Relaxation, Flexion, Strength

By Mark Russell

Article appearing in PRE Magazine Summer 2011

Bandit in a relaxed trot

One of the reasons for teaching the horse to be light to the aids is to support the healthy flow of energy through the horse’s whole body. In the education of the horse, relaxation, flexion, and strength are taught concurrently. The development of relaxation and trust is the key that first opens the door.

RELAXATION

Psychological relaxation precedes physical relaxation. In the early stage of the horse’s education he is taught to let go of stress and tension in his mind, and hence, his body. This is a step by step process where he is taught to relax and release inner tension at the exact point where resistance exists. The horse comes to learn that the aids have a positive effect.The jaw is the key that unlocks the body and opens the mind to accept relaxation. Loosening the jaw encourages the horse to lift and savor the bit in his mouth. With the bit in his mouth, this motion of the jaw not only shows that he is relaxed, it shows that he is comfortable with the bit and is not afraid of the bridle, nor of the rider’s contact.Once his jaw is released, his poll relaxes and his tendency is to stretch his head and neck downward. We encourage this movement while bending him to the inside. His softness will travel down the whole length of his body; through his neck, shoulders, spine, hind end to his feet. The rider, with the horse in hand, stays calm, soft, and waits for the horse to respond. When we can be successful in relaxing the horse in length bend at a standstill, movement is introduced. Likewise, he is taught in hand before these exercises are done under saddle.

Bandit shows relaxation from his jaw throughout his whole body while being stroked by the whip.

FLEXION

The horse must be limber throughout his body in order for energy to travel forward freely. Bending the length of the horse to the arc of a circle promotes side-to side flexibility, and raising his back in conjunction with the lowering of the hip creates longitudinal bend.

With the use of the circle and maintenance of proper alignment of the horse’s spine, flexing and suppling exercises continue through a variety of lateral movements. Similar to relaxation exercises, each suppling exercise must be mastered by the horse before moving on to higher level movements, or tension will develop and finding lightness will be difficult.

The rider must be careful to not overbend the horse or to overflex his neck as this will interrupt the relationship between the bridle and his feet. Overflexing will disrupt his ability to balance, will effectively put him on the forehand, and will make it difficult for him to follow the rider’s aids.

Rollkur position demonstrates what happens to the horse’s body with longitudinal overflexion: The consequences of this forced position are evident not only in the horse’s expression, but in the disconnection at the base of his neck, the dropping of his back behind the withers, and his difficulty in stepping underneath with his hind legs without strain.

The initial steps toward strength and engagement first began when we asked the horse to lengthen down and relax in his early education. Length bend is maintained while changing gait, direction, and with up and down transitions. He will develop the ability to progressively step deeper under his centerline with his back rounded.

If the horse’s education has progressed successfully, energy from the haunch will begin to flow forward freely, and the rider has only to direct it. If there is tension or stiffness in the horse’s back, for example, and the rider asks the horse to move forward; his back will absorb or block some of the forward motion. Feeling a lack of impulsion, the rider may apply more leg to drive the horse forward. Driving the horse harder, however, does nothing to correct the resistance within his body. Using more leg to drive the horse harder can work, but achieving an understanding of why the horse stiffened is the better way.

Fannie maintains an even bend throughout her whole body

STRENGTH

The initial steps toward strength and engagement first began when we asked the horse to lengthen down and relax in his early education. Length bend is maintained while changing gait, direction, and with up and down transitions. He will develop the ability to progressively step deeper under his centerline with his back rounded.

If the horse’s education has progressed successfully, energy from the haunch will begin to flow forward freely, and the rider has only to direct it. If there is tension or stiffness in the horse’s back, for example, and the rider asks the horse to move forward; his back will absorb or block some of the forward motion. Feeling a lack of impulsion, the rider may apply more leg to drive the horse forward. Driving the horse harder, however, does nothing to correct the resistance within his body. Using more leg to drive the horse harder can work, but achieving an understanding of why the horse stiffened is the better way.

Diego offers lateral movement in relaxation

CONCLUSION

The circular approach of relaxation, flexion and impulsion means that energy flows freely forward from the haunch, up through the back, through the withers and ultimately through the horse’s whole body. We should always keep in mind that artful riding is for the horse and force is never introduced.