Sunday, August 15, 2010

Relaxation and Forward

One of the bloggers I follow got me thinking today about relaxation and forward - thanks, Nina! So I was also thinking about these concepts and how they relate to one another as Dawn and I worked this morning. Most of the work Dawn and I have been doing over the past several weeks is about relaxation. My objective is to have her relax her jaw and entire top line from nose to tail, and use her core to carry herself - this is what all of our softening work is about. And in order for her to do this, I have to be relaxed myself, and using my core to carry myself - we're mirrors of one another. This is why Dawn is such an excellent horse for me to be riding at this point in my horsemanship - she tells is like it is, reflecting back to me just how I am, and she doesn't mince words. In my opinion, if you haven't got relaxation, you've got nothing to work with. Relaxation requires that mental and physical braces be removed in both horse and rider - most, if not all, of the braces our horses carry come from how they've been ridden and trained in the past, and how we're riding them now - bracing is a learned behavior.

In order for the work to progress, the horse must be able to express itself and try out things, and give the rider feedback about the rider's degree of relaxation. That's why devices like tight tie-downs or martingales, tight nosebands and flashes, draw reins, harsh bits and practices like rollkur (including almost-horizontal curb bits) are so counterproductive, in my opinion - the horse is forced and constrained and has no opportunity to express itself and its opinions about what is happening - learning cannot take place in this environment. Many if not all of those devices also reinforce whatever braces there are. Riders often reinforce braces with their bodies by pushing or driving with their seat and legs, and pulling against braces on the reins. My objective is for my horses to carry themselves, at all gaits and in all exercises, in relaxed self-carriage by their choice - they learn that it is comfortable and choose to do it - with the softest of connections through my reins, seat, legs and mind. When this happens, there's nothing else that feels like it, and it's possible for horse and rider to think and act as one.

Relaxation is not dullness, or deadness, or a horse that is checked out and almost asleep. It isn't about having a horse that is bomb-proof - although a horse's ability to relax together with the rider can help a reactive horse. And relaxation isn't about slowness - take a look sometime at a video of Secretariat racing - the relaxation and effortlessness of the stride at speed is there. Relaxation is about mental and physical engagement in the work while using the body of horse and rider in their most effective way.

Forward is a word that is almost misleading - it implies forward motion, and perhaps speed. But it isn't really about speed, and it's possible to have speed without "forward". Forward in my mind is really closer to the concept of impulsion - it's the ability of the horse to lift itself into action using its core while maintaining relaxation of the jaw and top line. Movement in a forwards direction, at any speed, isn't "forward" if the horse or rider are braced - a good example of this would be some modern dressage horses trained using rollkur - their legs are doing all sorts of flashy stuff (that's unfortunately often rewarded by the judges), but there isn't an ounce of softness or relaxation there - the horses are often braced from nose to tail. Similarly, horses who have been trained with methods emphasizing a "frame" or "headset" often aren't truly forward - they often are braced and not in self-carriage, which means there isn't any relaxation - all you've got then is false forward.

Forward can exist when the horse is standing still - it's potential - the horse stands softly poised with a relaxed top line and core engaged, ready to move forward with relaxation - Mark Rashid says the engine should always be running even in halt. This feeling of potential soft movement in halt is also unmistakeable. Forward isn't rushing, it's measured and has noticeable rhythm. Rushing, and the mental and physical bracing it represents, come from a lack of relaxation. True forward and rhythm both build on relaxation.

Dawn has made enormous progress in her softness and the mental and physical relaxation it represents. We worked on several things today - more transitions and maintaining softness through the transitions. We added a good bit of work in the halt/trot/halt transitions, and by the end of our work she was really nailing these transitions on just my very brief thought of the new rhythm and an out breath. I also worked with her on keeping her relaxation going as we varied the stride length at the trot - Dawn still sometimes wants to start bracing and rushing as we move into longer strides or more straight-line work. We made substantial progress today on maintaining relaxation, and as we did the rhythm really came through.

Then we did some trot/canter transitions - she does these very nicely on the thought of the new rhythm and an out breath. We didn't maintain the canter for long before transitioning down to trot. The challenge then was to maintain the relaxation once in trot again. We're not there yet, but progress was made.

And I rode Maisie today for the first time in over a month! She's been sound at all gaits in the pasture for a while, and the swelling in her left hind, although still visible, is reduced - she may always have some residual puffiness there. We only rode for about 5 minutes at the walk, but she thought that was pretty darn exciting, and so did I. I iced her hinds afterwards, and will continue to do this as we increase our walking time slowly each day.

When I turned the mares out - they went into the pastures normally occupied by the geldings - there was much excited galloping to and fro, from one end of the pasture to the other and all over, and in and out of the various gates - it's about 6 acres and they've not been out there in a while. It was fun to see the little herd galloping around, with Dawn in the lead.


  1. Great post Kate! I couldn't agree with you more. Relaxation is the key to the mine.

    Dusty and I were working on this softness and getting good results before she injured herself. I hope she remembers it all when we start again. Blue has a tendency to get tense and curl under, so we spent the weekend working on some of his issues too.

    I'm glad to hear you and Maisie had a ride and enjoyed it. Dawn sounds like she is becoming a true superstar.

  2. I can identify with the reflection you mentioned. I recently videotaped my riding and saw three things I was doing that were getting in the way. Now that I can see them in my head, I have corrected them and am working on fixing that muscle memory - thereby getting out of the way while we ride.

    We went on the trail and the difference in both of us was remarkable. I wish I could get there faster, for my horse's sake. But at least I'm on my way.

    Glad Dawn and you have found a rhythm.

  3. I wish I could say I have that with Poco, but I don't. We're trying.

  4. One of the things I work with Bonnie on almost every ride is her staying with me and not trying to guess what I want and stay a step ahead of me. I know she is doing it out of a desire to please me which is a good thing. The days we achieve true relaxation and she stays "with" me instead of trying to stay one step ahead are amazing.

  5. Great post Kate :)

    calm > forward > straight

  6. Relaxation is awesome, isn't it! Yes, and great's NOT a horse being check out/half's a content frame of mind that has worry/fear/confusion put aside. I had it today and couldn't agree more..its the BEST! :)

  7. Leah Fry - sometimes it takes time - I've been on this hunt for a number of years. I'm fortunate that Dawn really wants to connect with and engage with me - she's that kind of horse - and that makes it a lot easier. Having spent a lot of time watching Mark Rashid work and riding with him has made a big difference to me too.

    All you can do is take one step at a time.

  8. Another excellent post with some well thought out concepts.

    Speaking of the dressage horses and scores, it's one of the reasons I love Steffan Peters and Ravel so much. Ravel looks so loose and relaxed he makes the test look easy.

    Hope I get to work on some of this stuff with my Boys before too long.

  9. I really enjoyed reading that post. It gave me lots to think about. I think what you call forward is what I think of as balance, a place from where they can easily go anywhere, at any speed, at any time.

    Horses are so much better at listening to us than we are at listening to them. I have to put my life in my horses hands, so to speak, on a daily basis working cattle out on the open prairie. I've had to learn to pay attention to my partners (horses, dogs, and husbands) to keep safe.

    I love dressage even if it's kind of out of my league but I think long hours in the saddle have helped me some. It's easiest on me and my horse when we do whatever needs doing together, catching each other's rhythm. Nature is all about rhythms and a smart person will "never go against mother nature."

  10. Thanks Kate - you have such a wonderful way with words - it is what I want to say but just have trouble getting it out. I agree with everything!

  11. Hello Kate, I've just looked at your blog for the first time and it's brilliant!!! So much fascinating information here and so much to think about - thank you SO much!!!

    I am a big fan of Mark Rashid's books and have just started reading your clinic notes and will have to do so thoroughly later! I was very reassured by his comment that humans tend to live in a perpetual state of mild panic - I thought it was just me!!!!!!!!!!!

    Thank you again for sharing all of this - it's a brilliant blog - thank you so much!!!

  12. CCC - balance, and blending, are two words that certainly apply - it isn't just about the horse as you point out, but about how we and the horses move together. Good thoughts and thanks for sharing.

    Helen - Welcome, and I'm glad you're enjoying reading!

  13. Thanks so much for an interesting post. I especially enjoyed learning about relaxation as opposed to being bombproof. I loved the image of your mares frolicking in the gelding pasture.

  14. I love this post Kate, I agree totally and it sums up what I'm trying to achieve with my horse. Great stuff.

  15. Do you remember the Klimke/Ahlerich 1984 video? I happened to watch this one,, of everyone's favorite dressage rider (sarcasm) right after it. I was immediately struck by the horse's lack of impulsion. He shows a brace 100% created by rollkur.

  16. I really admire how you can be so focued on one thing at a time. That is my worst fault is trying to do too much at once. I enjoy reading what you are doing because it really shows me what working on one thing at a time looks like!

  17. Kate, this is a wonderful post on describing relaxation in the horse. So thoughtful. I especially like your description of impulsion. Glad you had great rides on both of your horses!

  18. Kate What a great post ....It made me think of what my friend taught me to do when I was showing Trix, or at a hunt,or a lesson .....or just nervous and thats to sing. So many a time when I've ridden a horse for the first time ....or been at a big show, or at a huge hunt and I've been very UNrelaxed, nervous and up tight or the horse feels all of the former I sing. I wouldn't win American Idol and half the time I forget the words but you half to relax to sing and funnily enough it calms the horse too. Give it a try


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