How To Reduce Rider Tension
Tension tension tension! Have you ever had the remark from a judge “horse was tense” or something along those lines? I think most of us have. Heres the thing which came first the chicken or the egg? Was it the riders nerves that created the tension or the nervous horse creating the tension? The thing is it doesn’t matter who started it, someone has to lead you out of this vicious cycle and that job is yours my friend.
This isn’t something that just happens to beginner riders either. It happens to everyone and even the most advanced riders have a similar problem. The key is to develop ways to over come this in both you and your horse.
In dressage its about creating a relaxed tension. Losgelassenheit in german scale of training can be described as a combination of relaxation, looseness and suppleness in the english language. One word doesn’t quite do it justice. Its a feeling of activity while letting go. Having the activity with relaxation but not laziness and this can’t be created with a tense rider and it is the riders job to remove tension from the horse to achieve losgelassenheit each and every ride.
Now tightness can be created through the joints, muscles and ligaments. It can be seen through an extra tight grip on the reins, a tense bottom creating a bounce in the saddle or locked up hips and a shortened psoas muscle causing more tension within the rider. This tension can be even more subtle sometimes with screwed up toes and a clenched jaw. All of these things can inhibit the effectiveness of the riders position. For example, clinch your toes now while you are sitting down and notice what other muscles tense. Clinch your wrist and notice what else tightens. Then clinch your jaw and notice how the muscles of your neck and upper back get affected.
You see everything is connected and the more skilled you get at riding the more skilled you get at tightening where you need and letting go where you need. NO matter how nervous or anxious you are.
When a rider is tense the horse will reflect this, their stride may shorten, head lift and they may hollow their back and loose the swing through their gait. They may loose any forward motion and can also loose confidence in their movement so expression can be lost if the rider is holding tension. All of this of course is very dependent on how sensitive your horse is. Some horses make no changes when a rider is tense and some horses get affected just from an unbalanced seat for a moment in their strides. Every horse is different and if you find tension is a common world in your test results. It all begins with working on your tension first.
Wheres the problem?
Here the thing. Tension is part of the sport. Horses are flight response animals. They can spook at a leaf on the ground one day and put up with trucks driving past them the next. As a rider we need to be in a position of confidence but not let our anxiety or nerves show through in our position on the horse. How we do this is first through learning how to correctly balance and create good posture each and every day in our rides with relaxation. We then need to mirror that in times when anxiety may take over. When you repeatedly work on creating relaxation and body awareness when you ride these scenarios the repetition hard wires your brain on how to create this in times of stress and nervousness.
So the key is about is creating good balanced riding position in the saddle even in times with we are anxious. When tension does arises, its not about focusing on the tension. Instead its about focusing on good riding position to create relaxation within the two of you. Learning and understanding where to remove the tension within your own body each and every ride.
Sometimes in those times of anxiety it can be hard to reverse tension, and you musn’t blame the horse. They are looking to you to lead the situation. So provide them with calm direct guidance and work them through to losgelassenheit. Here are two simple steps to guide you through this process and to help you in times you may need such as a competition and when you trot down that centre line.
1. Slow down your thoughts.
This is about focusing on right now. As soon as you feel tension. Don’t focus on the dog in the bush, the trailer making a noise or the spooky corner in the arena. Instead focus on your own body. Take ownership of what is going on, adjust and provide leadership by correctly balancing and aligning your body with correct fluid strength, balance and relaxation through that brief moment of stress. By slowing down for a brief moment you give yourself the space to adjust, the horse to respond and know its ok and gain the confidence move through it. If your horse gets spooked, you get tense and nervous and then you focus on that thing over there, the whole situation gets dragged out and you take longer to move on from it. Instead, be present.
Practice when you ride at home breathing into your belly. Letting your shoulder relax and softening your breathe. You see when we get stressed we tend to breathe really high into our chest and this activates our sympathetic nervous system (our flight or fight response) this then tightens muscles like your psoas and hip flexes and then transfers back to a tense and rigid rider with short quick breathes. I horse can feel an insect land on them, so don’t underestimate how they can react to your short and quickened breath. Take ownership in that moment and even though you are nervous. Breathe. Breathe deep into your belly and let your shoulders open and let go. Let your hips soften and watch the horse respond.
The key in reducing tension is to lead the situation no matter who started it. Then create a process that you practice daily to apply to stressful situations such as competition. Think about every day when you hop on and follow these steps.
Learn more about how you can improve your position and create relaxed, supple strength in yourself when riding with the Dressage Rider Training Program. Everything from rider mindset, core and rebalancing workouts through to mobility and yoga. Learn more about the program here.