Photo Credit: NBanaszak Photography

We see it all the time, and maybe we even do it all the time. This happens to beginner riders as well as the most advanced, and shows up in horses at every level. Sometimes it's unavoidable but it's always undesirable. What is it?

It's tension.

In the rider. In the horse.

What does tension look like?

In the rider, tension is mostly evident in the body: the tightness through the joints, the clasping for the reins, the perching seat or the tight lower back.

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It's also apparent in the manner of the aids. Sharp, jerking movements, either with the reins or legs indicate stress or an otherwise emotional response from the rider. There might also be a hint on the rider's face, expression and verbal cues.

Similarly, the horse can display tension physically and mentally.

When tension exists, the horse's body literally tightens. His strides might shorten, his head may rise to an uncomfortable height and he may take a misstep here or there. Alternately, his head may go far down below the

The horse might rush or fall into a turn. He might also be reluctant to go forward.

Mental tension can be indicated by an uncomfortable mouth, pinned-back ears and a regularly swishing tail. Some horses learn to just "get along" despite their discomfort, while other horses become more and more difficult to ride over the long term.

What's the problem?

The thing is, tension happens all the time. You might tense up because the horse took a step (or leap, or buck) in a direction you weren't expecting. Or the horse might tense up just from spotting that horse-eating monster in the corner of the arena. There are probably hundreds of situations that might cause tension in the rider, the horse and both.

Working to eliminate tension isn't the problem. If you notice yourself tightening up but you purposely loosen through your joints or stabilize through your core, then you can fix it. If you catch your horse with your inside aids as he steps in, straighten him out and continue moving forward, you've done exactly what you need to do to teach the horse that he can depend on you, mentally and physically.

Repeat these scenarios hundreds of times and you will both learn to rely on each other for security and support. Keep addressing the tension and long-term results will bring about a calm, steady horse with a similarly well-minded rider.

The real problem is that too many riders don't address tension when it arises. Or perhaps, we don't even know what it feels like. Or looks like. Maybe we misinterpret the signals the horse sends us, or we need more education to be able to actually identify it - in both ourselves and our horses.

The result of not knowing? That can be the topic of an entire book. However, it can be said that the horse suffers - from head tossing to kicking out, to physical damage (such as problems to the joints and vertebrae) to mystery lamenesses.

It can show up in the rider too. We may also suffer physical problems (let's say, from too much weight in the hands or falling). Some people also develop mental/emotional blockages which cause physical tension. Let's say your horse often spooks to the inside of the ring. Your physical reaction is to grab the reins and get into a "fetal position" in your body. Eventually, you assume the tense position as soon as you feel your horse tighten. You tense, your horse tenses. Or visa versa.

What to do.

If we agree that tension itself isn't the real problem, but knowing about it is, then we can begin to address the various situations that occur systematically. It can be tricky to identify and then know what to do about tension. Here are some ideas that might help.

1. Slow down your aids.

This one takes practice if you're not used to it. As soon as you feel tension, in your own body or in your horse's, slow everything down. This doesn't mean you stop moving or you let the horse "suck back." Continue what you were doing, but use your aids just that little bit longer. It gives the horse time to think, respond and just settle mentally. Rather than rushing or pushing him along, pretend you're stuck in quicksand, and s-l-o-w-l-y apply the aids.

2. Take more time.

Pretend you have all day, even if you don't. Allow the horse time to just move along. So if he needs a longer trot warm-up, give it to him. If he needs more work on transitions, then work the ups and downs but don't rush them. If you wanted the result in half a circle, give him a whole circle. If you need a break, take it!

Reduce the urgency of your requests and spend more time at each movement.

3. Have an "eye on the ground."

This one is for the riders who can't yet feel tension. We all need prompting at first, and maybe even in later years as you progress in your riding levels. Your instructor will see the tension in either your horse or your body, tell you and then you can begin to identify what it feels like. Later, you'll be able to act earlier in the sequence - maybe catch the tension as it becomes apparent, not after. But we all have to start somewhere, and an educated eye can always help.

I know what you're going to say - there are times when you simply can't avoid riding in tension. This is absolutely true. Some athletic movements require horses to be strong and firm and active - think jumping, for example. The tight turns and high jumps set the horse up to put maximum effort at a moment's notice. There's bound to be mental and physical tension under those circumstances.

The key is to actually know that the tension is there, and to work at reducing it. Give your horse a wonderful stretchy trot at the end of a jumping session, for example. Allow the horse to mentally take a break while other riders take their turns. Break down a riding session into chunks and spend some time addressing the things that cause you to tighten up.

Be aware, and work towards looseness. 

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More reading:

Polished Transitions (That Look Effortless and Feel Great): The horse stays round, energetic and bold. The gait change is matter-of-fact, easy. In fact, good transitions are critical for a seamless, harmonized ride.

18 Reasons To Establish "Forward Energy": It’s not exactly about just getting the horse moving faster – this is where the ideas of impulsion and then engagement become more critical.

What "In Front Of The Leg" Feels Like: “In front of the leg” isn’t just faster. Even though there is a significant energy increase when the horse increases the tempo of the footfalls, speed isn’t exactly what you’re looking for.

Five Steps To Transforming Your Horse's "Give To The Bit": No matter how you slice it and dice it, a pull causes some sort of blockage of energy somewhere in the horse’s body.

How To Stretch Your Horse Over The Topline: Don’t just let the reins go to the buckle and become a blob on your horse’s back. There is a real art to stretching the horse so that it is beneficial for him.




  1. WOW- this is so helpful! I just discovered after 25 years or so, that the”slight” tension in my legs and arms is just enough to prevent a deep seat and to ride too much of a stiff leg which causes a stiff hand. Letting go and just sitting allows the horse’s back to come up and then I can find true harmony! But it is so hard for a control freak like me to not use my entire body to make the horse do what they are supposed to. At least I have discovered what I need to strive for – as difficult as it can be when tightening the legs and arms/hands appears to provide results – but not the harmony and ligthness that a connected deep seat will achieve.

  2. Hi There
    I am one of your biggest fans!
    As a Coach your blog has been very useful and “spot on” for affirming dressage lessons with my students. I post Horse Listening on my PineHill Stable FB Page all the time!

    Today I would like to ask if you are ever considering doing a series on starting and training the young dressage horse. Right from ground work and going down center line for the first time. It would be a best seller I am sure.

    Looking forward to more Horse Listening

    1. Hi Colleen,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. I’m thrilled that you’re finding the articles useful for your students, and thanks so much for sharing them on FB. I’ve actually never thought about writing something about starting young horses, although it is a great idea. Thanks for the suggestion. I’ll think on it!