6 Exercises to Develop Your Dressage Horse’s Relaxation

George Williams shares his system to teach your dressage horse to respond to your aids.

A routine I call the “kindergarten exercises” is for horses and riders needing to learn more about rhythmic application and timing of the aids. These exercises translate human thought into a common language both horse and rider can understand: the aids. Although these exercises sound very intellectual, they are really simple.

Noel Williams rides Sir Velo,
a 13-year-old Westfalen gelding. (Credit: Lindsay Paulsen/ AIMMEDIA)

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Purpose of the Exercises

These exercises will help you teach your horse to respond to your leg and rein aids in an increasingly sophisticated manner. Developmentally, I was taught that there are three steps from basic to advanced for determining the effectiveness of the aids and that the horse learns to respond to the aids in these three steps:

1. relaxation

2. obedience

3. desired effect

In the first step, the horse relaxes from the rhythmic application of his rider’s aids. Once he is relaxed, he becomes more obedient to properly timed aids. As he gains even more understanding, he becomes quick and responsive to the hand, leg and seat (obedience). At that point, the aids can then have their desired effect. So, for example, the horse engages his hindquarters and responds to the half-halt by carrying increased weight behind, or the horse pushes off a hind leg with greater power for a longer or higher step from an invisible driving aid, ultimately reacting to every nuance of his rider’s seat and aids.
In this article, I discuss exercises for relaxation.

How to Ride the Exercises

The goal of the exercises is to relax your horse so he accepts the rein and leg aids. Do them in the rising trot, posting on the correct diagonal. They can be done on the longe line or on a 20-meter circle.

Exercise 1: Apply the inside rein aid rhythmically by closing the fingers of your inside hand every other sitting moment of the rising trot. You will do this six times, so the exercise takes place over 12 strides. Over these strides, say a simple phrase that describes what you are doing so that every other time you sit and apply the aid you say one word. For example, an appropriate phrase would be: “Horse … here … is … my … inside … hand.” In six words, you are rhythmically telling the horse about your inside rein aids. You want your horse to relax and acknowledge your rein aid by softening his jaw and beginning to flex and bend his neck slightly to the inside. You don’t want him to resist or pull the rein out of your hand. I’ve found horses relax and don’t resist. Wait a few strides before moving on to the next exercise.

Exercise 2: Squeeze the fingers of your outside hand on every other sitting moment. On those six beats say, “Horse … here … is … my … outside … hand.” The horse will acknowledge your rein aid by softening and relaxing in the poll and yielding longitudinally (from back-to-front)—not by bending to the outside. Wait a few strides again before going on to the next exercise.

Exercise 3: Softly close the fingers of your inside hand and close your inside calf (not the entire leg) at the same sitting moment. Be sure to keep your leg long as you use it. When you use the leg on the sitting moment, it is easy to make the common mistake of squeezing the leg upward. Now verbalize your wishes by saying, “Horse … here … is … my … inside … calf.” Or you can say, “Horse … re- … lax … your … sto-mach.” Again, apply the aids at every other sitting moment. Your horse should be starting to relax into this exercise. Remember the goal is to have your horse relax and accept a slight leg pressure. Later, this will allow us to be more effective when asking him to bend through his ribcage, or when we ask him step forward and under with a more active hind leg.

Exercise 4: After a short break, close the fingers of your outside hand and close your outside knee against the saddle on every other sitting moment. Say, “Horse … here … is … my … outside … knee.” Or you can tell him the response that you want him to have: “Horse … re- … lax … your … shoul- … ders.”

Exercise 5: Next, do the same on the inside by closing the inside fingers and closing the inside knee against the saddle. Say something like this: “Horse … here … is … my … inside … knee.” You and your horse will more clearly understand the basic concept that your hand and knee should be able to relax his shoulders and eventually control those shoulders.

Exercise 6: Finally, close your outside hand and your outside calf on every other sitting moment. Say, “Horse … re- … lax … your … sto- … mach.” Now you’re referring to his outside ribcage. From these outside aids, your horse might become a little rounder or slow down.

What You Should Feel

Notice how the exercises have influenced you and your horse. The rider usually gains a feeling for how to coordinate the aids and an understanding of how the aids develop in communicating with the horse. The horse usually allows his rider to put the pressure of a soft aid on him without becoming tense. In fact, these six basic exercises alternate your inside and outside aids to create a “web of aids” around your horse that help him to balance and stay relaxed and on the aids.

Try the Stretch Test

Now give your horse the “stretch test” to stretch the topline and confirm his willingness to seek the bridle. Every other time you sit, give your inside rein and encourage the horse to stretch into the outside rein. So, if you were tracking to the left you would say, “Horse … stretch … into … the … outside … rein.” Then do the same on the outside: Give with the outside rein to encourage the horse to stretch into the inside rein. You can say, “Horse … stretch … into … the … inside … rein.”

The End Goal

Throughout these exercises, you and your horse have established a clear rhythm of rising trot, and you have used that beat to help you apply the aids rhythmically. Since the horse responds to a rhythmical application of the aids, the rider’s understanding of the language of the horse is usually enhanced, and the horse, by now, is relaxed and on the aids.

You are starting the process of creating a means of communication through the aids. We want our aids to be understandable for both horse and rider. By emphasizing that, your horse should accept your aids so that initially, with your hand, seat and leg, you can create a relaxed and supple horse. This will allow you to inspire confidence as you ask more from your horse as the training progresses through the levels. In other words, by putting relaxation first we can form a relationship built on trust and confidence.

More on Dressage Today OnDemand!

Want more from George Williams? In his new video series “The Kindergarten Exercises,” George takes us through four phases of exercises and shows how each phase translates human thought into a common language that both horse and rider can understand: the aids. Enjoy a sneak peek of this series at or watch the entire training video, plus more than 1,700 others, by taking advantage of a free trial membership with
Dressage Today OnDemand here.

You can also listen to our podcast with George and Roberta Williams here.Click here to read more articles with George Williams.

George Williams (Credit: Lindsay Paulsen/ AIMMEDIA)

George Williams is an international dressage competitor whose career highlights with Chuck and Joann Smith’s Grand Prix mare, Rocher, include numerous championships. Williams trained in Germany at the Reitinstitute von Neindorff and with the Olympic gold medalist Klaus Balkenhol. Williams was a resident trainer and rider alongside Karl Mikolka at Tempel Farms, in Wadsworth, Illinois, for 20 years. He is a past president of the U.S. Dressage Federation, a member of the U.S. Equestrian Federation Dressage Committee, chair of the USEF High Performance Eligible Athlete Committee, a member of the USEF High Performance Dressage Committee and USEF National Youth Coach. He and his wife, Roberta, operate Williams Dressage LLC, with their daughter, Noel.

This article first appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of Practical Horseman.






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