View Full Version : Relaxation

Jun. 14, 2011, 01:45 PM
I'm seeking tips and training advice for improving my horse's ability to relax. He has a tendency to be fairly hot and forward, and also inattentive. He gets tense and looky in new situations. Last weekend we went to our first dressage test and didn't score very well. (61% and 65% at Intro--I know we can do better!) The majority of the judge's comments were along the lines of "Tense," "Hollowing back", and in the collective marks, "Shows some desire to come through back, but tension hinders it." Also she commented on his inconsistency in the bridle, which I think is also a direct result of tension. So we know what we need to work on--now how to get there from here?

Give and Take
Jun. 14, 2011, 02:00 PM
So the more consistent you can be in what you ask and your response to his questions will improve things over time. It will take time but consistency is the key.

Even if he changes his response (one day calm, next day flying sideways, etc) your response has to stay consistent so he trusts in the structure and safety you provide.

The tenseness will decline but in my experience, the ones that are sensitive can be great performers in the ring once they trust in your response.

good luck!

Jun. 14, 2011, 03:16 PM
Bending, soft, always return to long, low and stretchy. For my horse shoulder in seems to be a big key to softness.

I'm amazed how much my naturally tense horse's back can MOVE compared to what he was like a year ago. Relaxation will always be the one thing we have to return to again and again. He's just not naturally relaxed through his body, and it's the key to getting everything else right.

I try to have days I ride almost exclusively on the buckle, asking for lateral movement off my legs, spiraling in and out of circles, etc. It gets him to stretch over the top and keep loose enough to be ready to move sideways at any point. Obviously I don't sit the trot those days. You will have to figure out a routine for your horse to see what works, but that's part of my unconventional (at least according to what you'll see on this board!) way of getting him relaxed. He is naturally high-headed, so the stretch down requires he lift the base of his neck on his own, and having to do it in full self-carriage just works for him, for getting him lifting but soft in his back.

I don't know from your post if you get the relaxation at home or not, or if you just mean the jumpiness is a trouble at shows. Some thoughts you should feel free to disregard if they don't apply:

At shows, we have a completely different story and lack of relaxation. He is a wreck, and it's not a fun thing. He definitely needs miles, but we discussed with the vet and are pretty sure he needs ulcerguard when going to shows, too. If your horse is always nervous and jumpy it's possible that's needed. It could also be related to feed or turnout.

My horse also gets jumpy and nervous when his energy builds up too much. When we were in a boarding situation with no included turnout, he would run and run when I turned him out. We actually ended up building facilities at a new house so he could have a 1 acre run off his stall which is proving to be the best thing which ever happened to his mind. Some horses need that space, so if your horse seems to need it and you can switch to a situation with increased turnout (if you don't already have that, since I have no idea your situation) you may want to try it.

Jun. 14, 2011, 03:33 PM
Thanks for the replies! netg, he is pretty much equally tense at home vs. at the show. It was just that there was more to look at at the show. He's not exactly nervous or spooky--just excited! He loves to work, loves to go--it's just going to be a matter of channeling and focusing that enthusiasm.

Also, he is turned out 24/7. That has made a huge difference in his attitude and rideability. :)

Jun. 14, 2011, 03:59 PM
yes, turn out or if available a hotwalker is good for the horse.

Do a lot of low and deep riding, so the horse reaches for the contact, and so he works "over the back". also you could try and put some interesting things in/around the arena like chairs, tents, or other stuff.

Jun. 14, 2011, 04:10 PM
Here's a video if anyone wants to watch our test. This is Intro A, which scored 61%. Our second test was better but I don't have video of it.


Jun. 14, 2011, 05:03 PM
From watching the video - are you asking him to lower his head via your hands? They seem very spread apart and there were several times where his headset seemed to be determined by your hands.

If this is the case - STOP!!! The engagement needs to come from behind. The largest thing I felt was that your hands were so wide that (imo) you were not quite as effective as necessary in pushing him inside leg to outside rein, because of this. Due to the tension, he keeps his body quite straight and so his circles almost become square and angular. You want to softly push him into a bend. If he ignores your leg on some circles, that's okay - just keep being persistent in trying to push him inside leg to outside hand, into that bend. In fact, I would ask for a circle until I get that bend and softness from him, then instantly release and reward.

Notice how he drops his head and he engages a little more going into circles? Circles (and lateral work, for example) naturally require a horse to engage and balance more, so use that. Circular exercises are your friend ;) I always recommend the books: 101 Dressage Exercises for Horse & Rider and Progressive Schooling Exercises for Dressage & Jumping (by Islay Auty) - great books with a ton of exercises that progressively build and start at the bottom of the training scale (when done correctly), with relaxation. I find it takes a little longer to develop that same consistency that you obtain on a circle, on a straight line (particularly a long one). The exercises in the latter book however, for example, contain exercises that start with circles and start introducing straight lines and developing consistency in such.

Last recommendation: when he does soften and bend, release (ie, drop down to the walk and go on the buckle a minute) - even completely halt and rub him in that moment. Give him a short rest break for his current lesson (ie, the reward of his softening) to allow the lesson to sink in. "Expect much, reward little" - reward small steps and build off that, increasingly expecting and rewarding more. Plenty of halts and rubs will help encourage and induce relaxation throughout the session. So simple, but highly effective!

Aside from the above (the very first part might not be applicable, that was just my impression based on what I saw), I have to echo what everyone else here has posted thus far. As netg said, you have to find what works for your horse - for my nervous wreck, lateral work such as leg yields are specifically what work best for us to loosen his barrel and get him relaxed. Consistency also is crucial. Just keep plugging away at the right exercises and it will come.

Jun. 14, 2011, 05:37 PM
YEP, I do have my hands too wide, as well as too low. I know, it's a bad habit. I didn't realize just how low and wide they are until I saw this video. I'm not consciously trying to "set his head" with my hands (although I admit my subconscious brain probably thinks that will work), it's just a poor riding habit that I have. I'm working on fixing it.

Thanks for the tips on books. I have the 101 Exercises one on my shelf--I'll have to pull it out and start using it.

Jun. 14, 2011, 05:55 PM
While I do not keep my hands low and wide, I have another just-as-bad habit (pertaining to my hands) I just figured out I was doing subconsciously too, lol. I was also doing it for similar reasons - not to consciously set my guy's head, but to keep him bent and thus relaxed. It's easy to fall into and it is not until someone points it out and/or you can see it on video, that you realize and can correct. I had no idea I was doing it until a clinician pointed it out - as soon as I stopped there was a huge change in my horse ;)

Anyway, there were some fantastic suggestions above mine so I think if you re-set your hands and then focus on consistency and exercises that encourage relaxation, and be sure to take a lot of rest-and-rub breaks, the relaxation will come :)

Jun. 18, 2011, 09:41 AM
Try reading lessons in lightness by Mark Russell, the ground work exercises has really helped my horse. I do them before every single ride.

Jun. 18, 2011, 10:29 AM
Jane Savoie has a great exercise that she calls the Valium exercise...it really works with my very tense, sensitive young horse...much information is posted on the Internet about the exercise..her dressage mentor program is remarkable in making a huge difference in my riding..I recommend it to everyone..monthly videos, audios etc.

Carol O
Jun. 18, 2011, 11:09 AM
Transitions, transitions, transitions. Between gaits, within the gaits, and especially bends. Keep them coming so quickly that he does not have time to concentrate on anything but you. Focus on his rhythm while you are doing the transitions, especially the changes in bend from right to left.

You will notice that when he gets looky, the first thing to change will be the rhythm, even before his head goes up to focus on whatever he would rather pay attention to. The millisecond when the rhythm changes is your moment to remind him to pay attention to you. That is the moment to shake things up a bit with a change in the bend. Be quick. Be careful that when he looks at whatever, that you do not follow him, and look for whatever is getting his attention. Make him pay attention to you with transitions coming so quickly, that everything else is background.

Good luck!

Jun. 18, 2011, 01:29 PM
I like your horse... probably because I used to have one just like him. I think once you can get him to relax and engage you two will do very nicely together.

For what it's worth, showing never became "easy" for my previous horse, but with LOTS of miles she did improve.

This is what I did:

A lot of lunging over the course of about three months. I lunged my horse about three days per week in Vienna reins (make sure they are set so the horse can poke its nose a little in front of vertical) and this truly helped her. Not only did this help her to develop her muscles properly, but she learned to become balanced as well. Often times horses like yours are simply out of balance when asked to come onto the bit, and the Viennas really help with this.

This may sound counter-intuitive, but sitting the trot on horses like yours can be a Godsend. It took a LONG time before I could post on my horse without her running around with her nose out. Develop a good seat by riding without stirrups for about a month, and then continue riding without them once a week or so. The more you ride horses like this with your seat and legs the happier and calmer they tend to be. Keep your hands as quiet and together as possible. Never move your hands to take up contact with the horse... your horse needs to seek contact with the reins.

Do as many transitions and half-halts as you can. My horse was calmer doing walk/canter and canter/walk transitions at first, but start with whatever is best for your horse. Demand that they are crisp and timely. Use your corners and begin to ride inside leg to outside rein in them. Also, start riding shoulder-fore down the long side of your arena... again riding inside leg to outside rein and use half-halts or transitions to rebalance your horse as needed. Eventually this will develop into shoulder-in.

In nice weather cut your training short once or twice per week and go on a trail ride, a gallop, or do a little jumping. You may find that inclusion of these kinds of activities improve your horse's attitude even more.

Jun. 18, 2011, 01:31 PM
as you knoiw your horse is very tense and inverted and because of this he cant relax, bend etc.

so, what is the bottom of the training scale? relaxation and rhythm and altho not stated lateral bend/suppleness.

if this were my horse i would spend a good bit of time on bended lines working on rhythm, relaxation and roundness of the circles. paying strict attention to how correct teh circle is, how even your tempo is, etc. the work will help him relax and come down into the contact.

you can also do leg yields head to wall asking him to cross over (at walk!) if he is doing teh LY correctly he will do a "yes" response with his neck and come down into the contact.

i would also bring my hands together and make sure you have even feel on both reins... in general this means you will have to give on his heavier rein. and be sure you can see his eyelashes of his inside eye.

the goal, in the beginning is only even tempo and bend. these will help the horse relax and come onto the bit.

also be sure you dont have hands of ice (ie frozen) hands should be alive (but no sea sawing!) ....

i think if you found a good trainer they would have you going correctly in a short amount if time.

good luck.

Jun. 20, 2011, 12:16 PM
Jane's "Valium" exercise...


Jun. 20, 2011, 10:10 PM
Thanks for all the feedback! I will definitely check out the Valium link. The good news is that I'm working on a lot of the suggestions already. We do the majority of our riding outside the ring--on trails, fields, and dirt roads--due to lack of access to a ring, so he has really come a LONG way in relaxing under those conditions. He started out being virtually unrideable when alone on the trail/road, and now we can hack out on the buckle, so that's progress.

I am working with a trainer, but I've only had two lessons on my own horse. I took weekly lessons on her third level pony over the winter, and I feel like I made a lot of improvement. Now I need to translate that to my own horse. I'm also having her school him once a week in addition to my lessons. Here they are:

http://a4.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-snc6/263592_10150291511289073_692569072_9187344_1606881 _n.jpg

Jun. 20, 2011, 10:15 PM
Are you an eventer? If so, lessons with a dressage instructor would be really helpful.