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The German Training Scale Part 2: More Explanations

By Hardy Zantke

Freedom and Relaxation

In the last issue we covered the first step: Takt = Rhythm and Regularity. Now we come to the next goal: Losgelassenheit = Freedom which includes Relaxation.

As with all translations, often one word does not cover all the meanings of the original word. So Freedom and Relaxation might not be sufficient. Literally translated "losgelassenheit" would mean "let looseness", which we understand to cover quite a broad spectrum. It means free of tension, relaxation, lightness, ease of movement. But being free of tension also needs calmness. So it covers a lot. The muscles must be able to contract and relax time and again to work properly for each movement. The joints must be able to move freely. If they are tense or stiff, they can't relax and with that they can't do their work in harmony and with ease. For the muscles to be able to do that, they must get the proper signals from the brain, and the brain can only give them the proper signals if it too is relaxed and calm and free of tension. Please note: I did not restrict the above statement to just the horse! It very much includes the driver as well!

I know, this is easier said than done, but it is one of the essentials in proper training, and with that, also a requirement in our rules. Let's take a look into the American Driving Society (ADS) rulebook first to see where we find it before we talk a little about how to reach it. I think it often helps to read the rules just one more time, as usually they give us some good explanations of what is really expected:

In our pink pages for dressage:

Article 97: The object of Dressage is the harmonious development of the physique and ability of the horse. Through progressive training the horse becomes calm, supple, and flexible as well as confident, attentive, and keen in his work.

Clearly a very tense horse cannot fulfill these goals. The text continues:

These qualities are revealed by:

  1. The freedom and regularity (see Part 1 in the August/ September issue) of the paces;
  2. The harmony, lightness and ease of movements;
  3. The lightness of the forehand and the engagement of the hindquarters, originating in a lively impulsion; (We'll cover those items in future issues as we move along.)
  4. The acceptance of the bridle, without any tenseness or resistance. (We also will talk more about that in the next issue).

The horse, confident and attentive, submits generously to the driver, remaining straight in any movement on a straight line and bending accordingly when moving on curved lines. (We'll also cover that in future issues.)

His walk is regular, free and unconstrained. His trot is free, supple, regular, sustained and active.

Because the horse has impulsion and is free from resistence he will obey without hesitation and respond to the various aids calmly and with precision, displaying a natural and harmonious balance both physically and mentally. (All emphasis added by me.)

As we read further through the rulebook, we will find these messages time and again. For example in Article 100 under Collected Trot we find "Hollowing and/or stiffening the back are severe faults." So the horse must be supple in his back. Under Working Trot we read: "The expression "good hock action" means here a free and energetic forward swing of the hind legs...aiding in his free forward movement." Under Article 101, Rein Back, we read: "Anticipation or precipitation of the movement, resistance to or evasion of the hand...are serious faults." Under Article 102, Transitions: "The horse should remain light in hand, calm..." Article 107, Submission: " obedience revealing its presence by a constant attention, willingness and confidence in the whole behavior of the horse, as well as by the harmony, lightness and ease he is displaying in the execution of the different movements. The degree of submission is also manifested by the way the horse accepts the bridle with a light contact and a supple poll..." "...grinding of the teeth and swishing the tail, are mostly signs of nervousness, tenseness or resistance...and must be taken into account by the judges in their marks for the movement concerned as well as in the collective remarks for "submission"." So not having relaxed horses will cost us dearly. Not only in the note of each movement, but also in the collective remarks, but much worse than that, if our horses are not relaxed, they cannot really perform properly in the first place.

But the rules also do not forget the driver, Article 108: "The driver should be seated comfortably on the box so as to be relaxed and effective."

Also in the yellow pages for CDEs, Article 2035 (FEI 935), we find the same:

"The object of the Dressage to judge the freedom, regularity of paces, harmony, impulsion, suppleness, lightness, ease of movement...."

Accordingly, we find these requirements also on our dressage tests. The words "suppleness" and "relaxation" as judging directives are in many movements in all training level tests. In the preliminary- and intermediate-level tests, we still find "suppleness". On all three levels we find "relaxation of the back" as a requirement in the collective remarks, and on the advanced level, we have under the collective remarks,"Obedience and lightness," the words "without resistance". Under gaits in the collective remarks we find in all ADS tests as first words "freedom and regularity," whereas the FEI tests have it the other way around "Regularity and Freedom," which shows the FEI completely in line with the German Training Scale. I don't know why in our tests the sequence of the two words is reversed, but I think there is probably not much meaning to that. And in most of the above, we also see always mentioned regularity, which we covered in the last issue as our first requirement and first step in the Training Scale.

Since these are the important steps in the training of the horse, our training-level dressage tests state that, too, as their purpose: "To establish that the correct foundation is being laid for the training of the driving horse requiring the green horse to move freely and energetically forward in a steady rhythm (see last issue) in the working walk and working trot, while accepting the bit with relaxation..."

If we look at the same pleasure driving rules which I quoted already in the last issue when we discussed regularity, we also find similar requirements there:

Article 28: "Walk: A free, regular and unconstrained walk of moderate extension is required. The horse should walk energetically, but calmly..." and under Trot: "...The horses go forward freely..."

So we see that freedom and relaxation are required in dressage as well as pleasure driving and together with rhythm and regularity which we covered in the last issue, they must be the basis of our training, for without relaxation there can be no freedom of movement.

The ADS Manual for Driven Dressage confirms this and states, "Relaxation is the absolute key to Dressage training." The Manual explains in details the meanings of every word in our dressage requirements of Article 97 as well as how one is built on the other. I highly recommend reading the Manual, as it shows in much greater details how it is all related. Let me just quote a few sentences here:

"Calm: The horse is neither dull or lazy and, of course, not excited or agitated either. Instead calmness means that the horse is in a relaxed yet alert state of mind and is able to respond to all the driver's commands without any concerns, fears or other mental resistances.

"Supple: Suppleness is the physical counterpart to calm. In a supple horse every joint can work freely and there is no physical resistance in response to any aid from the driver. A horse cannot be supple (physically relaxed) without being calm (mentally relaxed).

"Freedom...means primarily physical freedom. A freemoving horse's limbs and back swing freely, traversing their full ranges of motion. No joints anywhere seem stiff, constrained or "stuck."

"Harmony, ease and lightness of movement: This means that there is a soft and continuous, rhythmic flow in the horse's movement, and every step appears effortless and weightless."

But we also find in the manual the same requirements for relaxation and suppleness for the driver! Because only when the driver is relaxed mentally and physically can he expect his horse to be, too.

So then this is our first step in how to get a horse that moves freely and relaxed. First we must work on us to become free and relaxed. I know how difficult that is for many of us. Already at home it's tough enough, let alone at an event in the dressage or show ring. But we must work for it. Otherwise, neither we nor our horses can perform to their potential. So first work on your own relaxation at home, then, when we are calm and relaxed, we need to work on the same with our horses. I also know how hard that is for many of us, but we must get it, otherwise we cannot progress in dressage.

I know that quite of few of us are driving fairly hot highstrung and nervous horses. Well, every horse is a compromise; there is no perfect horse (or driver). If I have one of those hot "Ferraris" this is my challenge! Perhaps when I look for my next driving horse, maybe it would be a good idea to not concentrate so much on what wonderful gaits he has, but look also how high strung he is, because the great movements will not help me much when he is too nervous in the ring to ever really be able to show his brilliance. Let's take this even one more step back: when we breed that next driving horse, our true dream horse, it would suit us well to not only look at the physical qualities of the father and mother but also at their mental qualifications. A willing mind that can be calm and relaxed is really quite an important requirement in a good driving horse and will fill not only our daily life around our horse with so much more pleasure, it also will enable us to bring our horses along in our training process so much easier. But now that we have our horses and are working with them, we must work on relaxation. That work starts each time we are around our horses. We must move and handle them with confidence and good leadership. Above all, we always must be relaxed ourselves. Only then can we hope to transfer that state of mind to them too. We need to build our training and break it down into many small steps. First, get your horse relaxed with you in his stall. Then teach him to stand relaxed while you groom and harness him. Then teach him to walk with you relaxed. Always keep it relaxed, and if he gets nervous, go back to the previous step for which you had relaxation. Ground-drive him relaxed, and finally, get him to drive with the carriage relaxed. For most horses, that means spending a lot of time at the walk. But it is very important that you do not skip this step, because if you do, then you have not laid the proper foundation and will not be able to build successfully. A horse that cannot do a training-level dressage test calmly will never be able to perform the requirements of a higher level test. He will never be able to bend properly, to go "round," to work on the bit, to stand, to back, you name it. If you don't fix that problem on the ground level, there really is not much sense to try to move on to higher levels. Sure, you may be able to get through some hazards with guts and glory, and you may even be able to come through a cones course, but you won't be able to do that competitively on higher levels nor will you ever be able to get a good dressage score.

You must have a platform of relaxation like a safe heaven to which you can always come back during your training, when you work on something new and the horse gets nervous or tense. For most horses, this works well at the walk, but with some, we do need to walk for quite a while until we get them to relax. Every now and then, I even encounter a horse that is so high-strung and nervous that we cannot even walk. If it becomes so hard that we are fighting for a walk, well, then it becomes clear that we are not going to get relaxed that way, as a fight certainly does not produce relaxation. So then on rare occasions, I find that a horse may relax at a working trot. If that is his platform of relaxation, OK, perhaps we can work from there. However, more likely than not, the horse that does not relax at the walk probably will not do so at the trot either, and will only become hotter at the trot. So in that case, we need to go back to ground training, as far back as it takes to get relaxation, and then build it up very slowly from there. Unfortunately, I do not know of any shortcuts. There are no magical tricks as far as I am concerned, and even the horse whisperers work first and foremost on getting the horse relaxed. Being able to achieve that faster than most of us, that is their specialty, that is what sometimes may seem like a magical trick to us as they work their way into the mind of the horse and get him to relax.

You can see if he is relaxed in his eye; in his ears, the expression of a happy horse. The ears should play back and forth freely, checking what's ahead and then again what the driver may want; they should not be fixed in one tense position. We can also see it in his back, when we can see the muscles on each side contracting and relaxing as his legs swing freely. This is hard to see for the beginner. The rider may be able to feel it, but we must learn to see it. This is very important, as we want our horses to be supple in the back and to work with their hind legs through the back, engaging the entire body. We can often see in his mouth, if he is tense and nervously chewing his bit or even has his mouth open, pressing against the bit, or chewing relaxed on it. Naturally, if he is running against our hand, and we have a great amount of pressure on his bars, there is not much relaxation, and there is no lightness. If we have good communication with his mouth with constantly giving and taking a little, then we can get him supple in his mouth, can get him to relax his lower jaw, and to get supple in his poll. We will cover more of that specifically in our next chapter when we talk about contact and acceptance of the bit. We can see it in his tail, if that is swinging freely from side to side, especially in the trot, or if it is tense, held to one side, or swishing the tail trying to catch our reins.

Relaxation, of course, also has to include that the horse is free of fear. He can only be free of fear if he has trust and confidence in his driver and in his own abilities. So as his confident leader, we must not ask the horse to do anything that brings him into danger. We also must not ask him to do anything that he cannot do either physically or mentally. So we must prepare him for his tasks always by breaking them down into small steps that we can teach him in a way that he can understand what we ask him to do and is able to do it. To be free in his movements, to be supple, and to have all his muscles work with ease, he needs to be properly warmed up. And when we can do all that at home, it then still is a big step to be able to carry this over to the show ring or the dressage arena, where again, first we must make sure that we stay ourselves relaxed. For some of us, it helps to ever so calmly hum a little tune to ourselves, hardly noticeable to the outside. That turns on the musical side of our brain, and that side usually is much more relaxed and much more free of tension. Just try it next time you drive that dressage test that often gets you so tense that you have trouble remembering to just keep breathing, as you are concentrating so hard on the test. Just concentrate a little less, hum that tune, relax, and you'll see that less is really more. It just may all flow so much better.

Happy driving.

We will cover the remaining steps of the training scale in future issues:

including Acceptance of the Bit

including Engagement

including Bending

including Roundness

including Confidence

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