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How to ride to relaxation?

When a horse is incredibly tense and worried, how do you all approach riding towards a more relaxed state?

As a bit of a backstory, I have a gelding who has been through a slew of tests to ensure that he does not have a physical issue, his saddle fits, etc. He raced until he was 11 (88 starts in the USA and Europe). He had a year let down, then was restarted and I took him to the RRP - where the wheels fell off in the show jumping and he has been incredibly tense since (almost a year later).

One trainer wrote it off as just him, so I left and went to a new trainer. New trainer’s methodology is to try and get him stretching every ride. Lots of circles and easy transitions, without asking a ton of him. We have done this for 6 months, and he still becomes a fire breathing dragon if you ask for something he doesn’t immediately understand such as a leg yield.

I am definitely guilty of riding him with my leg off, and have made a contentious effort in the last few months to improve that. It has provided minimal difference with him.

We are currently treating for EPM as a Hail Mary.

He is an incredibly hard keeper. Scopes clean and we have treated his hind gut. He gets outlast 4X a day and magnesium in the AM. 5 lbs of Triple Crown Senior 2x a day. Free choice, 24/7 T&A in a net. He keeps weight well on this diet. Shod up front - feet are fantastic. Any other ideas or exercises?


One of the things that my instructors always say to me is that my horses are very relaxed.

To me it is not just when you are riding. The horse needs trust in you and this goes with daily handling, feeding, ruuging, etc, etc, etc.

Always be consistent. Always be fair. Start off by asking for easy things and reward reward reward. I would say this horse needs one handler, not being fed by and turned out by different people. JMO.

If we take Sim as an example, he is a very good looking horse so he was always picked by good horsemen because of his looks. He didn’t get far. When he came to me. He didn’t even know what an outside rein was, yet he had been sent to a professional trainer by the previous x 2 owner.

It was a slow slog. What took 10 minutes with some horses took months with Sim. Most people will not put that time into a horse. For eg, my horses - I open the gate and click for them to walk through. Then I say halt and they halt. It took Sim 4 months to halt on his own on the other side of the gate. CELEBRATION.

I had to teach this horse everything. I had to teach him how to be a horse. As in, I didn’t just have to teach him to walk to lead, I had to teach him how to walk, how to trot. How to do everything.

The only thing I do not know how to teach, is how to teach him to neigh! He tries. You just shake your head as it is not right. Poor thing.

People are now tricked. :slight_smile: They see a dressage horse when they come here. Once he had the confidence in me. He relaxed. Once he had the confidence to go forward, his training really started.

The day I taught him a turn on the forehand, the World was going to end. Now it is nothing. So the next time you go to teach him something it is more acceptable and no ending of the World hopefully in sight.

So you need to relax, you need to listen to your horse, 2 main things with Sim that helped. He was so wiggly he didn’t go in a straight line. I realised that my aides were too fast for him, by the time he reacted to a leg aide , I had put the next leg on to correct him and so on and so forth. So I had to really slow down my aides and wait for him to react to the first aid before giving him the next aide, as he got better the aides became more normal. This is an example of listening to your horse.

The other one was that I taught him to lunge first, with voice aides, and saying good boy as a reward. Then I started riding him and my voice aides went away. Saying good boy while on him made a world of difference. So that was added back in.

Another big step forward with Sim was the day hubby came in complaining that Sim over-reacts to the canter transition.

Why are you still asking for cantercp with an aide he over-reacts to? He can feel a fly on his side. You don’t need a harder aide than that. Try to see what the softest aide you can use to ask for canter is, try just lifting your inside seat bone.

WELL the whole horse took a sigh of relief AND THE WHOLE HORSE CHANGED.

I told my instructor this, 2 minutes later he exclaimed that he had never seen Sim canter like that before, not even with me. I just said yes I told you the whole horse had changed.

Condidence in you is something you need to work on. There is not really much your instructor can do as they can only teach when the horse is relaxed. Yes stretching helps relax but there is more to it than that and not in the time of a lesson. JMHO.


YMMV, but magnesium can be hard on the guts. I ditched it and had fewer problems.

Put your legs on “hug your horse” for a hotter horse. Always.

Time, it takes tons of time for the over thinkers, the wound up, and the just plain off centre to let go and trust. You will get to a point where you’re in the middle of a melt down and you can switch to stretchy work and relaxation will be there. Leave it there several weeks (months if necessary) and eventually after the stretchy work has done its magic you can go back to the upsetting thing and it won’t be as bad, and then always, always finish with stretchy relaxation.

For the leg yield back up 10 billion steps (ok, 2 or 3 but I know it feels like right back to Kindergarten and that can be frustrating.)

  1. don’t even start it
  2. when you get to the point in your warm up that you think you’d like to do a leg yield, get off.
  3. teach a turn on the forehand from the ground
  4. hop back on and immediately ask for a turn on the forehand
  5. stretchy work and cool out
  6. next day repeat
  7. next day repeat
  8. if it’s not easy to do a mounted ToF by this point re-evaluate how you are translating your on the ground aids to mounted aids - do you need to ask only with the whip for now? have you been using your hand in the exact same place as your leg would be? are you blocking the correct direction with one rein and not blocking the wrong direction with the other rein?
  9. once it’s easy to do a ToF mounted, ride in a walk down the quarter line, halt, do ONE step of ToF to push the butt that ONE step closer to the wall/arena edge, walk straight ahead a few steps, repeat. (the walk straight ahead should be accomplished by moving the shoulders - if that can’t happen you’ll need to go back even further to teaching the horse to bend and shift balance in both directions no matter which way you are travelling)
  10. once that is easy start making the number of straight ahead steps few between the ONE step of ToF
  11. as your lessening the number of walk steps figure out exactly what you do with your reins/leg to get the straight ahead steps
    (IF you are good at in-hand work go ahead and teach actual leg yield in hand at this point, if not, carry on with the mounted work - it will be fine.)
  12. using all that as a base, ask for TWO steps of actual leg yield and then walk straight ahead
  13. gradually build the number of LY steps until you can go from the quarter line to the wall without a melt down.
  14. if your coach is not willing to help you take it this painstakingly slowly but surely, it’s time for a new coach. It is not fair to give a horse of this type an advanced math text book when they’re not yet sure whether 2+2=4 or whether maybe 2+2=EleventyBillionOMGmathishardandIcan’tdoit!

I do some things to make sure my youngster is relaxed before training: Posture Prep (a grooming tool for myofacial release that works BRILLIANTLY), some exercises for his hind legs (circles and stretches) that my horse’s chiropractor gave me, Bemer blanket (when I have time before a ride). The Posture Prep tool is $11 and well worth it!!! When I get ready to bridle him, I take off his halter and he goes through a long ritual of yawning. The yawns get bigger and then he crosses his jaws in the yawns each direction. I wait until he is done to put the bridle on. I honestly feel his gaits have improved significantly and that this is the best warmup I could give him. I also use cavalletti in my warmup (about 8 in a row, spaced 18 feet/9feet/9feet/18 feet/9feet/9 feet/18 feet, so that I can walk or trot them). We usually walk over them three times each direction and then do a line or two of trot. The cavalletti cause him to reach with his shoulder, pick up his hind legs, and be aware of where his feet are, and help me to even him up without doing anything. I also stretch him down. If he is nicking the poles, I’ll do a circle of real stretch before a line of cavalletti. After all that, I do an intense 20 minutes of training and he is receptive to it.

I did exactly this when retraining my first Thoroughbred and it worked really well. It took a long time before we stopped having “tense” as a comment in dressage, but eventually we made it.

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I was doing a RideiQ rider position lesson tonight and realized my mare was much less tense than usual. Music has helped too, so I get a little less hyper focused on the horse which seems to lower the tension.

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Teach him what he needs to know, such as leg yield, from the ground. Ground work translates perfectly to in the saddle. He can see you when you are right with him on the gound and he can be secure and mirror you, and learn alot. Then when ask from his back, he knows exactly what you are asking. Really works.


This is a confidence issue 100%.

I’d be doing groundwork for a minimum of 6 weeks with this horse. A lot of what you ask for under saddle can be taught on the ground first, and it should be. This is also a horse I would be ground driving and later long lining before riding again. There is no reason to stress him out under saddle, when this work can be achieved on the ground, in a safe, effective way. It will give him more confidence in the saddle later on, because he knows what you’re asking for.

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For my horse, I found that a self-guided warm up went a long way towards relaxing her. I hold the reins on the buckle and let her pick her direction and pace, with minimal input from me (just to avoid crashing into the wall or leaving the arena). Meanwhile, I use that time to really work on my position. We walk/trot/canter this way for a few minutes in each direction. She makes loops and occasional sharp turns and does not stick to nice 20m circles, but she is relaxed. After that, once I pick up the reins we do some lateral work, and she’s in relatively good shape to do some actual work by then.


Two immediate thoughts.

Are you thinking too hard on a very sensitive horse? Your brain is as much a aid as the others. Calming your brain can sometimes help calm the horse. Sounds a bit weird, but try thinking less.

His food. He is in good physical condition but what he is eating might be making his mind buzz. It might be worth seeking the advice of an equine nutritionist.


At 12 or 13 years old, it seems as though your first trainer’s opinion that it may be a temperament issue is correct. This is not the horse for you if you are at all tense in the saddle. A situation like this can enter a downward spiral in which he scares you so you scare him.

Other than giving him lots of turn out and trail riding, what has worked for me is longeing and making sure that the horse understands voice commands. As someone mentioned above, work in hand as well as on the longe can help you to teach this horse what you are asking for so that he understands and doesn’t get anxious.

In order not to get anxious and wound up, this horse probably needs to thoroughly understand the assignment. Believe it or not, repetition (what some would call “drilling”) can be your friend, because you want to bore this horse. The horse needs to know what is going to happen next in order to feel safe. So have a routine that you do every ride right from the warm up so that the horse knows what comes next. You’ve got to have a lot of “feel” and be ready to change the subject if you can feel the horse’s adrenaline kick in.


This has been my method so far. It works well, but I do love the idea of teaching him from the ground first. I guess that’s the one hole in my education, nowhere I’ve ridden or worked has any much stock in groundwork.

I can successfully ride this horse, and very well, but I want him to be less anxious and actually enjoy his work instead of being a nervous, tense wreck like his is currently. I.e., Even though he can do an acceptable stretchy circle I feel like he never truly gives up his back. He’s always trying to get one step ahead of him, rather than being submissive and letting me ride him, if that makes any sense?

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I have this horse. It’s a slow burn. It’s not always fun and you will battle some FOMO, but stick with it. You will become a better horseman and a better person for it.

I will echo what others have suggested, it comes from a lack of confidence. It’s very important to approach these types with gumption and creativity. You won’t be able to take a standard approach. You will need to try, try, and try again until you find a systematic approach that works for him as an individual.

For me, we can’t do long and low. Our warm up is done on the lunge, lungeing for respect. Yes, I went there. I was desperate. It works, so we’re going to keep on doing it. When I get on, I have to out my leg on and put him to work. If I don’t keep his brain on me, he will find something else to focus on which turns into a rodeo. I tend to overthink and overcomplicate things, so I’ve really practice implying the KISS mentality and trusting my instincts. Most importantly I breathe (square breathing has really helped me remain calm), carry my hands forward, and keep him moving forward. We do a lot of shallow serpentines to keep him focused, and a lot of transitions within the gait. I’m careful to be clear and not be too busy, he doesn’t like that.

That said, I think the biggest benefit for my horse, was to focus on his life outside of work undersaddle. He is turned out as much as my fields can take. He’s on a forage based diet. I feed him and stand near him each meal, but I don’t bother him while he eats. I make a point to just be with him without distraction. We work on ground manners a lot. We go on hand walks a lot. We hand graze a lot.

He’s a totally different horse than he was a few years ago, and if he doesn’t have the lucrative show career I had originally hoped we would, that’s okay, because every day I learn something new from him and it’s been a priceless journey.


This may have been mentioned upthread, and if so I apologize. Try taking lots of little breaks during your ride. If you’re like me, you start out walking a bit then trotting on a longer rein, asking only for a little bit of intention in the step (ie: not shuffling around) and then picking up the reins and getting to work. As soon as we accomplish our first mission: say a serpentine in three loops each way (a favorite exercise I use with OTTBs) there’s praise and a short no stress walk on as loose a rein as is safe. Then we pick up and get to work again and after something else is done, same break. Rinse and repeat as often as you feel he needs it, if it actually works for him. I find that it helps my horse and helps my brain slow down while helping me clarify what it is I want to have happen. Once the break works, I intensify and lengthen the work periods as long as relaxation is maintained. This is really hard to do during my lessons as I don’t want to waste any time, but it has been effective. YMMV.


Sing to him while you ride. If you cannot carry a tune he won’t care. It is just a form of communication and will help you breathe more normally instead of you being tense. And if you won’t sing, just talk. It will help keep his interest and attention on you rather than warily looking around for things to worry about.


lots of great ideas here. One more piece of advice - never react when he does something “wrong”. Just say - please try to do this instead. Spooks*, wrong transitions, missed cue, a stop or drive by, a blow up - don’t react/correct - just ignore and redirect or try again. Maybe it sounds weird, but for the intense dudley do-rights, this actually helps with their confidence a lot…

*I realize that most people don’t “punish” for spooking - w/ the hot ones, I don’t even get in their face about going by the thing they are worried about - just over time get closer or closer or drop the reins and let them investigate. No “go here now cuz I said so”.


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One challenging horse I rode at my lesson stable did NOT like people talking on his back. Well, sorry horse, i have to talk.

So I started explaining to this horse everything I was doing, every step, WHY I was doing this, the theory behind what I was doing, what my aids meant for that movement (like for the turn on the forehand I told him I was going to use my leg, when I was going to use my leg, and that I wanted him to cross his active hind leg on that side in front of his inactive hind leg), and when he did what I wanted he got PRAISED for being such a wonderful horse!

This horse started listening to my little talks. He started to absorb the theory. After a few weeks of my little “Ted Talks” he started understanding what I was saying. Then he started to ACTIVELY PARTICIPATE in his training.

It ended up one day I was telling my riding teacher how I was planning to ask this horse for something we had never done before. The horse listened intently and before I applied my aids he was already doing the new movement, calmly. When he stopped his attitude was “YOU did not think I understood English, well you are wrong, I understand English just fine when it makes sense.”

This Arabian gelding was NOT a beginner’s horse and had innumerable resistances and I was riding him only 30 minutes a week. However when I verbally explained stuff clearly he was quite willing to try stuff. He ended up being the best horse I have ever ridden, I always felt completely safe on him, and he never misbehaved under me like he did under other lesson riders–in spite of my problems with balance, coordination, and controlling my own body from my Multiple Sclerosis.

Sometimes when I was scared he even “told” me that everything would be fine, that he would take care of me, and he always did.

Talk to your horse. Explain stuff out loud. Praise every obedience even if it is only a little tiny microscopic step in the right direction.


This is another technique that I really like, and I do it with all the horses. It not only relaxes them, but it teaches them that maintaining the pace, tempo, and direction is their responsibility, and it teaches you how your position affects the horse, and how not to rely on your hands.

My horse has a bit of a screw loose, always has. He can get tense and explosive without clear, decisive handling. I have worked with trainers who advise staying under threshold, keeping my aids and my seat very light, etc. But honestly, I swear that only makes him worse. YMMV, but for my horse, “the only way out is through.” When he is nervous, I sit heavier (if I’m trotting, I don’t post), I keep my leg on and bump him every stride, I shorten up on the inside rein, I ask for a lot of transitions, and I don’t settle for anything less than a quick and calm response—otherwise I go straight for my crop. It’s all very draconian. But the next thing you know, he’s blowing out, head down, ready to cooperate and focus. I think he gets panicked and needs the assertive direction to reel himself back in. Any handling that’s too slow and lenient just jazzes him up more, especially the kind of give-and-take handling where you’re trying to have a conversation. The “give” part of give-and-take seems to make him think he’s steering the ship and you’re just reacting to him, he needs a lot more “take” before he can mentally handle “give.”