Let’s Talk Training Scale! Part 1 – Relaxation

Relaxation: The mental factor

There is much talk about the German ‘Training Scale’ in the context of horse training and in many a barns – especially with dressage focus – we’ll find posters, images or signs on the walls, showing the 6 elements of the training scale or training pyramid.

GermanTrainingScale_RelaxSupple

Before we discuss the mental factors of relaxation, let’s remind ourselves of the origins of the German Training Scale:

The Training Scale (Skala der Ausbildung) first appears as a 6-step concept in the 1937 version of the “H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider”.  At the same time, Siegfried von Haugk – cavalry officer, head of the remount school Oschatz and co-author of the HDV12 – created an updated version of the army hand book on “Teaching Riding to Recruits”, which contained – for the first time – the description of the 6-step systematic training system in sequence as we know it today.  The HDV12 is – essentially – the basis for today’s FN Principles of Riding. The ‘principles’ were altered, however, to meet the needs of today’s recreational riders. In recent years, the panel responsible for the content of these principles has decided on a return to some of the original teachings of the HDV12 to ensure horse welfare.

While ‘Rhythm’ is the first element of the Training Scale and basic foundation in the schooling of the young horse, the late Olympic gold medalist Dr. Reiner Klimke valued Suppleness (Relaxation) above all. We can find suppling exercises in his and his daughter Ingrid’s books (for example Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country) as well as in the HDV12.

But are there preconditions for even getting to suppleness?
Is there a step before the step?

The answer is YES: We need to embark on a ‘Path to Relaxation/Suppleness’, meaning

  1. Eliminate any factors that cause the horse to brace
  2. Release any existing tension in the horse (and rider!)
  3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse

This ‘path’ never ends! It must be introduced before Suppleness can be expected. However, it is not a ‘step’ that we accomplish and then move on. We need to actively and consciously incorporate these three important ‘paths’ into our schooling – and the learning as well as the rewards will never stop.

Let’s look a little closer at these 3 elements on the path to suppleness

1. Eliminate factors that cause the horse to brace

Bracing is a reaction on part of the horse, where the horse protects himself against an external influence causing pain or discomfort. This can also be mental discomfort! In response, the horse will constantly contract muscles, not only fatiguing or even damaging these muscles, but also skeletal elements that these muscles are attached to. Relaxed, supple movement becomes impossible. Here some examples for factors that can cause bracing in the horse:

  • Ill-fitting tack
  • Incorrect use of spurs
  • Tightly adjusted bridles
  • Hard rider hands
  • Rider seat lacking suppleness
  • Inconsistent aids
    RTEmagicC_11_31_Losgelassenheit3.gif
    This horse is bracing in the head-neck junction and the upper neck.

    And more…

The goal: Identify those factors that cause bracing in your horse. Caution: This is not a ‘one fits all’ process, but a very individualized look at what your horse is expressing and an investigation into possible causes. Then eliminate these factors and replace with something that works for horse and rider, but allows the horse to move freely.

Note: Bracing is not always bad… When catching a basketball, you brace against the impact. The key is to be able to let go afterwards! Constant, habitual bracing is the problem.

2. Release existing tension in the horse (and rider)

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A simple Masterson Method exercise to release tension in the hind end.

Once certain bracing patterns or negative movement habits are established, the horse carries tension that he is unable to release himself. These tense, constantly contracted muscles, muscle spasms, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion translates into lack of suppleness. To get a fresh start on your Path to Performance™, you need to create a ‘clean slate’ by releasing tension and restriction and thus create the possibility of learning new movement or postural habits. For both rider and horse, this can be accomplished by:

  • Bodywork & massage
  • Guided exercises
  • Active stretching
  • Myiofascial release

And more…

The goal: Find areas where tension & restriction resides and release it through various modalities, enabling the body to find a whole new way of moving in a relaxed way.

3. Create mental relaxation through a non-confrontational dialogue with the horse

You are strolling down a busy street on a sunny Saturday afternoon – leisurely shopping pleasure. Suddenly, you hear a loud crash only a few yards away. A car accident! How does your body feel? Without any of your conscious doing, your body will show the typical human stress response posture: tucked in chest and abdominals, shoulders rounded forward, knees slightly bent, head moves forward (basically our modern ‘smart phone’ posture…) – and increased blood sugar and blood pressure, heart rate and sweating.

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This rehab horse had a tense facial expression upon arrival.

The horse – as a prey animal – has an even more fine-tuned physical response to stress. These physical responses can be so subtle, that we relatively loud-mouthed, always on the ‘go’ humans, do not even notice. Here a short list of the horse’s physical responses to stress:

  • Hollowed back or braced back
  • Holding abdominals tight (sheath makes wind-sucking noise when trotting)
  • Shallow, fast breath
  • Grinding teeth
  • Tight-lipped muzzle
  • Overall tension and short-striding

An many more….

The key to avoiding these physical stress responses is to eliminate stress. Easier said than done! Are you causing your horse stress? You may not think so. But once you experience truly non-confrontational dialog with your horse, you will see a difference.

The goal: Creating a relaxed mental platform on which horse and rider and interact productively without the barriers of stress response, which always leads to physical tension.

Got it? Got A-B-C covered? Then off you go, enjoy your success with Suppling Exercises!

If you have questions or would like to dive into these topics a little deeper, I recommend my seminar “Path to Performance™ I – Releasing Tension & Restriction”.

Here some more resources:

The Horse’s Pain-Free Back and Saddle-Fit Book

Basic Training of the Young Horse: Dressage, Jumping, Cross-country

Beyond Horse Massage: A Breakthrough Interactive Method for Alleviating Soreness, Strain, and Tension

H. Dv. 12 German Cavalry Manual: On the Training Horse and Rider

As always – be well and enjoy your horse!

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Stefanie Reinhold
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5 Things to Know about Shedding Time

Twice every year your horse changes his coat – from thin summer coat to thick winter coat and vice versa. Right now, our horses are shedding their thick coat and horse owners are working hard with various tools from massage curry, over shedding blade to shedding brushes with soft brass bristles to help their horse through the transition. But is that enough?

Is hair all there is to shedding?

Not at all. As the days get longer, your horse’s organism receives signals to change the coat – and body and metabolism are also experiencing significant changes. The horse has to produce a large number of proteins in order to create the new coat. This is an enormous feat!

Here 5 things you can do to help your horse through shedding time:

    1. Optimize nutrition & add oils

      Now that your horse’s body is working hard to not only come up with a complete new coat but also to adjust the metabolism to the changes in temperature, it is even more important to be especially diligent in balancing nutrition: Vitamins, especially biotin; minerals; herbs that stimulate the metabolism and the kidneys. Get in touch with your local horse feed specialist to fine-tune your horse’s nutrition during this important time. Healthy oils and essential fatty acids (such as Eo 3 Omega-3 Supplement For Horses) help your horse grow a healthy new coat. Calculate the right amount and follow manufacturer’s recommendations.

    2. Consider brewer’s yeast for horses

      bier_smallBrewer’s yeast can help increase feed efficiency and is a supplement that has been fed to horses for hundreds of years. Find a product that is especially formulated for horses or horse feed that already contains brewer’s yeast. (I like Horse Brewers Yeast Supplement – 4 Lbs)

    3. Massage & curry

      Support your horse’s change of coat by mahaas_curryssaging his coat and skin, not only to remove old and itchy hair and dander, but also to increase blood circulation. This helps your horse feel better and supports the new growth from the bottom up. Use a flexible massage curry that feels good to your horse, such as “New Generation” by Haas.)

    4. Ditch the shedding blade!

      curly3If you want to see a really shiny, smooth summer coat, replace harsh shedding blades – which can scratch the skin, damage hair follicles and roughen the soft hair of the new summer coat – with a firm brush like a coco fiber brush or better yet a 50% brass bristle brush. A 50% brass bristle brush – such as the Haas ‘Mustang’ – will gently remove the soft undercoat that is so hard to grab with a shedding blade. At the same time, it removes dirt and dander and leaves the coat clean.

    5. Take it easy

      If possible, ask a little less of your horse during shedding time. 093Your horse’s systems are already quite strained through the effort of changing coats and metabolism. If your horse is a bit on the lazy side during coat change season, let him get away with some of that and lighten the work load, if possible.

In short: When your horse is shedding the winter or summer coat (yes, that needs to shed, too) and grows a new coat, there is much going on ‘behind the scenes’.  Taking this into consideration during coat change time will make a big difference to your horse.

Be well and enjoy your horse!

Stefanie Reinhold

Sources: Equine Science (Pilliner, Davies)