Relaxation in Dressage Horse, Rhythm v. Relaxation: The chicken or the egg?
Buckle up because I am about to stand on my soap box for a minute.
The training scale that I first learned went like this, rhythm, relaxation, and regularity were the foundation of the pyramid. In 2019, USDF updated the training pyramid and in that update they removed the word relaxation. Now the training scale has rhythm as the foundation, and the word suppleness in the second tier. Under suppleness, they added elasticity and freedom from anxiety. So they're covering relaxation a bit with that explanation.
Why isn't relaxation the most important thing? Relaxation and rhythm are closely connected. You can't have rhythm if you don't have relaxation, but will rhythm help you develop relaxation?
It becomes a bit of a chicken or egg question.
I'd like to go a little bit deeper into what relaxation means for me. Relaxation for me, means that the horse feels it in his bones. That means they are in the parasympathetic nervous system. They are not thinking about running away, they're not frozen, and they are with you. The muscles are free from tension and ready to perform any movement that they have the skills for.
Moving the horse's feet is not necessarily a requirement for achieving relaxation. It must be noted that just because a horse can achieve parasympathetic nervous system at a halt, it does not mean that he can while he is moving. So it is important that we don't give ourselves a false sense of security. Eventually they need to be in that tone during movement.
In my work, currently I focus on making sure that the horse has the “bottom neck” muscles, the brachiocephalicus, turned off. When these muscles are engaged, they are used to raise the horse's head and neck. They will also bulge on the bottom side of the neck and roll over the jugular vein protecting it in moments of vulnerability. It stands to reason that if that muscle is turned on and protecting the jugular vein, the horse cannot be in parasympathetic nervous system. It is also antagonist to the top line muscles that I want them to use for correct posture.
Therefore, my first focus is getting that muscle disengaged. It's not an exercise or manual work. It's about getting the horse to trust, and holding space for them to allow themselves to feel vulnerable enough to shift into that state. It is not a thing that you do to the horse. It is a mindset that you create with the situation and support.
Some horses need to learn this completely at the halt first, then add movement and transitions. Other horses need to keep their feet moving in order to not feel stuck which can create its own panic.
Getting back to the chicken or the egg. Is it rhythm first, or relaxation first? In my work I have found that it is possible to have rhythm without relaxation. But if you have relaxation, it either facilitates the rhythm or rhythm becomes automatic.
I’m sure you can picture in your mind because you’ve seen it before, the horse going around, tight back, chomping on the bit, not relaxed at all. He does have rhythm though, he’s in a clear one-two trotting around.
Now picture a horse trotting around, the picture of relaxation. Ears forward, back swinging, easily moving off the rider’s aids because tension isn’t blocking them. That horse has rhythm, on his own!
Let’s focus on relaxation and the true meaning of relaxation, not just “acceptance” of the aids. I aim for all of my horses to be in a nervous system state for learning and enjoyment of our time together.
It’s relaxation first, every time.
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