Thursday, 10 December 2015

Unlocking Relaxation

Allison Kavey: “Dressage horse spooking at her very
fancy Dressage at Devon ribbon.
This time of year it is not uncommon for many riders to find their horse has transformed from the calm, willing partner they had back in summer to a jumpy, fire breathing dragon as the cooler temps settle in.

I have been enjoying a great deal of progress with Savvy in my lessons at the indoor with an exceptional dressage trainer. However, lately progress has been replaced with exercises in courage and balance as my Ferrari pony spooks and leaps at every little noise/shadow/nothing at all.

On lesson days, the usual routine of trailer in, groom, tack up, hand walk around arena and get to work was simply not cutting it. If all I am doing is surviving a lesson, we really cannot work on more interesting and important work.

So this lesson I came in with a plan. I have so many tools in my tool box, but I just was not employing them!

First, lunge pony at home before I put her on the trailer. This is so important right now because her paddock is frozen and none of the horses have been running or playing around for a couple of weeks now. This allowed her to stretch out, kick up her heels and buck like a maniac.

Second, arrive, groom and tack up with calmness in mind. I decided if I wanted her to be calm, I should reflect that in myself and be mindful of my body language.

Third, ground work. When I brought her into the arena saddled but still in her halter, I set to work with some slow and deliberate tasks for her to focus on. This included standing still while I touched her all over with the carrot stick, backing up with a shake of my finger, yielding the front and hind ends and then sidepassing down the arena wall.

By the time I got on for my lesson, Savvy was relaxed, licking her lips and hanging her head and listening to me!

We proceeded to have the best lesson we have had to date and trainer was completely impressed. There was not one single spook and her trot was 100% adjustable. Half pass and shoulder-in were magical.

This experience really got me thinking. Preparation obviously plays an important role in how our horses perform. How can I prepare my mare for the tasks I ask of her, such as the show atmosphere?

Our horses are athletes and we often train with a direct line approach of teach the task, but as the concept of sports psychology being applied to riders becomes common place, I wonder of the role sports psychology can be applied to the horse. We obviously cannot ask our horse to 'visualize' a relaxed, fluid dressage test, but we can help them to be relaxed and fluid in preparation for the test.

Do you employ relaxation techniques for your horse? I would love to hear what works for you!


  1. i love the idea of being mindful of our own body language as we get the horse prepared for any given task. i've definitely been guilty of getting so preoccupied with what we're about to do that i completely rattle my horse...

    1. It's easy to do, especially at a competition when nerves are high and time constraints get in the way of that calm and focused state we need to achieve a really good dressage test!

  2. Great post and a well thought out approach to your problem.

    1. It does eat up a bit more time, but it definitely pays off. :)