A great principle for the entire conduct of dressage is to have the right dose, first of relaxation and second, of the necessary energy. In fact, the horse is not a machine, but a living being. Therefore, riders must know what dose of relaxation and degree of vigour to employ with each horse.
What we often see is a rider who is asking for more impulsion WITHOUT first establishing relaxation and instead of watching an artful dressage test, we see a boxing match as the rider attempts to bang and crash their way through a test aboard a stiff plank.
We cannot ask a horse for more expression until it is relaxed and the most obvious sign that a rider is asking for expression without relaxation is that the horse becomes tense in the neck, comes back off the contact, and the rider then begins to pull on the horse’s mouth and push with the legs in unison, generating more and more tension, and a less and less happy horse.
Often we see riders pushing the horse forward in the walk by thrusting the torso. I don’t like this, and I find that riders who do this actually override the walk. A rider with feel should go with the horses walk, and allow the horse to walk out by thinking of relaxing the hips and taking the thighs off the horse.
The rider can then use flexion to the inside, with a relaxed inside leg to help the horse engage and become more loose through the body.
The signs that the horse is relaxed can be seen in transitions. A horse that is released will come easily to the halt, just off the riders seat aids, without the rider needing to pull the reins…The horse will then remain at halt until the rider asks him to move off!
Then if you feel that you can do relaxed and forward transtions, you can start to add collection, but not keeping the horse in collection for too long.
It is not enough to get a relaxed trot and then think “Oh great, well that’s done now I can do all collected work,” as a good rider will constantly adjust the horse, maintaining the relaxation throughout the session by adjusting the position of the neck, the degree of impulsion, the tempo, the rhythm, asking the horse to engage both mentally and physically in order to employ all its muscle at different stages and at different degrees.
So, how to first get the relaxation and recognise that the horse is relaxed?
Carl Hester spoke at the Dressage Convention about first getting the horse relaxed at the walk. This is a crucial part of training and a rider should not begin to trot until the horse will stretch out in a relaxed, rhythmic, walk.
However, if your horse begins the lesson a little spooky, it is often best to do a little trot first and then come back to get the horse relaxed at the walk.
A relaxed horse will allow his rider to let his frame come out and open, without rushing or charging forward and without falling forward on the shoulders.
If a horse can walk out in a longer frame and maintain the swing and push from the back to the front, the horse is relaxed and you can begin the trot work in the same relaxed attitude.
If the horse can not walk with his neck stretched out into the contact, I would start with a nice contact, elastic to the horses mouth, even if he is a little behind, and then use a little leg until you can ease the rein out and he understands that you are asking him to take the rein out. This takes time, and gentle aids, and must encourage the horse to find the stretch.
Nuno Oliviera used to stress the point that a rider should not work physically hard on the horse and so the key to a good riding technique, is to engage the horse, and create impulsion, without looking like you are running a marathon uphill.
“The criteria of a good rider is a rider that we cease to notice, and we only watch the horse.”
So how then does a rider employ the necessary energy, without increasing their force or physically work load employed on top of the horse?
By using the aids effectively and at the right moment, so that the horse will learn to carry himself.
My trainer often tells me not to be afraid to let the mistake happen, meaning that I sometimes need to let Batialo loose his impulsion for a second and then touch him up, in order to prevent my pushing him all the time.
Sometimes a rider needs to test the limits so that they can push forward that bit further each time, allowing the horse to grow strong without the constant push from the rider.
A rider that we cease to watch, is one that can touch the horse at the exact right moment, and then release the aid immediately, so the horse learns to keep his own momentum and engagement without the constant “crutch” of his rider’s aids.
“Dressage consists of finding a way to get the horse to employ itself to the maximum in the chosen exercise and then maintain the work without the help of the aids. A trained horse is a supple horse, pleasant to ride, happy and not a horse that gesticulates.” (Nuno Oliveira)
A rider with effective aids, does not necessarily need to be strong physically, but must have the timing, and accuracy of mind, that sends a clear message to the horse.
“The best judge to appreciate the quality of the rider’s aids is the horse. Look at his attitude, his ears, his eye, that tell the truth by their expression.” (Nuno Oliveira)
To achieve a horse that can go along alone and a rider that we cannot see because their aids are subtle and efficient, we first need to relax ourselves, so we can feel what our horse is doing. And to relax effectively you need a balanced position yourself.
Then, when we can feel that our horse is relaxed, and we can give him a touch to say “come on, a bit more please”.
This is not the important part. The important part is after the touch and too many riders then touch again, and again, and again, until their touch is just one giant pronounced constant push, that tells the horse he does not need to respond to a light aid because the aid will just stay on all the time.
If your horse doesn’t respond to a light touch, touch again a little firmer, and release when you get a response.
If your horse stops when you release your aids, something is not right, as you cannot increase the impulsion or engagement if your horse cannot first keep himself in a forward movement when his rider is relaxed.
The degree of vigour we must employ on each horse does vary, as some horses are naturally more sensitive than others, but the golden rule is, first relax, both horse and rider, then ask once and collect information.
Sometimes the most important thing to remember for both rider and horse relaxation, is to focus on breathing. You can do this at home when you start the lesson, big breathe in, and big breathe out, and try to feel the horse underneath you. Another good relaxation exercise is to ask for shoulder-in or shoulder-fore on a small circle, as this engages the horse, and helps him to listen to you, and thus relax in the process.