My horse gets tense in his dressage tests — what can I do to combat this?

  • Four-star event rider Coral Keen (pictured) provides one H&H forum user with some helpful advice on how to encourage a horse to become less tense during a dressage test

    Q: “Yesterday I took my horse to do elementary 42 at a dressage competition. We arrived at the venue in plenty of time, my horse was nice and chilled, drank some water as it was so hot and had a munch of some grass and hay. I then tacked up and warmed up. He worked beautifully in a lovely soft outline, with fab transitions for about 25 minutes. I thought ‘yes, we are going to win this’. It was then my turn so I went straight from the warm up arena into the main area. Cue eyes on stalks. The bell rang just past C, my horse tensed and rans off back to A, head up, stiff as a plank. He then decided the photographer was an evil monster and that every camera click was some form of firearm ammunition. The whole test was a disaster due to complete tenseness. Do you have any advice on how to ride a tense test, and how to avoid tension please? I am losing the will to compete. He is 10-year-old Andalusian and has been to quite a few competitions. He is easily distracted. Thanks in advance.”

    A: “The first thing I would advise is to go somewhere low-key where you can school through a test. Try and do this away from home, hire an arena and simulate the show feel by pretending to the horse that it is a test. Do everything you would if you were at show; warm up exactly how you said you have above, then take him into an area with the boarded arena and trot round a couple of times before you go in.

    Going schooling somewhere is a useful way to repeat and correct anything that has gone wrong at a competition. For example, if he doesn’t want to stand in halt, you can just stand and make him wait there until he does, giving lots of praise when he succumbs.

    Continued below…

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    Whether you are at a show or creating a competition environment as above, just before you enter the arena do little things to help keep your horse focused. Try putting in some transitions and doing some flexing, all the time telling yourself to stay relaxed and imagining that you’re still warming up and schooling. If you feel him getting tense before you start the test, reassure him with a pat and talk out loud to him.

    coral keen

    Coral in the dressage at Burghley

    Make sure you stay soft in your back and soft in your elbows so that the horse doesn’t pick up any tension from you. Remember the saying: ‘what’s in the brain goes down the rein’. It is possible that you get tense at the thought that he might, or with the pressure of wanting to win, so be aware that it is your responsibility to keep both soft and relaxed.

    Once in the arena, remember, you can pat your horse throughout the test. You won’t get marked down for giving him a little reassuring scratch on the neck and showing him that you’re in it together. Just because you’re going into the arena nothing changes — it’s the same as it is outside. It sounds like the warm up you’re doing is right for him, just try to emulate this in your test.

    Overall it sounds like he goes in and gets a bit insecure so tenses up. Anything you can do to give the horse confidence is a good thing. The key is to keep him focused and with you, so he doesn’t notice what else is going on around him.

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