Tension in Riding

I recently learned an important lesson about tension, and wanted to share some of my thoughts on this tricky subject. Tension plays a huge role in horseback riding. It's an invisible force that has the power to determine a lot about how a ride goes.

Sometimes we are aware of tension and can take steps to reduce or eliminate it. Other times, it exists in our bodies or our horse's body imperceptibly, and causes problems. Some symptoms of tension manifested in the horse include the "sync" between horse and rider feeling off, the horse feeling locked and stiff, the horse bracing or feeling heavy in the bridle, the horse acting spooky or distracted, and a short, choppy, irregular stride.

One of the fundamentals of the Dressage discipline is relaxation–the opposite of tension. Without relaxation, you cannot advance up the pyramid of training. Tension keeps you from advancing and achieving harmony and peace with your equine partner.

But what if you feel relaxed, and you're still experiencing symptoms of tension in your horse? I fancy myself to be fairly in-tune with my body and emotions, so when I have rides that are riddled with symptoms of tension, it's frustrating. Most of the time I feel relaxed and confident on my horse, because I have been riding for so long and not much rattles me anymore, therefore I sometimes struggle to see where the issues are coming from.

Thankfully, I have a superb trainer. She can see that my jaw is clenched, or that my toes are curled (how does she see through my boots??), that my right elbow is locked or my left butt-cheek is clenched. She can see these things because she is watching how my horse is moving and reacting to my body...he is a mirror in which all the tension in my body is reflected.

I'm still learning to tune-in to these sneaky sources of tension in my body. The mind-body connection is an amazing and complex thing that is constantly expanding and changing. Some day I will be perfectly aware of every fiber of my being, and understand how it's all impacting my horse (a girl can dream, right?) For now, I really need my trainer to remind me to release my tension, especially in the spots where tension is so chronic that I have very little awareness about it.

If we can train ourselves to notice the symptoms of tension, and then identify the source of the tension in our bodies, we are two big steps closer to being able to work through the tension and arrive at relaxation–the allusive key that unlocks the next level.

Here is a video of the first half of my recent lesson with my trainer. Look for the symptoms of tension in my pony and notice how I am causing those symptoms by how I am riding. Then watch how the symptoms improve as the lesson goes on and I apply the corrections my trainer is giving me.

Now, here is the second half of the lesson, when things were going smoother.

I tapped into the tricky spots of tension in my body and worked to release them. The difference is obvious in my pony, who looks (and felt) much happier and more rideable, steadier and more relaxed.

Big strides were made during this lesson as far as identifying and releasing hidden tension. My pony and I had been out of whack and tense all week leading up to this lesson, so to achieve this level of relaxation was a big break-through.

I hope this post is helpful. If you have any questions about this topic, please don't hesitate to bring it up during lessons.