that causes tightness in a horse’s body which in turn makes the horse uncomfortable and unhappy.
T – Train
E – Extra Work
N – No Doubt
S – Shallow Loops
I – Inhale, exhale
O – On the side
N – Nurture
The little mnemonic above might help you remember some strategies whilst you are riding, that will assist when the dreaded tension creeps into your riding.
T is for TRAIN
As you ride be aware that you are sitting on your horse’s spine and that spine extends from poll to tail without interruption; just as the muscles do. The muscles of the top-line: neck, back and croup merge into one another and besides their individual function, work as a whole.
Image : www.equi-therapyuk.com
Energy travels through your horse’s spine and rooted in the spinal cord there is a complex network of nerves sending and receiving signals to and from his brain. You need to think about ‘riding the spine’ from poll to tail without blocking the energy flow. We all know about the analogy of riding your shapes, corners and circles like a train instead of a boat. Whilst you think about that in your riding, think of your horse’s spine as a train with many carriages, each vertebrae is another carriage and you need to create bend slowly and with empathy, without sudden or exaggerated angles so as not to ‘de-rail’ any carriages.
Ride the spine carefully. Be aware of it when you sit on your horse, because you need to do all you can to avoid damaging nerve endings which can lead to co-ordination problems and much worse.
To create a supple, tension free horse you too must be flexible and tension-free. By encouraging your horse to work with a top-line that is in no way short or tense, with forwardness in the gaits that are unhurried, you can develop regularity in the gaits. As your horse’s body begins to softy arch from tail to poll (assuming the horse does not have any spinal misalignment or incorrect muscling) the back will automatically rise underneath you and, over time, strengthen.
You will notice that I slipped in the ‘F’ word there. Use forward motion to let your horse’s spine and the body organise itself. Bottom line is that you can push your horse this way and pull it that way to make it straight or you can allow him to do the job himself by riding him softly into two even reins, allowing the network of nerves to send the correct message to the brain.
Just like a train would be unable to travel forward if any of the carriages are askew, any time a joint’s motion is restricted or blocked it impacts every other joint in the body, especially the vertebral joints, and your horse’s ability to move freely forward, thereby creating tension.
E is for EXTRA WORK
We all know that nothing worth having comes easy and when the tension you are experiencing is the result of an evasive nature the solution is sometimes to work through the tension until your horse shows real relaxation.
For a horse with innate, uncomfortable muscle tension, walking and standing around can make things worse rather than better. The tension in this type of horse will not release by itself, it will just keep getting tighter. Working the horse to the point where the muscles relax for lack of ability to really hold tension is a good starting point to getting the horse feeling mentally more relaxed.
The problem with this strategy is that when you come to ride the next day, your horse’s muscles are likely to be more tense AND tired. Please note: I am not advocating that you work a horse showing slight signs of tension this way, nor am I saying that you should run the horse into the ground. Far from it, I am asking the horse to use itself and not allow the evasions it can use and keep the tension in his muscles; working in a way that gets his muscles softer instead of holding tension.
Contrary to what we think if we consider our own tension, if you let the horse take it easy he won’t be working out the tension in those muscles. Just slightly pushing, not enough to create an issue, but enough to challenge the tension will cause the muscles to start to loosen up as they are forced to go beyond the range they want to stick to.
N is for NO DOUBT
Whatever the problem, the most important thing when dealing with a horse’s tension is you; your horse can not reason out why he feels this way, just that it is not comfortable and avoiding working properly as a result, without understanding that the avoidance is making things worse.
There is no room for ‘trying’ in training your horse, you must make things black and white for him because he can sense if you are not sure, he will react and become tense. Mark often says to me that I ride ‘too politely’ and what I get from my horse as a result is tension and uncertainty. I hold her back with my ‘not sure about this’ mindset.
Try to – hey no, no room for trying in dressage! – DO, dump this attitude, be positive of the outcome and focus your very being on achieving it. That way tension will not sneak into your body thereby ensuring the self-fulfilling prophecy plays out and that your work will not be good.
S is for SHALLOW LOOPS
Image courtesy of www.thedigitalhorse.com
For the horse which is becoming tense, or where tension creeps in and out of the work an exercise I rely on to help become more balanced and supple is to ride shallow loops. On the long side, I ride a 10-12 meter loop and include a circle on the short side, beginning with a 20m circle and reduce the size of the loop and the circles as my horse becomes more comfortable and her flexibility increases. Onto the second shallow loop on the long side whilst at all times checking that I am not blocking my horse and that the gaits are rhythmical.
It is quite important to vary exercises and not keep any position fixed for more than a few moments so that the muscles of your horse remain supple and tension does not have the time to creep in and create stiffness. I always give my horse walk breaks and allow her to look around and she gets rewarded with a pat which releases the rein for the smallest try. Your horse needs to be fresh, attentive and relaxed so do not drill him, instead make sure he understands what you are asking so that he remains calm, keen and confident. That way mental tension does not creep in and create muscle stiffness.
I is for INHALE
Remember to breathe, remember to stay soft, and remember to be patient. Not breathing properly has a huge impact on any form of physical exercise. A lack of oxygen in the body causes weakened coordination and then the muscle loses strength. In riding, this coordination is more important than strength.
Try counting how often you rise at the trot compared to how often you inhale and then count how often you post for every exhale. Now try to ensure that it takes a little longer to exhale. This will guarantee better oxygen saturation in your whole body and better muscle effectiveness.
Listen to your horse’s breathing and learn his signs. Listen to your horse’s breathing – when you start to get outward puffs, it’s the horse starting to release tension. Every breath you share with your horse is a legitimate cue to your horse. If you breathe fast and shallow you will signal to your horse that you are anxious and so should he be. If your breathing is regulated and deliberate you will encourage relaxation in your horse.
O is for ON THE SIDE
Working sideways or laterally encourages your horse to release tension. Of course if your horse is ‘too tense’ you shouldn’t even begin with lateral work, but you can try some shoulder-fore or haunches-in in walk to see if you can set this up as a trigger for relaxation.
Lateral flexibility leads to longitudinal flexibility and asking your horse to go forward and back within the gait, pushing just a little and then backing off will create just enough challenge to focus your horse’s mind and body sufficiently to encourage a release of tension. You should start to feel a slightly different horse underneath you. Remember that, despite the common use of many transitions between gaits to engage the hind end, in a tense horse those rapid transitions will only increase tension so use changes of gait and moving in and out of lateral work sparingly. Simply use it to experiment, it works for some combinations and not for others, it really depends on the type or tension you are dealing with.
N is for NURTURE
The idea is to work out the tension and where a horse is holding a lot of tension and is considered a ‘highly strung’ character the starting point in training relaxation is to stay within his comfort zone. Really can’t believe I am saying this, but when your horse is at his most tense, during those times when you feel he is most volatile, it would serve you well to stick with his best gait, the gait he feels comfortable in, which for most horses will be canter.
Staying within his comfort zone where he is relatively happy will enable you to add in the other strategies until you have trained your horse to accept relaxation. Initially this might mean working your horse until he’s a little tired, but in time you will train the triggers which will serve as a reminder to your horse to relax.
Your horse will start to connect these exercises with the feeling of released tension and start to learn how to release the tension more easily and happily. Changes of bend and transitions will not help this type of tension you are better staying in one gait for a while and riding beyond the point where he starts to relax in order to teach correct, relaxed movement. If you stop at the point you get relaxation, tension will immediately return.
With this holistic approach and ensuring that you are working to fix any positional issues you may have (so that you don’t create resistance to the forward movement) you and your horse can reach a point where any tense moments can be utilised as positive energy, being channelled into amazing forwardness, with impulsion and a sensitive, happy horse.
Every time you interact with your horse consider how you are influencing his body and mind. Your job is to understand that horses don’t know how to do it themselves, it is you that must figure out how to best work with your horse to help release any tension in a constructive and positive way. Because if you do not help your horse work through the tension he will find his own way to release it and this is usually interpreted as behavioural problems. Listen to your horse, find the cause and work with him to resolve.
So there you have 7 strategies (T-E-N-S-I-O-N) for helping to release tension in your horse. Hope you find something to help.
Best wishes as always