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.
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
- Eliminate any factors that cause the horse to brace
- Release any existing tension in the horse (and rider!)
- 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
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)
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
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.
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:
As always – be well and enjoy your horse!