Finding Neutral - the key to relaxation
In dressage the second step in the scale of training is ‘Relaxation’, relaxation of the body or physical relaxation is often discussed and gauged by the rhythm of the horses strides and his ability to stretch his topline and maintain that rhythm and balance.
Often less discussed but just as important is mental relaxation. So is it possible for a horse to have rhythm, balance and stretch his topline and not be mentally relaxed? - Yes it is!!
If you have a horse that can do these things and is still tense, spooky or naughty then read on, this blog is for you...
For a horse to find true, mental relaxation they need to feel safe and comfortable. If a horse is out of balance then he will not feel safe, if he is being constantly adjusted then he will not find comfort and as a result won’t understand what he’s trying to achieve.
In this situation a scared horse will hopefully carry on anyway but is likely hold quite a bit of tension and could also be spooky. A confident horse is more likely to be naughty or put up a fight as they don’t understand what they are trying to achieve.
The point of balance and comfort I’m talking about is called ‘neutral’. Neutral is where you and your horse are in balance so your hands and legs can do nothing, your horse is balanced between your hands and legs and you can stop using them, even if it’s just for a moment. To be clear I don’t mean dropping the reins, I mean still, supportive hands and quiet legs at the horses sides.
To achieve this you have to be clear that neutral is something you are trying to achieve and have a clear mental picture of what that might look like. Think Charlotte and Valegro, why do we love that picture so much? Because it looks effortless, like she’s doing nothing!!
Finding neutral is also key to being able to improve your position as a rider, it’s very difficult to have a good leg position if you have a horse that you are constantly having to encourage to go forwards. It’s equally difficult if you are constantly having to slow them down!!
So how do you go about finding this elusive state of balance? First set it up and decide that’s what you’re going to work on for a session, use a space where you are unlikely to have too many other challenges and pick the gait and pattern you and your horse find easiest, for most this is trot. For a speedy horse a circle will probably best, for a slower horse trotting out on the track is usually better. Start trotting and first observe the rhythm, does your horse get progressively faster or progressively slower or a mixture of both?
For a horse where you feel like you are constantly using your legs then teaching him to be ‘off the leg’ is going to be most important. From walk, ask your horse to trot, as soon as your horse trots, relax your legs, if he walks again, leg on and stick if you need it do get trotting again, relax your legs. Repeat this process until your horse can maintain a trot without you needing your legs every stride to keep him going. Keep your hands as still and relaxed as possible so it’s comfortable for your horse to use the contact to help his balance.
For a horse where you feel like you are constantly holding them back learning to half halt effectively is going to be important. To start with every time they get fast, bring them back to walk, wait until they relax in the walk and you can relax your hands on the reins then trot again. Repeat until rather than having to walk each time you can slow the trot down by squeezing on the reins and then relaxing your hands and your horse can maintain a more relaxed trot.
In both cases look for signs of relaxation like blowing out through their nose and of course maintaining a good rhythm for themselves and reward with a walk break.
I hope this gives you some idea’s on how to help your horse seek and find neutral so you can both have a more relaxing ride!
If you have any questions, comments or suggestions I’d love to hear from you on firstname.lastname@example.org
Before trying any training technique it is important to rule out pain or discomfort. Saddle fit, teeth, back, hoof balance and lameness issues should all be checked by a qualified professional before applying any training.
If you have questions or need idea's to help with a specific problem feel free to get in touch with me on email@example.com
Lyla has been helping riders and their horses in the UK, USA and Europe for over 15 years. She has prepared horses for crowds of over 6,000 people with no calmers or ear plugs for venues including Birmingham NEC, Aintree, Bury Farm EC and Hartpury.
Lyla specialises in horse psychology and behaviour problems with a specific interest in dressage and has worked with horses from grass roots to Grand Prix across the UK and Europe including international competitors and Olympians from Spain, the US, Canada and the UK.