“The release: letting the aids breathe” (Dressage Today, March 2009)

One of the most significant things I have learned over the years is the importance of the release.

Not a big fan of the “hold and drive until your arms turn numb and your legs fall off” method, I prefer my horses to be light to the aids.  The most effective tool, I have found, is the release.

This momentary ‘giving up’ of the aids after every driving aid, half halt, straightening aid, directional aid, bending aid, aid to stop, rein back, make a flying change, quicken the hind leg, etc. is so important in keeping a horse light and responsive.  The aid itself poses the question to the horse: “can you listen to this?” The release provides the feedback to the horse that his answer, reaction, or ‘try’ was noticed and appreciated.

The release does not need to be as obvious as giving the reins up to the horse’s ears or lifting the legs six inches off the horse’s sides, holding them there for twenty minutes, but can be as simple as a gentle exhalation while briefly relaxing the muscles of the legs, seat, back and hands.  The horse feels this instantly.

I like to think of it as letting the aid or aids “breathe” for a moment.

The length of time for the release varies, but is usually from a split second to several seconds. I sometimes ride canter pirouettes where I can release most of the way through the pirouette, letting the horse just follow me seat around…. “a divine feeling”, to use the words of the old masters.  It is also fun to develop the piaffe this way. It is a wonderful feeling to have a horse piaffe quietly and actively by giving only tiny aids, not having to constantly squeeze, nag, etc. Needless to say, it is also nicer to watch.

Another benefit of using the release is that the horse gains confidence and balance, since he starts seeking more and more moments of release. The corrections become smaller and the releases more frequent, resulting in a horse which is increasingly “on his own” in between increasingly subtle aids. The more the horse comes “through” from behind, the quieter and more sensitive the rider can apply the aids.

I remember years ago, riding in countless important shows where I was too nervous to relax enough in-between giving the aids.  I sometimes wonder how I managed to ride successfully in the FEI tests when sometimes I felt like I was holding my breath through the whole thing!  Imagine how the poor horse must have felt!

The same was sometimes true when I rode with famous and/or demanding trainers and clinicians, where I robotically followed their instruction without using my own sense of “feel” and letting my aids periodically “breathe”. At the end of the lesson the instructor was usually happy, since I could perform pirouettes, changes, piaffe/passage on cue and to their satisfaction.

Unfortunately, I would sometimes go home knowing that I would have to spend days suppling and making friends with my horse again.  Now, I rarely feel the need to “fix” my mistakes after returning home from a show or clinic. Instead, I try to support my horse at the moment he needs it, letting the aids “breathe” in-between. The result is a happy horse who understands what I want and willingly works with me in a relaxed way. What fun!

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