“I was talking to my students that every horse and rider are unique, but the one thing that is consistent throughout every lesson is that learning cannot occur without relaxation. Without relaxation, there is no point in attempting to train.
Horses are prey animals and are programmed to be concerned about their own safety. A tense horse is worried they are not safe. We have to understand this. The horse may be afraid of his surroundings, or separation from their herd, or maybe they are in pain and it isn’t obvious to their rider yet. Anything that makes the horse uncomfortable will make them concerned about their safety, and no learning can penetrate that fear. A relaxed mind can learn. A tense one cannot.
In my book “Dressage in Harmony”, on page 12, I write that muscles are found in extensor-flexor pairs. A tense horse tends to contract both extensor and flexor muscles at the same time, thereby tightening and stiffening the joints through the action of the opposing forces. A truly relaxed horse will have every muscle relaxed from the poll to the tail, moving in regular rhythm and responding easily to all the aids, and the hoofprints are light. The rider can take up the reins or give the reins, and the horse will maintain his rhythm without running away. This must be true of all three gaits. A relaxed horse is not stiff, nor tight or frightened. Only when relaxed will the horse show brilliance in the movement.
If a horse is tense, you may have to dedicate the entire ride to achieve a relaxation. Some horses are more prone to tension than others. If your horse has an extremely high sense of self preservation, it takes enormous patience by the rider. Horses are programmed to be concerned about their own safety, and are hoping you will show them the way to a more secure state of mind. With repetition, the horse begins to believe in their rider. They begin to learn there is a better feeling out there that the rider will help them get to. The time it takes to get to a relaxed state becomes shorter over time.
When the horse is spooking, do not get too close to the scary thing and “give” to help unwind the tension. This can take great courage on the rider’s part, but holding a tense horse tight creates even more tension. The “give” helps the horse’s neck to soften and lengthen, and relaxation eventually start to migrate through the horse’s body. The horse recognizes the rider will not “trap” him and will not force scary things upon him. That builds trust, and trust creates relaxation.”