Why is tension an issue?
Tension is one of those things that can completely destroy the mark you get for the movement or even your whole test. Judges will take off 1, 2, even 3 or 4 marks depending on how bad the tension is.
The reason why judges are so hot on tension is, obviously, related to those all important Scales of Training. Suppleness is the 2nd scale, and the aim when it comes to training our horses, is that every single muscle in the horses body is toned and being used correctly but is relaxed and free from tension and tightness. So, the aim, when it comes to suppleness, is to end up with a horse that you are able to move around say to make them rounder or sit more weight on their hindleg or move their body into a movement like a shoulder in or a half pass, but, when you do this, all those muscles that need to be used should do so in a relaxed way by contracting and relaxing the muscle not tightening, clamping and holding (and this is what tension ultimately is, its the tightening and holding of the muscles which stops the horse being able to move around freely). Suppleness is also one of the collectives you may have at the end of the test sheet that highlight the overall impression of the test. This will be something then that the judge is thinking about in every movement you do.
So if your horse gets tense in a test it highlights a lack of suppleness because all those muscles are tight and clamped and this stops your horse being able to bend and move how you need them to. But, tension can also then create a whole host of extra issues because your horse is not supple. So, all those things that suppleness improves: your contact; your straightness; your impulsion; your horses ability to be round and through; your horses ability to extend and compress; and also your horses ability to listen and respond to the riders aids can all be affected. So, if, lets say your horse has to do a 10m circle into a medium trot and they become tense and their muscles tighten and become fixed. This could affect your horses ability to bend around the circle so you may find they fall in or out, you may find your horse comes off the contact and lifts their head or that you lose the tempo and your horse rushes or slows down around the circle, or that the rhythm becomes irregular where your horse struggles to collect and take the weight onto the hindleg. In the medium you may find your horse lifts their head because they cannot extend and open out their neck and back, they may run rather than extend or may break into canter, they may come behind the leg or lose their straightness and drift to the left or right. And all of these things are caused by your horse becoming tense, tight and ultimately un-supple.
But then there's another kind of tension that is the kind of tension caused by anxiety rather than a lack of suppleness. And that is the tension that isnt caused by a lack of suppleness but is caused by your horse getting their body ready to take flight which is their natural response to stress. The reaction though is the same which is muscles tensing, holding and clamping but this can, obviously lead then onto spooks, spins, napping, rears or even severe contact issues or horses shutting down and coming behind the leg.
And this type of tension is very different entirely because i think of it more as a mental tension rather than everything weve spoken about before is more of a physical tension. You could have the most supple horse in the world but put something in front of them that scares them and those muscles will tighten and tense up and clamp, making them un-supple. this can fall into your submission collective too. Again, this means it will be something the judge is looking at in every movement of every test.
Finding the cause of the tension
So, if you know your horse gets tight or tense in a test i find it really helpful to work out whether the tension is firstly from a mental tension (is it something that is causing them to become anxious and tighten) or is it a physical tightness (is it a lack of suppleness). Then from there you can start to work out what is causing the tension and how you can fix it.
Every time i have a problem with something, for me the most important point is finding the cause of it. Its so easy to focus on the symptom which might be, you get tension on your test sheet, or your horse becomes lazy in the competition arena or they become really fixed or spooky or un-rideable. But when you focus on the symptom you can spend months if not years going down the wrong road trying to fix the symptoms without fixing the react problem. So, firstly i think working out whether its a mental tension issue or a physical tension issue is the first point and then working to find the root cause of the problem is then the next point.
This is arguably the most important part of solving your horses tension: finding the real root cause. If we go back to our 10m circle, medium trot example, more often than not i would see riders focussing on the symptoms; so if the horse becomes fixed on the circle theyll pull more with the inside rein, if the horse becomes lazy theyll kick harder or if the horses head comes up theyll try and hold them down. But all of these things would just be covering up the symptoms, not getting to the root cause of the problem which is a lack of suppleness. And the same is said for those horses that are more mentally tense; a lot of the time the rider and the horse will become obsessed with a specific corner or marker or thing that is causing the spooking, and yes sometimes that area or thing is particularly scary; but i would argue a lot of the time that spooky or spin is the final straw, thats the symptom that is becoming out because your horse is anxious in new environments or is un-used to busy warm ups or hasnt yet got used to the competition atmosphere or that you as the rider are tense and nervous.
And for all of these things you would deal with them in very different ways and this is why i think finding the root cause of the problem is the most important thing because, get the wrong cause or focus on the symptoms and you could spend months, even years trying hard to solve this issue that you are never going to solve because youre going down the wrong road. And there's been many a time where ive got it wrong, especially when ive focussed so much on the fact my horse was spooking at flower pots or my horse going behind the leg in the test and really just focussing on the symptoms rather than the actual cause and so i never made any improvements.
So, once you have worked out whether the tension is physical or mental and then the cause of the tension you can then look at different ways to help improve the tension. Some of these tips are a few little tricks ive picked up to keep your horse with you or help get them back when you lose their attention or the tension becomes too much. Others are longer term tips that will have a far longer term benefit and will actually help you to solve the real problem rather than just covering up the symptoms.
Tip 1: Are you nervous or anxious?
We all know horses pick up on our own emotions. Ive seen many a horse go from being an absolute saint in a competition to a nervous wreck purely because of a change of rider. If you imagine we teach our horses to respond to our every subtle cue that can also mean they respond to some cues we dont want them to. So, if we get on our horse and go into the warm up and we are tight, tense and anxious; its understandable that our horses will be tight, tense and anxious too. But it can also happen on a more subtle level too, i see a lot of riders, and i was one of them; that want so badly to do well that they completely change how they normally ride once they go down the centre line. If you feel like your horse shuts down, or goes behind the leg or becomes more spooky once you go down the centre line then i always suggest that the most likely reason your horse is changing is because you have changed how you ride.
So, if you notice that your horse always changes once you go down the centre line or always changes in a busy warm up or is always a little different at a big show to a local show; definitely go and watch some videos back and see if you change how you ride. So, ill give you an example, i had a horse that had a tendency to be more lazy than hot and id spent a lot of time teaching him that if he didnt respond to my light leg aid i would give him a big kick. But, when i went down the centre line and he didnt respond to my light aid i wouldnt give him the big kick because i was worried it would make my riding look messy or highlight the fact that my horse is behind my leg. So my horse started to learn that as soon as he went down the centre line i wouldnt correct him if he didnt react to my leg so in actual fact i ended up teaching him to be less reactive in a test. And this can happen if you hang onto the reins more in a test, or if you hold on to your horse to try and keep your horse round, or fix in your seat and upper body or if you get caught in that hole of 'knowing' (in quotation marks) that your horse will spook at a flower pot of will go behind the leg after the centre line or will come off the contact or go hollow or become tense. You end up riding them to almost do it anyway, almost like a self fulfilling prophecy.
If you know that your mindset is affecting your horse then this is something that is easily worked on. Having a good competition routine where you feel comfortable and get you and your horse ready to compete is invaluable, it takes a bit of time to build and sort and a little bit of trial and error but once you have one that works it makes all the difference.
Tip 2: Test Riding
No matter whether you feel like this problem is being caused by you as the rider or if you feel its something you need to work on with your horse, test riding can be a fantastic way to bridge the gap between training at home and at a show. You can run through tests at home and pay attention to how your riding may change or your horse may change, you can also practise those all important test riding skills that we forget all the time like accuracy and preparation. But there are also test riding clinics where you can go to another venue and practice travelling your horse, warming your horse up and ride through a test in a different environment. Its less high pressure for you and less high pressure for your horse and you have more time to go back and repeat movements or work your horse past the spooky corner or give yourself a bit more warm up and so on.
Going HC as well can be really helpful for a rider's mindset, and this is where your score doesnt go up on the board it doesnt count for anything but you still get the test sheet same as usual.
Tip 3: Create the perfect warm up plan
Horses are creatures of habit but i think so too are humans. We love a routine and im sure at home you probably already do some exercises more than others and there are some things you know work really well for your horse and some things that really dont. Creating a warm up plan can help you to create a routine that you know gets you and your horse in the best mental and physical state to go down that centre line. And, again a little like creating a competition routine it takes a bit of time to get right and you can play around with it after each show think about your warm up and what worked, what didnt work, what could you have added in that may have helped.
Tip 4: Take your trainer with you
I dont advise this for every show, but there have been many times where as a coach i could not understand why my clients werent scoring better at shows. They would perform perfect, accurate movements with a good way of going in test riding at home and then would have issues in the tests that they never had at home. Going to shows with these riders is eye opening, usually its the case that the loss of marks dont really come from the issues in the test but from the fact that their competition preparation isnt on point or their warm up isnt as beneficial as it could be, or they lose it on the way to the arena or they dont make the most of the outside of the arena. All these things are things i would never pick up as an at home coach but things i can really help my riders get to grips with once i know the problems.
So, if you are a bit stumped as to why tension keeps creeping into your tests and why its happening take your training along and ask them for their advice. Or send them videos of your tests too, i do a lot of post test debriefs with my riders over the phone which can be really helpful for those competitions that i cant get to or the ones that go a bit wrong or the ones that go very well too.
The reason why i dont advise this for every show is mostly because its very easy to rely on your training at shows and then suddenly not having them is another possible reason to set you on edge, make you more anxious, mess up your routine and so on. So a once in a while thing i think can be hugely beneficial but make sure you dont get caught in the hole where you feel like you cant do well unless your trainer is with you.
Tip 5: Use the test to your benefit
Every single test from prelim through to Grand Prix has a suppleness movement in it, whether its a circle or a shoulder in or half pass. And you can use these to your advantage to help improve your horses suppleness in the test and then be able to use that suppleness to relax your horse for the next few movements. No matter whether your horse is physically tense and un-supple or mentally tense and anxious, moving them around and suppling them up can create the relaxation and softening in the body that can help bring your marks back up and help you improve those suppleness and submission marks too.
Tip 6: Your corners are your best friend
The corners are a great space that you can use to your advantage in every test you do. Its a great place where you can re-balance your horse, make them more supple, and re-set everything and get everything back together again before your next movement. So, learning how to ride a good corner is hugely important because it can re-set everything and get you back on track but also keep your horse with you throughout the test if you ride them well. When i ride my corners i like to think of them in 3 steps:
1. As i go into the corner i think about using a half halt to get my horse to rebalance and take more weight onto their hindlegs, in the half halt i would definitely be using my leg as well so my horse doesnt lose the activity and energy as i bring more weight onto the hindleg
2. Then the next part is bending my horse around my inside leg helping create more suppleness and softness.
3. Finally, i think of releasing my horse out of the corner in a loose, swinging walk, trot or canter thinking about maintaining the activity and weight on the hindleg and the suppleness together.
I cannot emphasise enough how beneficial riding good corners can be, the half halt helps horses that are running through you or unbalanced to re-set themselves, it helps a physically tense horse to supple up and it gives a mentally tense horse some things to think about and focus on as well as teaching them to relax more in their body.
Tip 7: A subtle shoulder fore
Sometimes i find with tense horses, the harder the work becomes the more things they have to think about and focus on and the less tense they get. This isnt the case with all tense horses, but with the type that need more to focus on sometimes the lower levels are more hard than the higher levels. Straight lines down the long side tend to be a nemesis for tense horses and its usually where the spins or spooks start to happen when you have that long long side to travel down without much to think about other than what is going on outside the arena.
A shoulder fore is a subtle way of bringing your horses attention into the arena and also helps give your horse something extra to think about and its also a suppleness exercise so can help add in that extra bit of softness. Be careful with this though that it is subtle, dont swing your horse into a shoulder in but keep it a soft little shoulder fore where you can just ask for a touch of inside bend and get that inside hindleg crossing under a touch.