The scala of dressage states a horse should move freely forward with natural movements in all gaits. ‘Relaxation’ is the next point. And it can be quite confusing. If a horse is truly relaxed, it is asleep.
You need a certain muscle tone to perform. Relaxation in de scala is working without tension. But not only the absence of tension, it is also a state of mental comfort and the willingness to obey, to communicate with the rider. To get a horse in such a mental state, you need a physical comfort. Blocking his body, tight muscles, soreness or pain will cause physical and mental stress. But to perform certain exercises, muscles need to tighten and relax.
If the work is done with proper muscle action, everything looks easy. This flow disappears if the rider starts to force the horse in any way. Instead you should invite him to comply. Because he can do it, it is fun and you will move with him, so he won’t feel blocked.
This kind of relaxation is necessary for natural movement. Therefore it is quite confusing it is second in the scala. If you start with a fit horse fresh out of the stable, he might be a little bit exited and tense. By going forward without using too much reinpressure, he will relax. Don’t pull when he goes too fast. Try to steady him by riding big circles. If you need to brake, use both reins but let go again. Don’t hang on.
Try to get him to carry his head and neck. If he’s pushing forward with his hindlegs he will go on the forehand, losing his balance more and more with every stride. As if you stumble over a threshold. Make sure you sit up and you balance yourself on the hindlegs as well. He will push you forward, so you have to be aware of this all the time.
By nature a horse is a prey animal. Flight is his first defense. So if you pull the reins all the time, you restrict his natural instinct and he will try to get away from it even more. This creates a lot of tension.
If tension occurs while doing an exercise try to figure out why. Does he know what you want? Is he capable of doing it? Take a step back. Do a transition to a lower gait and repeat the exercise. Explain your aids one by one and don’t proceed until he understands the one you are working on. Ride forward with an equal contact on both reins until the good feeling is back. Then try again.
It doesn’t help to do something over and over again if it doesn’t happen the way you want it. Think about it first. Then change the approach. Make sure he understands what you ask. Don’t force, invite.
Give a horse a break in between. Especially if he has done something very well, reward him by giving the reins gently, so he can chew the bit out of your hands downwards. Don’t lose the contact, but make it lighter and give reins gradually, so his nose goes down and a little forward, but without hollowing his neck and back. You can go back to walk to give him such a break, but you can also do this in trot and canter. It is actually a good test if your seat is independent enough. If he doesn’t follow you hand down, ride him forward again and take up a bit more contact until he does.