Classical Training: The Art of Letting Go

Sun, 09/23/2012 - 10:30
Veins emerging on a Grand Prix dressage horse
Photo © Astrid Appels
Training Your Horse

There is a huge difference between a firm and effective rider, and a firm and forceful rider. The difference lies in the art of letting go: knowing when to release the pressure, soften the reins, relax the legs. The art of knowing when to say "thank you" and these thank yous must be obvious.

When the horse relaxes really give the rein and make it really clear that his relaxation corresponds with the total relaxation of yourself as a rider.

"Make it a habit to praise when the horse yields."
N.Oliveira (1998, 17).

When the horse "yields" always remember it is better to reward too much than not enough. If you don’t make the reward clear to the horse you risk confusing him as to what you want and next time he will be reluctant to soften or will simply not soften at all!

"It is always better to risk losing the contact a little, than not to yield at all."

N.Oliveira (1998, 30).

A firm yet effective rider will demand consistency and submission, but will achieve this long term by telling the horse clearly when he has done the right thing. Yet the hard part is that even the best trainer in the world can't tell you exactly when to soften. They can tell you when you should have softened, but as riders we must learn to feel the split second the horse relaxes through his body and accepts what the rider is asking.

The best way to help you feel when the horse softens, and thus learn the art of letting go, is at the halt. Halt the horse on the long side, and move your inside hand down and out, and remaining at halt, give a small squeeze on the rein, to flex his jaw towards the inside.
The minute he softens his mouth towards you, release and pat! This is the basis for the softening in all the other work and so until he learns to yield in response to a slight squeeze of the rein at the halt, you will never establish true self carriage and suppleness in all the rest.

"The hands have to be like concrete when the horse resists and like butter when he yields."

N.Oliveira (1998, 29).

Legs, hips and in fact your entire body are no different and you must learn when to apply and when to relax the aids, as quickly and as sensitivily as possible. A good way to test the sensitivity and efectiveness of your legs is at the walk! On a small circle, using bend to the inside with a soft and relaxed inside rein aid, apply your inside leg lightly onto the horse's side and gently allow him to move away from your inside leg on a smal circle, pushing the quarters but keeping the shoulders stepping across also. If the horse moves easily off your leg you relax immediately and reward him.
If not apply the aid harder, then back off and ask again softly, until you have him moving off a light leg aid.

Then during the work you must remember the same feeling and when the horse moves away from your leg, or forwrard as you ask him too, relax the aid. Your legs should not be constantly on, they should ask and then relax and wait until they are needed again to remind, or to introduce a new exercise.

Hips are also crucial in not only the relaxation of the horse's back, but also in the effectiveness of all the other aids. If a rider is tightening in the hip then they will usually also be drawing their legs up and pressing into the horse's sides constantly. A relaxed and open hip, allows movement in the legs and enables the rider effectielvey apply and then relax the leg aid in correspondance with the horse's stride. We as riders can ask for perfection, but the talent comes from knowing when to push and when to back off!

"Don't play the master all the time. The difficulty is to feel to what extent one has to intervene."
N.Oliveira (1998, 17).

The extent of reward and intervention also depends on the horse's ability, age, and stage of training. If you are working with a stiff horse, that is still learning how to relax and loosen through his body, you must reward him the very second he yields to your flexion, stroking him and telling him that he has done what you want. However, if you are on an experienced horse, which is very good and very used to stretching and working through his back, you can demand more and only relax on him when he gives you his full relaxation first!

The second important thing to let go as a rider is your own frustration. We are all guilty of it, feeling we are not getting anywhere or annoyed that our horse constantly attempts to stiffen and become tense, so that we too, in response, stiffen and become tense, which of course only exacerbates the situation.

"When a horse gets nervous during a new exercise, one has to calm him down during the exercise. Otherwise he will get nervous every time we ask something more or something new from him."
N.Oliveira (1998, 17).

As riders we need to learn to release our agitation, put aside our impatient impulses, and calm the horse, hoping that the more times we remind him that nothing is going to happen, the more he will realise that he can in fact relax!

"The hand should be a filter, not a plug or an open faucet."
N.Oliveira (1998, 30).

by Sarah Warne for Eurodressage

Related Link
Check out Sarah Warne's Classical Training articles on Eurodressage

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