You often hear or read about the relevance of relaxation or "Losgelassenheit" for the training of the horse. It is so basic that colonel Hans von Heydebreck and colonel Felix Bürkner, who authored the last two editions of the old German army training manual (“Heeresdienstvorschrift”) made it element number two in the training pyramid, following only the regularity of rhythm, tempo and stride length. In Alexis L'Hotte's famous short version of "calm, forward, and straight", the psychological component of relaxation is placed at the beginning of the list. While the majority of riders seem to recognize the importance of "Losgelassenheit", not everybody seems to have a thorough understanding of what does and does not constitute "Losgelassenheit" in an equestrian sense.
Many English speaking riders use the term "calmness" instead of "Losgelassenheit", which brings a shift in connotation with it. Calmness is a part of Losgelassenheit, but correctly understood, Losgelassenheit goes far beyond mere calmness. Some well meaning riders make the preservation of the horse's calmness under any circumstances their highest priority. They tend to back off as soon as their horse shows any sign of nervousness or discomfort without investigating thoroughly enough where the reactions are coming from. The horse in turn learns within a matter of days that he is rewarded with a reduction of the demands if he displays any displeasure at the rider's aids. One could say that it is the horse who is then teaching his rider to yield to pressure, rather than the other way around. Loving owners with the best intentions can train their horses to become veritable little monsters this way, even to the point where the horse learns to use dangerous behavior such as bucking and rearing against the rider.
True Losgelassenheit, which the Old Masters and the authors of the Heeresdienstvorschrift had in mind, is defined very well by lieutenant colonel Gustav von Dreyhausen (Grundzüge der Reitkunst, 3rd edition, Wien 1951, p. 24, reprint: Olms 1996, translation: TR):
"We can therefore perhaps characterize correct equestrian Losgelassenheit as a type of behavior in which the horse yields completely to the rider's aids and applies all of his strength and all of his muscles towards the energetic and impulsive execution of the present demands without feeling constricted."
As you can see, this description does not even mention calmness explicitly, although it is implicitly contained in the phrases "yields completely" and "without feeling constricted". However, what was uppermost on von Dreyhausen's mind is that the horse completely and unconditionally accepts and respects the rider's aids, as expressed by the phrase "applies all of his strength and all of his muscles towards the energetic and impulsive execution of the present demands". That is an absolutely crucial point on which the rider has to insist, if he wants to be safe. Unfortunately, all too often riders do not pay attention to it and de facto give up control over their horse this way.
Without this whole-hearted acceptance of the rider's leg, seat, and reins, Losgelassenheit is impossible. The horse can certainly be calm without being obedient to the aids. But losgelassen? No. A horse who is calm, but without accepting the aids, will lose his calmness and may even get angry as soon as the rider makes the smallest request with his aids, because he has never learned to work for a living. He has never been taught a work ethic. A horse who is losgelassen, on the other hand, will answer the rider's request with enthusiastic obedience.
In the physical dimension, a calm horse who does not accept the aids is always more or less stiff and resistant in various areas of his body. The blockage may not always be immediately obvious, but a knowledgeable rider will be able to detect it right away. Stiffness and resistance are of course the antithesis of relaxation.
A horse who does not accept the aids is unsafe - even if he appears calm - because the rider has no true control over his mount whatsoever, whereas the back of a horse who is losgelassen (implying obedience to the aids) is the safest place in the world for his rider, even in situations where something startles the horse, because the horse will remain on the aids, and the rider can re-establish the former calmness quickly and easily.
Experience shows that we have to distinguish between several different types of calmness. In the previous paragraph I mentioned the kind of calmness that is the result of the horse's acceptance of the aids and that accompanies Losgelassenheit. In addition, there are other, unfortunately more commonly found, types of calmness that occur in horses who do not accept the rider's aids. The most frequent one could be called complacency or sleepiness. You can see many horses who present a superficially pleasant picture, but if you take a closer look, you see that their gaits are completely lifeless. They shuffle along with short, flat, dinky strides, kicking up a cloud of dust, half asleep, without paying much attention to their rider. But due to their good nature, they are relatively harmless.
Then there are the horses who are of a more irascible disposition. They are calm as long as you don't impose on them in any way. However, if you dare to disturb their peace by driving and asking for more energy, they stop or kick out at the driving aid, or they threaten to buck or rear. They have a grumpy, sullen “leave me alone or I’ll buck you off” attitude that is very unpleasant to deal with.
Yet another category of calmness could be labeled "calm before the storm". This is a phenomenon that you can encounter especially in warmbloods. These horses withhold themselves. They "store" their energies, while appearing outwardly calm and downright lazy. Some of them appear quite unresponsive and work less and less, the harder the rider is working at trying to make them go forward. Then, when the unsuspecting rider least expects it, they can explode into a bucking fit, for no reason at all, other than that they cannot contain their slowly but surely mounting energy any more. New horse owners who just bought their first warmblood after riding exclusively Thoroughbreds, Quarter horses, or Arabians all of their life, are often in for a rude awakening, because they don’t understand their new horse’s psychology. Among baroque horses, this is luckily not a very common problem – probably due to the several additional centuries during which the baroque breeds have been selectively bred for dressage and for an outstanding character compared to most other breeds.
These types of calmness are really manifestations of sucking back and - with the possible exception of the first one - can be quite dangerous. In most cases, they are manmade. Many riders consciously or subconsciously prevent their horses from going forward, because they are either afraid of the energy, or they are unable to sit the bigger, more powerful gaits. So they do their best to stifle their horse's movement in order to create the illusion of control or of being able to sit the trot. Other riders are not experienced enough to know whether the energy level that their horse volunteers is sufficient or not, i.e. whether their horse is holding himself back or not.
The previous paragraphs illustrated that positive, willing responsiveness to the rider’s aids is an absolutely necessary prerequisite if true Losgelassenheit is to be achieved. And this responsiveness, this obedience to the rider’s aids – it cannot be emphasized enough – begins with the obedience to the calf aids. Without obedience to the driving aids, the seat and rein aids have nothing to work with. They are completely helpless. Colonel Hans von Heydebreck, the great teacher, rider, and judge of the early 20th century, included this central concept in his little booklet on judging dressage tests (Die deutsche Dressurprüfung, Verlag Dr. Rudolf Georgi, Aachen 1928, 72, translation: TR):
“Absolute obedience to the leg aids is the prerequisite for the horse's obedience. For this purpose, the calves have to be in permanent light contact, from top to bottom, with the horse's body. The horse must be on the leg.”
A foolproof test for whether a horse is thinking forward or backwards, whether he is completely accepting the aids or not is to apply a driving aid with either a leg, the whip, or the spur. If the horse reacts to the driving aid with a more accentuated forward-upward movement of his hind leg, he is clearly thinking forward, and he is respectful of the aids. On the other hand, if the horse slows down, or goes against the leg, if he kicks out or bucks, he is thinking backward, and he is rudely disrespectful of the rider and his aids.
Just as there are different types of calmness, the thinking trainer has to distinguish between several different types of nervousness or agitation, depending on their underlying cause. Horses can lose their calmness for a variety of reasons. Outward distractions, e.g. can compromise the horse's concentration and calmness. Pain in the horse's back or legs, e.g., can very quickly lead to sucking back and getting agitated and defensive. Pain can in turn be caused either by an injury, poor conformation, ill-fitting tack, or poor rider’s aids. If the rider's seat is stiff and unbalanced it can drive some horses crazy, even if it is not painful. Excessive demands will, of course, intimidate or antagonize a horse as well.
When the calmness is compromised the rider must therefore decide quickly where the disturbance comes from. The first thing the rider should check is the correctness of his seat as well as the timing, coordination, and intensity of the aids. The second important element the rider has to re-evaluate is the level of the demands he is placing on the horse. Making this decision reliably requires quite a bit of tact and practical training experience.
Even when the rider gives correct aids and the demands are reasonable, some horses will lose their calmness on certain occasions. I am thinking especially of correction horses here who had already been "trained" to ignore or disrespect the rider and his aids. These horses are fairly numerous, and every professional encounters them on a regular basis. In these cases, the rider has to persist quietly with his demands until the horse begins to co-operate and settle down. Once the horse understands that the rider's demands are not as bad as he thought they were and that there is no way around them, he will be much calmer, more reliable, safer and more obedient than before. In other cases, the introduction of a new exercise can lead to a certain degree of nervousness, which will go away again with time and patient practice. E.F.Seidler (Die Dressur diffiziler Pferde, 1846, p. 137, reprint Olms 1990, translation: TR) addresses this issue:
"The transition from muscle tension to natural muscle action is usually
accompanied by nervousness, often even disobedience, which the rider has to
outlast with patience."
Nuno Oliveira (Notizen zum Unterricht von Nuno Oliveira, Nuno Oliveira: Sämtliche Schriften, vol. 3, Olms 1998, p. 17, translation: TR) agrees:
"When a horse gets nervous during a new exercise, one has to calm
him down during the exercise. Otherwise he will get nervous every time we
ask something more or something new from him."
In other words, a certain loss of calmness is sometimes difficult to avoid when the rider addresses fundamental shortcomings in the horse's training, and true progress will only become possible after the horse has begun to make an honest effort to understand and obey the rider's aids calmly without argument. It is not important that the horse delivers a perfect performance, especially since perfection is more or less unattainable anyway. What is important, however, is that the horse tries whole-heartedly to comply with the rider's request, even if it is difficult. That is one of the hallmarks of a well-trained horse at any level. If the demands are fair, the rider has to wait patiently until the horse has understood and calmly yields to the requests, as the famous 19th century “Stallmeister” (=écuyer) B.H.v.Holleuffer wrote (Die Bearbeitung des Reit- und Kutschpferdes in den Pilaren, 1896, p. 80, reprint Olms, Hildesheim 1985, translation: TR):
"How much time needs to be dedicated to each individual exercise depends
upon the behavior and the progress of the horse; in any case, it is better
to demand less rather than too much, but one should not finish the lesson
before achieving obedience and calmness, in case the horse showed suspicion
E.F.Seidler (Die Dressur diffiziler Pferde, 1846, p. 84, translation: TR) wrote the same guideline half a century earlier:
"The basis of a principled education of a horse is: to achieve a goal in each lesson, whether it is the calming of the temperament, or the physical training; the horse must never leave the arena without taking a progress with him. The main foundation of daily progress is: the calm yielding to the training; the horse must neither resist out of exuberance, nor must the rider provoke nervousness by inappropriate actions."
Today, former Spanish Riding School chief rider Karl Mikolka teaches his students that when you select a certain area within the arena, you must not leave this area before the horse has yielded to the request. Otherwise, we would teach the horse that he does not need to obey the rider in this spot, which would be a dangerous message to send. As soon as the horse has made a sincere attempt at executing the request, the rider can leave the area and change the topic, which is a reward for the horse.
To resume the original train of thought: As important as the right kind of calmness is, the one that comes from trusting obedience, the rider must not accept the wrong kind of calmness, i.e. the conditional calmness that gives way to anger as soon as the rider asks the horse to make an honest effort in his work. This type of calmness must be destroyed before the correct kind of calmness can develop. Gustav von Dreyhausen (Grundzüge der Reitkunst 1951, p. 34, translation: TR) sums it up best:
"The rider should never demand too much at once. He should
make his demands with patience, competence, and correct aids. He should
never back down until the horse fulfills a fair demand, or shows at least an
honest effort. A mistake in this respect can have bad consequences for the horse's obedience out of harmless beginnings. It is usually easy to stop disobediences if they
are felt and recognized early. But if this does not happen immediately, fights between horse and rider become inevitable."
Trust and respect go hand in hand. One is impossible to achieve without the other. Respect without trust would really be fear rather than true respect. Trust without respect results in an ill-mannered, rude horse who will crowd the human's space, ignore the human's communications, and even flat out refuse to comply.
Yielding to pressure, i.e. respect for the human's space and aids, is taught long before the horse is ever backed, so that by the time a rider sits on the horse for the first time, the horse is already familiar with the principle. Therefore, correctly started horses will hardly give the rider any arguments, as long as the aids are clear and the demands are reasonable. But incorrectly started horses who have never learned to trust or to respect the human, who have never learned to yield to pressure, will sometimes begin an argument, even at very simple requests. The rider should, of course, never seek a confrontation, but on the other hand, he has to stand his ground if a horse really refuses to comply with simple requests that are well within his abilities.
Waldemar Seunig sums this up very well in the second chapter of his book "Von der Koppel bis zur Kapriole" (Wolfgang Krüger Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 1949, p. 55f., translation: TR):
"'Horses and women alike do not love the weak. Much less do they respect them', says Alvisi in his 'Aphorisms', and rarely have truer words been spoken.
"It is always good, out of consideration for the character and the legs of
the young horse, to avoid a fight by diplomacy, if you can reach your goal
on a different path. However, one must not avoid a fight, if the horse would otherwise realize that one has given in. Giving in, in order not to disturb the peace and to maintain the 'friendship' at any cost, would be a mistake in such a moment, because this friendship becomes worthless if it is not founded on the horse's respect and on his acceptance of the human's alpha status.
"With young horses serious fights are completely unnecessary. However, there are rogues who were spoilt by their previous riders, and who, given a chance, bring the rider into situations in which he cannot and must not avoid addressing the hierarchy issue any longer. In such critical moments it is only the rider's energy, supported by a firmly closed seat and a few smart whacks, that can save the situation. Later on the most loyal friendship can blossom out of such a standoff. However, the peace will remain treacherous until the atmosphere has been cleansed and the rider's will and mind have proven superior in a victorious fight that was fought with cold energy."
It is important to keep in mind that a lack of respect on the horse's part comes in all kinds of shapes and sizes, and it is up to the rider's tact and experience to evaluate the situation correctly and to respond with the appropriate action - not too much, not too little. And it is important to remember that young horses, especially intelligent ones, learn very quickly,
and that this ability to learn does not discriminate between good and bad. A green horse can learn to be disrespectful and borderline dangerous within a matter of days or weeks in the wrong hands. Whereas in the right hands, the same horse will always be polite, friendly, and obedient.
This has been an interesting tour through all the various and sundry aspects that tie in with the concept of calmness/relaxation/Losgelassenheit. When you investigate any topic in this fashion, you will see again and again how intricate and complex the connections and interdependencies of all the training principles are. Each concept is related to all the other concepts as well, so that any investigation into a certain area is like throwing a pebble into a pond that sends larger and larger concentric rippling waves out from the center. This realization is in itself an important discovery, above and beyond what you learn about the original subject matter.