Our horse’s mental health and relaxation – an addition to the scales of training?

I’ve enjoyed working closely with my sponsored rider, Rosie Hope throughout September covering the basic principles of the scales of training. Dressage riders in particular will be aware of the classes being structured in logical steps of difficulty following the outline of the scales of training. For those of you who are not so familiar, I will give a summary of what they are and what they mean for us as trainers of our horses.

In the order of training young or inexperienced horses we start with establishing rhythm. The same scales of training are used with jumping horses as with dressage. Rhythm in walk and trot will usually be secured long before canter. Typically a larger horse will take more time to balance into a canter rhythm than a small horse but there are many factors including conformation and rider experience/balance as well as the surface they are trained on which all play a part. Alongside rhythm we need to encourage suppleness. There are many things we can do to improve suppleness under saddle or in hand. So much can be done in the walk too as walk is the only gait without a moment of suspension so the horse has to use themselves fully and deliberately to walk over a pole for example. Raised poles are a great suppling exercise whilst also being low impact so can be included in warm up/cool down.

Next on the scale is contact.  The contact between the leg and hand/rein. Developing a good contact is dependent on securing a rhythm and having suppleness. What is a good contact? Ideally you should feel a consistent pressure in both reins evenly as the horse pushes from behind ‘asking’ to go forward. Seeking is a word often used to describe rein contact. How much pressure depends on each horse but generally speaking you should be able to release some pressure momentarily without the horse rushing off or falling on his/her face!

Impulsion is the following step on the scale. I would define impulsion as the fine balance between the most energy you can build from the hindleg through your leg to hand contact, whilst still being able to contain it. The energy should be showing by activity in the steps without increase in speed. You are likely to see a longer moment of suspension as the horse puts literally more spring in his/her step. Sometimes it can be hard to create with a hot or strong horse. If the horse is too strong then lateral exercises will help to soften the body and can often distract the feeling of the horse needing to run forward. Whenever difficult challenges come up it is worth revisiting the previous steps to establish whether to still have rhythm, suppleness and contact. Quite commonly one of those has been temporarily lost.

Straightness is possibly further up the scale than you may have thought. It is beneficial to be straight so that the horse can work both sides of his/her body equally. It is important from a practical perspective too. Not only will it get you higher dressage marks but in a jumping situation it will benefit the take off position where we want the horse to push off both hind legs as equally as possible. It will give us maximum power whilst keeping the jump straighter through the air – beneficial over every fence but most important in a double or combination where any wandering off line could result in a run out or a fence down. In order to ride a horse straight we first need to have a consistent rhythm, suppleness through the body in order to make subtle changes to correct them, a contact from leg to hand/rein for effective communication and the impulsion to move forward. You could think in terms of riding a bike which becomes harder to ride straight when going at slower speed or in the wrong gear. As soon as you connect the power from the back wheel the steering becomes more stable and less wobbly.

Finally we have collection. Collection is used in the higher levels of dressage movements to enable the forehand to become much lighter as the horse takes more weight into the hindlegs. There should be sufficient fitness and strength developed through years of training to achieve that when the time is right. There will be varying degrees of ability when horses get to that level but all should be able to perform some degree of collection if they are sound. In jumping we have collection most often in the final stride before take off. The weight is transferred to the hindlegs as the hocks engage for the push off the floor. There is no weight on the front end as the horse lifts his/her shoulders and forelegs up and over the fence. There are times during jump off rounds - particularly indoors where space is limited – when it is a huge benefit to be able to perform a similar movement to a half pirouette. Maneuvering around a turn with no loss of power is essential when you may only have a couple of canter strides before jumping another fence.

I hope my explanations have been useful to some. For many people it will be nothing new and you will already be familiar with them. There is another very important aspect of training which is missing from the list though. That is mental health and relaxation of our horse. It is missing from the list but I know it is understood by many equestrians. It belongs in my opinion right at the beginning with rhythm and suppleness. If we do not have our horse in a good mental state at that time we will not get a consistent contact or be able to move up the scale. I am an Advanced Centre 10 Coach which means I have trained with Centre 10 and Charlie Unwin. We spend a lot of time discussing and learning about how to develop our riders mental skills to be most adaptable, flexible and resilient in pursuit of their riding goals. I like to include the horse in that too. It begins with us and our attitude towards their training.

Many horses are fairly laid back and some are worriers. They are all flight animals of course underneath it all. It can be quite a challenge to keep that flight instinct under some sort of control at times! So many factors can be at play acting as triggers for that flight response to kick in. It is our job to know our horses well enough to understand how they work. Weather, objects (static or moving!), noises, lack of recent work/freedom all play a part. Some horses take a long time to get into their work and concentrate. Some, especially younger ones will only concentrate for a short amount of time. I find that when you consider mental relaxation in the same way as physical relaxation you get much better results in your schooling session. You are less likely to feel as stressed about how well (or not) your schooling session goes too when you consider what mental state your horse is in and appreciate their struggle.

Spending the time on relaxing your horse or allowing sufficient time to pass when anxiety strikes is going to greatly improve your chances of having a successful ride. I will always advise spending a bit more time during the warm up to allow the rhythm and suppleness exercises to relax the horse if they feel tense. A few more minutes spent there will make the contact much better. When you have a good contact it is then easier to keep your horse’s focus. Then he/she is less likely to become so distracted or anxious because they are tuned in to you. If they become upset during the session it is always worth going back to that stage once again to establish the best mental state. We know how difficult it is to concentrate if we feel upset or anxious for any reason. We have to expect the same is true for our horses. Learning new things can be frustrating and anxiety will be felt in uncomfortable surroundings. We are no different in that respect. Keep sessions shorter if that suits your horse best. Whatever happens during a training session I always try to begin and end with a mentally relaxed horse. I find that wind down time to be reflective on myself too. We may both have been frustrated or stressed along the way. It mind sound a bit silly or soft but I personally like to always say thank you to my horse for something that was good during our training session. There might have been a lot of negatives some days but there is always something to be thankful for. It can be so hard to do if you have had a stressful time but it is always worth it. It is good to remember they did not volunteer for this life and owe us nothing. I often thank my horse just for letting me ride her. Of course I want to win in the main ring at Hickstead or to jump 1.40 double clear but my horse just wants to eat grass and run away from scary things!