The dressage horse who retains his relaxation at the highest levels of collection is the ideal. He is dynamic and elastic, swinging, steady and beautiful to watch. The rider doesn't have to push or work too hard. He just sits quietly because his horse is well balanced. Relaxation is not only physically beneficial for the horse's muscles, tendons and bones, but it is also beneficial for his interior--for his heart. Relaxation is the first goal that we strive for from the beginning of the horse's training. However, a lot can go wrong when the rider tries to collect his horse and make him more active and expressive. Tension creeps in because the collected work is much more difficult than the warm-up, in which the horse is a little bit on the forehand.
For me, the key to having relaxation at the highest level is being absolutely sure that you have it in the warm-up--that you develop looseness and suppleness before you start any collected work. If your horse hasn't achieved these qualities in the easy work, achieving them in the more difficult work is impossible. When you look at some of the Grand Prix horses in the warm-up area of a horse show, you can be fairly sure that some of them never really relaxed and stretched. As a result, the rider asks for collection, and the horse gets higher and shorter in the neck and tense in the back. He may show something that looks like cadence, but the horse is not lower behind with active hind legs and a swinging back. All Grand Prix riders--amateurs and professionals alike--have this challenge, which is why I work on it so conscientiously. I try to make my horse powerful, active and cadenced in the most difficult movements without losing his supple and swinging back.
Whether I'm riding a 4-year-old or a Grand Prix horse, the first 15 minutes of my warm-up is essentially the same:
1. I start with the posting trot. A spectator wouldn't be too impressed with my initial trot work because it may be a little on the forehand and have no cadence. My horse may be flat because I'm not asking for activity. I'm just doing loosening exercises. Later when I ask for collection, he won't look like the same horse. He'll get an 8 for his collected trot, but for now it is very normal looking.
2. I pay special attention that the horse is straight on straight lines and curved on bent lines--that his hind legs follow the bridle to the right and the left equally so that he doesn't have a stiff side in which the haunches swing out.
3. My horse follows the bit to a solid contact. Warm-up is not only for loosening but also for developing this steady contact with the bit. From the beginning, when I pick up my reins in the walk and posting trot I expect the contact to be steady. I don't like loose reins or keeping the horse behind the vertical. It's very important that your horse be low in the neck and reaching forward toward the bit.
4. During this time, I ride him on a bent line to get him on the outside rein so when I give the inside rein in Uberstreichen he stays on the outside rein and maintains the inside bend.
5. In the warm-up, I want to be sure I can stretch my horse down to the bit with a long neck in any situation. Ideally, I only have to give a half halt, be a little lighter in the hand and push in front to ask the horse to follow the bit down and forward. The horse that you can stretch is really loose and good in the back. Later, I'll want to be sure that he can stretch in collection--that I can make the neck higher or stretch him lower and longer in the neck even in the most collected movements.
6. I also do trot-canter and canter-trot transitions. I know my warm-up is over when I can do perfect transitions between a relaxed working trot and a relaxed working canter such that the horse's neck is low, and he is either in front of or exactly on the vertical. If he comes behind for a moment, it's not bad, but it's important that the horse not become short in the neck or behind the vertical, in general.
I pay special attention to the downward transitions from working canter to working trot, making sure that he doesn't get shorter in the neck or slower in the tempo. I don't think of it as a transition backward but rather from gait to gait. Our upward transitions between working trot and working canter must stay totally to the bit, not higher or lower, shorter, slower or running into the canter. The horse must keep the same flexion and bend and the same forward momentum.