Dressage and the Equine Nervous System

Having competed Arabians and Thoroughbreds in dressage for years, I have a slightly different perspective on how to raise my scores by using the nervous system to my advantage.

In addition to remembering your test and riding your geometry accurately, I am always evaluating the horse’s mental state and nervous system, which are correlated.

If you are lucky enough to start with a good mental state and a non-charged nervous system, your goal as a rider is simply to maintain!

Easier said than done, this can take tact, feel, and many, many, many riding lessons to learn how not to disturb your horse, especially in the transition from long stretch to “short-stretch” or on-the-bit!

But If you are starting with a horse who is not in a good mental state for whatever reason: breed, training level, weather, being herd bound, in season, or a mare, or a stallion or a gelding, LOL, then you need to work with the horse’s nervous system to recover their good mental state and to actually be able to access what they know. Our go-to tactics include having clear boundaries, and then working with the horse’s body, the first of which is stretching.

Training the horse to stretch at home is a critical piece of the puzzle. True stretching changes the chemistry of chemicals being released, and takes the horse out of flight mode. That should always be your first goal; to take the horse out of flight. In a charged environment, the stretch is a familiar, safe place that the horse can go to help him relax and change his chemistry.

Yielding and suppling is another technique that positively affects the horse’s nervous system. We like to check in with each jaw, each foot, and each side of the rib cage to find and release any stuck pieces.

I think of it as a switch. It’s like flipping the switch when you are able to direct a different chemical release which un-charges the horse’s nervous system. You then have access to your horse’s training. When your horse is charged, shooting himself with adrenaline like an addict, your cues can not get through.

It is a fairly simple, straight-forward process that I have described; to flip the switch and change the horse’s nervous system so that you can have your horse back. It usually works. Not always but often. It is just a different way of thinking about gaining access to your horse’s body to allow the relaxation to come through the mind, muscles and the movement to raise your dressage scores.

I hope this helps! I welcome your questions or comments!

Lisa Robinson

Formal Education Lexington High School, Lexington, Massachusetts UMass Amherst — Animal Science Oak Manor School of Equitation, Weyers Cave, Virginia Middlesex Community College, Bedford, MA, Early Childhood Education UNH, Durham, New Hampshire, Writing Cal Poly: Kellogg Arabian Center, Pomona, California, Animal Science Radcliffe College, Cambridge, MA, Landscape Design