Find out how adding loosening excercises to your daily training will improve your horse’s gaits and his enjoyment of the work.

By Sabine Schut-Kery with Louisa Zai

~This article first appeared in the May 2011 issue of Dressage Today magazine (DressageToday.com)

Sanceo - Sabine Schut-Kery 9T5U3149
Looseness is an elementary concept in dressage. It is at the foundation of dressage training, and it encompasses basic ideals like relaxation and suppleness. And yet, despite its simplicity, looseness is one of the most difficult qualities to preserve in a dressage horse as he advances through the levels. In this article I will try to clarify what looseness is, how to recognize it and how to create it. I have also included some of my favorite exercises to encourage looseness in the advancing dressage horse.

In Germany, we use the expression Losgelassenheit, which translates literally to mean “looselettingness.” I prefer this word because it helps explain that the looseness is not just physical, but that the horse also lets go in his mind. In Losgelassenheit, the horse works for his rider in a state that is both mentally and physically free from tension or constraint.

Signs of Losgelassenheit are easy to recognize. The horse carries the bit in a slightly foamy but quiet mouth; his ears are relaxed and tipped forward or turned slightly toward the rider; his tail swings in rhythm with his footsteps. He looks happy, content and comfortable in his work.

The most important sign of Losgelassenheit is how the horse works through his back. This may not be as easy to recognize at first, but it is critical to learn. The horse is connected through his topline by a long ligament, the nuchal ligament, which runs from his poll to his tail. When the horse lowers his haunches while reaching forward with his poll, this ligament is pulled taut. When the horse’s back is hollow, this ligament sags. When the horse lowers his hindquarters and keeps his neck long, the ligament becomes tensioned like a bow, and thus it helps to lift the middle of the horse’s body, namely the withers and back. This lift frees the horse to defy gravity a bit more, and he is thus able to move in a fluid and effortless manner.

Riding a horse who is working in Losgelassenheit is an unforgettable feeling, but it is still easy to be lulled into thinking you have it when you don’t. Relaxation is an important feature,
but it is not the only quality. It takes a good effort for the horse to engage his haunches (to tension the nuchal ligament), and he will not be able to do it if you are just poking along. The horse must be receptive to the rider’s aids.

Lightness is one of the greatest ideals in dressage, but not all lightness is ideal. If the horse drops his head down or shortens his neck, he may give the rider a light feeling in the reins, but it is incorrect. Remember, the horse must lengthen his neck and engage his haunches to lift his back. When the horse’s back is up and swinging, it feels
easy to sit and move with the horse. When the horse’s back sags, the rider will feel perched on top of the horse and the gaits will not feel comfortable.

Stretching. So you think your horse is relaxed, his back feels like it is up and swinging, and you have a good connection in the reins. But how can you be absolutely sure you have Losgelassenheit? Ask your horse to stretch forward and downward. If you ease the reins forward, what happens? Ideally, he will stretch his neck forward first, then downward. Not much else should change. His tempo and balance should remain consistent, and if he was bent, the bend should stay in place. If you have mirrors, watch to make sure that he stretches forward then down. Most dressage riders are familiar with the forward and downward stretch, which is introduced to us all in the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) Training Level tests, but it is so important to remember that this stretch should be available at any time, no matter what level your horse is working.

If your horse lost his balance, rushed off or dropped his neck, you unfortunately did not have Losgelassenheit. The good news is that this is a quality that can be created and improved. I am going to share some of my favorite exercises and patterns for developing Losgelassenheit, but first let’s review the prerequisites:

A good seat. A rider must be balanced and have a cohesive and elastic seat in order to foster Losgelassenheit in a horse. The rider must have a strong enough core to be able to dictate the rhythm she wants. The rider must be able to stay vertical to resist manipulations from the horse.

A correct tempo. Losgelassenheit is on the second tier of the training pyramid, but a consistent rhythm comes first. I tell my students never to accept the wrong tempo from a horse. Some horses like to go fast and choppy in the gaits, while others force their riders to beg for more with constant leg aids. Classically, we are taught to go with the horse’s movement, but that is only true if the horse is moving in a correct tempo. The rider chooses the tempo, not the horse. Through consistent training the horse can learn to work in a steady tempo (see “How to Keep a Steady Tempo,” p. 52).

Be a good trainer. If your horse comes above the bit or just goes flat and on his forehand, ask yourself if you kept riding. The stretch is not break time for you or your horse. You have to maintain the tempo with your seat, keep an elastic contact with the bit, keep the bend with your leg and stay balanced in the saddle.

Your horse also will fall flat if you have taught him to lean on the bit for support. Stretching forward and down is a tool for your training but not the end goal. Train your horse to seek the bit, but also teach him to work in selfcarriage and to carry his own neck.

If your horse rushes off, ask yourself if you have been in the habit of rating his speed with the reins.

If he drops his neck down or curls behind the bit, you are going to have to retrain him to stretch into the contact and carry his neck. Ask him to stretch forward frequently, but only to the limit where he can maintain a connection, then bring him back up again. As he becomes more stable, you can gradually increase the stretch. Carry your hands in a steady position and be careful not to take backward with the reins. As soon as the horse understands the stretching forward and downward exercise, I like to alternate frequently between inviting him to stretch forward and down and then bringing him back up into the bridle. As your horse’s scope grows, his gaits will blossom.

Trot Leg Yield for Flexibility
I like this pattern for developing flexibility in a horse. Bending loosens the horse’s body just as side stretches do for us. When the horse is properly bent, he contracts the inside muscles of his body and stretches the outside of his body. The feeling of having a horse connected from the inside leg to the outside rein is a by-product of proper bend.

When teaching, I often encounter students who have the wrong idea about the outside rein. The outside rein does not hold back or restrict the horse. When a horse is properly bent, the outside of his body reaches forward and around a wider radius. The outside rein functions as a channel for the horse and helps to keep his neck aligned with his body. This exercise helps the horse and rider find the proper feeling for the ideal inside-leg-to-outside-rein connection (see photos, page 52).

1. Start at trot on a 10-meter half circle to the centerline.
2. Leg yield to the quarterline.
3. When the quarterline is reached, straighten the horse and proceed in shoulder-fore to the short side.

So if you are on the rail tracking right, make a 10-meter half circle from S to I. Then leg yield to the left onto the quarterline. When you reach the quarterline (approximately between P and V), proceed to the short side in shoulder-fore and track right when you reach the rail.

The Canter Leg Yield
The canter leg yield is one of my favorite canter exercises for aligning a horse and getting him to work more over his back. In canter, a lot of horses prefer to carry their haunches slightly in with the weight tipped on the forehand. This exercise will give you tools to straighten your horse and engage his hind legs. I call it a leg yield only because it follows a forward-sideways pattern similar to the trot leg yield at First Level. It is actually different from a trot leg yield in that the horse does not cross his legs. Also, in a traditional leg yield, you ask for flexion only in the poll. For this canter exercise, it is really important to bend your horse throughout his body.

1. As with the traditional trot leg yield, you can turn down the centerline or quarterline.
2. Ask your horse to move toward the rail in a forward and sideways direction.

At first, I introduce this exercise by working from the quarterline so the horse has only a short distance to travel to reach the rail. Eventually, I work up to moving from the centerline to the
rail. So if you are cantering on the left lead, you turn down the quarterline after passing A. Make sure your horse is aligned parallel to the long side, and then ask him to move forward and sideways to the right toward R. In this exercise, you are moving away from the direction of the bend, so keep your horse bent left even as you ask him to move to the right.

Ride the movement in a stair-step pattern, alternating between a few forward and then sideways strides. This helps both you and your horse recognize the importance of the channeling aids. Concentrate on bending him through his rib cage and around your leg and developing a stable inside-legto-outside-rein connection. You’ll know the exercise is working well when your horse feels as if he is growing taller and as he responds to your inside leg aid by engaging his hind legs.

Troubleshooting: The exercise is not correct if your horse feels like he is bowling sideways, falling to the rail or being pulled to the rail as if by a magnet. Teach him to control his momentum by realigning him with a forward stride or two after each sideways jump.

If your horse gets strung out and breaks into trot, quietly restore the canter and repeat the exercise, asking for smaller sideways jumps while sustaining the forward energy.

Use these patterns, but don’t feel bound to them. They are meant to give you direction but you can vary them, depending on your horse and what he needs at the moment.

You have only to review the training scale to discover that Losgelassenheit has been selected as one of the six most important qualities to develop in our dressage horses. Unfortunately, it is an
easy step to neglect, but if you give it its due, you will be rewarded with a happily performing horse that is a pleasure to ride and to behold.