Western Dressage Exercise – Releasing Tension

Modern science has given us wonderful new tools with which to further understand the horse’s musculature and skeletal functioning under a rider. What has become clear in the past few years of thermal imaging, feedback sensors, and continued bone studies is how blocked or tight the horse’s back can become even with correct regular training. A variety of factors from stress levels and saddle fit to footing changes and turnout schedules play a role here. Long considered an emotional filter, the horse’s back is perhaps the most important link in his physical and mental well-being. When tension accumulates here, it leads not only to physical discomfort but also psychological unrest. Like us, equine athletes can only perform well and offer willingness in the training when their back structure, including musculature and spinal joints, is supple and properly toned and free of the rigidity that can result from work.

101 Western Dressage Exercises from Jec Ballou WDAAOne of the best exercises for maintaining spine looseness is one that unfortunately gets practiced infrequently by most dressage riders. A brisk forward canter with the horse in a long stretched out frame works wonders for his back. The rider during these bouts adopts a “light seat,” or a modified two-point position. This seat, where the rider’s weight is lifted up out of the saddle and off the horse’s back is essential for allowing the span of the back utmost freedom and undulation. Unburdened, the back can pulsate more freely, delivering greater oxygen and releasing cramped spots. Occasional time spent riding in a light seat is essential for the horse’s development. If you are interested in learning more about why, consult work by the following classical dressage authors: Egon von Neindorff, Dr. Gerd Heuschmann, Erik Herbermann.

Releasing Tension

  1. Shorten your stirrups one or two holes from their normal length (you want to measurably increase the bent angle of your knee).
  2. Now, lift you seat out of the saddle so that you are hovering 4-6 inches out of the saddle.
  3. Continue stretching down into your deeply flexed ankles and torso bending slightly forward from the waist. Visualize yourself in a squatting position like a downhill ski racer with bent knees and slightly angled upper body.
  4. Now pick up the lope on a large oval. Allow the horse to stretch his neck out with his nose clearly ahead of vertical, as though he is stretching forward to touch the finish tape in a race.
  5. Encourage him to really move out with activity. Remain in your light seat off his back.
  6. Once he starts to release and move with good amounts of energy, then modify your oval.
  7. Continue galloping, but now by using her outside leg, “squeeze” in the sides of your oval a few meters on each side to make a fat hourglass shaped figure.
  8. Time yourself. Strive to maintain this brisk canter for at least 60 seconds before transitioning downward.


Western Dressage Weekly Exercise – authored by Jec Ballou | Copyright © 2013

3 Responses to “Western Dressage Exercise – Releasing Tension

  • Do you think this exercise will help to increase forward motion? My friend/trainer says that my horse does not go forward and I feel like that is all he does. I feel like I am always trying to get him to slow down but she says he needs to move out in order to become collected. i don’t know how to achieve that.

    • jec ballou
      5 years ago

      Hi Mindy,

      Your trainer is likely trying to help your horse release his back, thus the emphasis on good freely flowing forward motion. While this could not be interpreted as rushing or hurried movement, you DO need your horse “in front of your leg” in order to have the energy and flexion in his hindquarters to collect his strides. This exercise will certainly help. Good luck.

  • Marjorie Harper
    5 years ago

    Can you review the 180 turn on the forehand followed by the 180 turn on the haunches as found the new tests.