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Article Four:

Knowing Your Level of Relaxation

By definition, (physical) relaxation is the lengthening that characterizes inactive muscles. Equestrians, however, like most athletes, must maintain relaxation within an active body in order to perform with the necessary precision required by their sport. A balance between relaxation and tension must be achieved. This “balancing act” is even more complex for riders because both rider and horse need a

high degree of relaxation in order to move in sync with each other.  Relaxation for the rider occurs in conjunction with skeletal alignment. Tai chi and qi gong exercises teach relaxed movement within skeletal alignment. Because the tai chi stance mirrors the rider’s

alignment. Tai chi and qi gong exercises teach relaxed movement within skeletal alignment. Because the tai chi stance mirrors the rider’s
alignment in the saddle, equestrians often  find an immediate improvement in their riding position when practicing tai chi.

Further, tai chi/qi gong postures maintain the relaxed balance of skeletal alignment during motion as is required by the rider when in motion with the horse.


The Balancing Act

To ride with relaxed and skeletally aligned balance the rider needs abdominal strength. The prior article, “Knowing Your Dan-Tien Breath,” explains how diaphragmatic breathing lowers your center of gravity into your abdominal core. This is where your ideal balance lives because it is the point where your skeletal alignment works with gravity to support your body without undue muscle tension. Any

higher center will conflict with gravity and require tension to “hold” you upright. This action, in turn, destabilizes your seat and makes you less effective on your horse.  When your core is strong, your skeletal balance needs minimal tension to stay aligned with its natural

curves. This describes the classical “balanced” or “centered” seat (“seat” includes the  lower back, abdomen, and thighs), and applies to most riding disciplines. By containing balance in your core, the rest of the body can release tension and relax. This relaxed state, however, does not imply limpness: Muscles are poised and are ready to respond.


Muscle Tone and Strength

Generally speaking, the muscle tone developed through the practice of tai chi  – style and qi gong exercise is sufficient for most riders (learning the entire tai chi form will be even more beneficial to overall tone). And  while your seat (the muscles of the abdomen, lower back, buttocks and thighs) must be strong to balance and deliver the aids associated with an effective seat, overly developed

strength such as “six-pack abs” will actually hinder your ability to be soft and supple and relax with the horse’s movement. This is because energy passes through soft, relaxed muscle more easily than hard, tense muscle.  Because relaxed movement is also fast, the rider can pulse the aids rapidly, whereas tense movement is slow, resulting in aids that stay in contact with the horse far too long.  Training yourself to use aids correctly helps you to recognize the degree of relaxation necessary for advanced riding.

Recognition of Tension Versus Relaxation We tend not to recognize tension in our bodies. Over time, stress and injury increases our rigidity and stiffness so tension becomes part of who we are. Riders are so often told to just “relax”, either generally or in a targeted specific muscle, but without the tools to maintain those lengthened muscle fibers, it is difficult to sustain any change.

Once you are taught to identify tension, through tai chi, or any other method, you can then learn the relaxing response necessary for prolonged change. With practice, relaxation will come to define your posture and your riding position.


Engagement through Relaxation Versus Strength

Relaxation is also essential for efficient engagement. Generally speaking, the horse is considered “engaged” when energy created in the haunch reaches the shoulders with sufficient force in order to lift the shoulders. This occurs when the hind legs come well under the belly to utilize and lift the horse’s back in an educated manner. Since relaxation enhances the transfer of energy through muscles, and energy must transfer through the rider as well as the horse, tension within either the rider or the horse will block the energy flow and therefore diminish the full potential of the horse’s thrust.  When the horse uses energy efficiently, engagement is less effort, and therefore requires lighter aids from the rider. This process is complex, but it is important to state, within the context of relaxation,

that over time the freedom of movement that promote this efficiency will demand relaxation from the rider rather than strength. Horse and rider can become so effective that they seem to move effortlessly as one.


Using Minimum Muscle Effort

Another parallel between tai chi and riding affects the application of the aids: Practicing tai chi teaches you to use the minimum degree of muscle effort to complete any task. Let’s say you want to advance the horse’s left shoulder. You can do this by slightly opening the

fingers of your left hand (different for western riders); the educated horse will advance his shoulder without any other action. This statement may seem overly simple when a myriad of factors come into play when riding, but the point here is to learn to think in this minimalist fashion. Riders who manage their horses through the strength of their aids will find this concept unfamiliar. Indeed, it requires a leap of faith to abandon aggressiveness and re-educate the horse and the rider to respond to less.  It must be noted that not all movement can or should be relaxed; movement by definition implies some degree of tension. But, by starting from a position of relaxation, even strenuous movements like piaffe can be performed with less tension and return to relaxed movement more quickly. And, even in these difficult movements, a rider’s aids should always be guided by “the least amount of muscle effort” in order to maintain the soft/rapid quality characteristic of relaxation. There is an ancient tai chi saying that describes how you should feel as you ride: “Be still like a mountain, and move like a great river.” The stillness is in the mind as energy flows through the body.  Understanding how relaxation can exist within an active body, instantly and effortlessly changing with each degree of movement, is central to understanding how advanced riders can direct the horse with such apparent ease. 


Increasing Your Level of Relaxation

Think about your own degree of relaxation as you read this article and again when you are in the saddle. Ask yourself these questions:

    1. Are you balanced within your skeletally aligned frame?   

    2. Or, are you “holding” your alignment through muscle tension?

    3. And then, what changes occur when you add the horse’s movement into the equation?

Typically, you will find tension through your shoulders and back of the neck. Many riders also find tension in their face and jaw, lower arms and wrists, and knees, calves and ankles  – all areas that should ideally stay relaxed.  Tai chi and qi gong exercises offer a fun and easy way to improve your degree of relaxation. The slow movement within skeletal alignment teaches both awareness of tension and the sensation of relaxation. Combine this with developing your dan-tien breath (see prior article: “Knowing Your Dantien Breath), and you will be well on the pathway to better riding through energy mastery.


Copyright © Andrea Steele, 2009

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