The feeling of relaxation on a horse is something I have been thinking much about. I set out to ask the question what relaxation is? How do riders tell if their horse is relaxed? Can a horse be relaxed in the body, but not in the mind and vice versa? How does someone watching tell if the horse is relaxed? How do trainers help advise riders to achieve a relaxed horse in competition?
There is a common misconception that for a rider to be truly relaxed, their muscles must not be tense. However, if a rider were to relax all there muscles on top of the horse he would blob about with little balance and be ineffective. A top rider can maintain tension, a strong core that allows him to remain centred, and also be able to coordinate his muscles in order to tense and relax them at the right time and in the right sequence. Once we can understand how this concept works for us as riders we can more easily understand how relaxation works in our horse.
Dr. Hilary Clayton —equestrian, veterinarian, author, researcher, and clinician — is known internationally for her ongoing contribution to the understanding of equine biomechanics, particularly relating to performance and conditioning. According to Hilary relaxation is certainly both a physical and mental state.
“Some horses are, by nature, more anxious and more likely to become nervous or agitated – these horses can be brilliant when partnered by a sympathetic rider or they can be unpredictable or physically tense in the hands of a rider who does not realise the need for calmness and the need to maintain the confidence of these horses. One of the characteristics of a good rider is the ability to “read” different horses and adapt to their individual needs to produce an optimal performance for that horse,” Hilary told Eurodressage.
It’s clear that a rider can help give a horse confidence if they are able and willing to understand the horse and adjust their training according to the horse's needs as Hilary suggests. But how does a rider judge if the horse is physically or mentally tense? Can one exist without the other?
“Mental tension can increase physical tension. For example, the horse that becomes anxious may grind his teeth. (Of course there are other reasons for teeth grinding – hence the emphasis on the trainer being aware of the horse’s mental state in order to know the difference). Also the neck and back muscles and the horse’s posture will often change in a way that is not compatible with good dressage performance when the horse experiences mental tension. Some of the signs of mental tension ARE as simple as the horse being inattentive, raising or turning the head and neck to focus on distractions, or even the way the ears are carried,” said Hilary.
Beyond the physical signs of mental tension in a horse, Hilary added that horses do not learn when they are mentally stressed and this can certainly present a problem in training.
“Therefore, it is important for horses to be mentally relaxed in order to perform well, to avoid exerting themselves more than is necessary to do their work and to allow them to learn and perform to the best of their ability.”
It’s clear therefore that mental tension increases physical tension, and therefore makes relaxation of the muscles more difficult. However, one of the common misconceptions regarding relaxation is the belief that relaxation in training equals a total lack of tension in the muscles.
“Of course, this is not true,” Hilary explained. “There has to be muscle tension in order to stand up, graze, move around or perform dressage. The more appropriate question is how much muscle tension and in which muscles.”
A second misconception, according to Hilary, is that a muscle acts alone in isolation from the other muscles.
“In fact, smooth, harmonious movement depends on co-activating groups of muscles that produce the desired movement while stabilizing the joints and coordinating the movements of one joint with the other joints. Therefore, coordinated muscular activity is the key to correct movement patterns," she explained. "When the horse is tense he may increase the activation of the “correct” muscle groups which results in un-necessary energy expenditure, and/or also activate other (unnecessary) muscles that interfere with the motion pattern.”
In other words, Hilary stressed, that it is in fact the coordination of muscle groups that determines the ability for smooth relaxed movements.
“The movements of the horse’s limbs are controlled by nerves in the spinal cord that dictate the regular flexions and extensions of the joints of each limb and the coordination patterns between different limbs. Horses show inherent differences in characteristics such as how expressive the limb movements are, whether the hind limb is raised and pulled forward quickly, and suppleness in the lateral movements. A good rider can emphasize the good qualities and improve the less desirable aspects of limb movements.”
In terms of dressage, however, relaxation is typically judged by the position of the horses head, neck and trunk, with riders hoping to achieve a rounded topline and a supple back.
“When we think about making the horse more supple we focus on optimizing the coordination patterns of the muscles that move the neck and back – in other words the muscles that move the inter-vertebral joints, the ribcage and the pelvis. The aim is to enable the horse to bend appropriately through the neck and back, to yield through the ribcage and to moves the pelvis symmetrically on the left and right sides. When the horse complies with these requests with minimal physical effort (from rider or horse) and without the horse resisting physically or mentally, we perceive this as a horse that is supple and relaxed.”
French team trainer Jan Bemelmans advises that for him the horse is relaxed when he is obedient and willing to follow the aids of the rider. The rider also has to be able to sit comfortably without any tension and with a good light contact to the bit ( mouth ) of the horse. German Olympian Ingrid Klimke added that “a relaxed horse is a happy horse, one that shows rhythmic breathing, a quiet tail, a swinging back, is foaming at the mouth and shows a happy eye”.
So in actual fact relaxation is not the absence of tension, but the appropriate amount of give and take throughout the horse's body, which enables the horse to produce activity without putting force or pressure that would cause a muscle imbalance.
"My definition of physical relaxation is that the horse performs the required movement with an appropriate amount of muscular tension,” says Hilary. “If we ask the horse to bend to the left, several muscles must contract on the left side of the body to bend the spine and to yield the ribcage. However, the pull of the flexing muscles is balanced by muscles on the opposite side of the joints. As these musles are being stretched, they also control the amount of flexion, ensure that movements are smooth and well coordinated, and stabilize the joints to prevent vibrations that predispose to the development of arthritis. The key concept is that coordination between musle groups is necessary for smooth, relaxed movement," Hilary concluded.
For me, this is why in dressage aids must be given with an opposing release and always in a smooth and even motion. If we take with one rein, we must allow with another, and when we take we must try to understand and feel the coordination of the horse's muscles. Take in a way that doesn't disturb, but rather reinforces the ability of the horse to coordinate his muscles in unison and in balance.
by Sarah Warne - Photos © Astrid Appels
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