Who watched any of the London 2012 Olympics Dressage? Of course I was biased and wanted Charlotte and Valegro to win regardless, but when comparing their test to that of Adelinde Cornelisson and Parzival, for me there was no contest. Charlotte and Valegro were soft, relaxed and flowing, Adelinde and Parzival were strong but tense by comparison. To produce Grand Prix dressage movements there has to be tension, but if that is the overriding picture, it no longer is pleasing to watch because the horse doesn’t flow or look so happy in its work. Equally, if we see the rider looking tense, it they don’t look happy either. I by no means wish to criticise Adelinde, it’s just that to me the tension in that combination was too great.
20 plus years ago I used to get a lot of headaches when I was riding. We nailed it down to tension from my shoulders, and spent a lot of time in my lessons working on how to relax said shoulders. I honestly can’t really remember the details, although I do know that a big part of the issue was that I was away at boarding school. My instructor Sandra would frequently bemoan the fact that just as she got me right, I would be off again. The reality is that I was young and weak, and essentially I was just starting to get strong enough to maintain my posture AND ride effectively and then I’d be off. The cycle had to start again next time I came home.
So why is this relevant to the subject of tension? Because my lack of strength and fitness for riding meant that I was underusing certain key parts of my body and consequently overusing other parts. I was tending to tip a little forward and stabilise my arms by lifting up my shoulders. My upper trapezius muscles became very overactive, and the tension from these is what gave me the headaches.
In my case, tension not only gave me headaches but also – partly because it was related to my posture – meant that my hands were fixed. By using my upper trapezius I then limited my ability to use the rest of my shoulder muscles to control and move my arms. We need tension in our muscles because this is what creates movement and provides stability; the technical name is ‘tone’. But, if tone is too high then we have tension and this blocks movement, if tone is too low then we cannot create movement.
I want you now to think about your own tension, and how this might impact on your body.
For me, my current area of tension is around my jaw; I have had a massive amount of life stress in the last few years, and about 18 months ago I became aware that of a feeling that my head was going to explode. After initially thinking it was my blood pressure going through the roof, I realised it was actually that I was clenching my jaw so tightly that I could feel it in my temples. The worst part about this is that I wasn’t doing this just at times of stress, but it became habitual, even when I was riding. The way our body is connected from the neck and down into the arms means that I was blocking my contact. I was also making my breathing very shallow, which when you think it through is one of the worst things to do when riding.
As with so many ‘bad habits’, once I had identified the problem I was able to try to stop myself as soon as I became aware I was clenching my teeth. I am now not doing it nearly as much, and not at all when I ride. On top of this, I am actively trying to make myself relax my jaw when I ride – in particular schooling. Through the last term of Pilates classes I also encouraged everyone to smile; think Strictly and the ability to smile throughout a dance! Smiling is great because it encourages ‘positive tension’, and for me certainly means I can’t lock my jaw.
Other common areas of tension that can be experienced include the stomach and feet. Stomach tension is often linked to a degree of anxiety/nervousness and therefore also breath-holding. Tension in the feet can also be due anxiety – eg toe curling, but also if you have a slightly unusual foot shape which isn’t well supported; once in the saddle the rest of the leg tries to compensate for this, often by locking the foot into position.
Try a little test – tense your foot into one of the above positions, and feel what happens to your leg. Now think how that would impact on your riding. Then tense your abdominals as if pulling your ribs down to your pelvis. Now think about how that impacts on your ability to sit and also on the tightness around your hips.
The key is to identify your tension and then work out where is stems from:
If it is the result of weakness elsewhere – as with me in my youth – then that is quite simple to resolve (hopefully!) even if it takes a while to achieve.
If you have an anxiety based tension then you will need to think laterally about how to combat this, and then transfer this to riding. That said, focusing on breathing is good place to start anyway, and even just out hacking you can practise altering your tension/breathing and see how it affects your horse.
If you have a structural issue like your feet – or any other specific asymmetry – then you will need to once again start off the horse looking at how you balance this, and then transfer this to the riding position.
I would suggest that if it is relatively straightforward you can address tension issues yourself, or with your instructor’s help. Otherwise, it is well worth getting help from some form of health professional, whether it is a Physio or a Sports Psychologist for example.
Ultimately, excess tension in the rider blocks movement and creates tension in the horse, so if we can restrict it to ‘normal’ tension then that can only be a good thing. Happy relaxing!!