Q: I am working on Losgelassenheit with my horse, a Thoroughbred gelding who gets easily excited. I am not quite sure if I have ever achieved Losgelassenheit with him. Could you give me a few signs that tell me whether he has achieved this or not? Also, what are your favorite exercises to achieve Losgelassenheit?
A: As I often say to my students, I’d like to pick on you for being good—first, for understanding the importance of Losgelassenheit in training your horse, and second (most importantly), for listening and looking for input from your horse. Your questions presuppose that you have an understanding of what Losgelassenheit is, so I will not address that at length in my response.
For the interest of our readers, I will state that it is the second step of the Training Pyramid. Losgelassenheit is a mental and physical relaxation that allows the hind legs to send the forward energy through a swinging back. It is also easy enough to find many good translations. Let’s turn to what the horse has to say about this.
Signs of Losgelassenheit in your horse would be the following (loosely adapted from Principles of Riding, the official handbook of the German National Equestrian Federation):
• A content and happy expression in the horse’s eyes and ears. It can be a looseness from the base of the ears, floppy ears or an ear turned toward the rider, actively listening. You shouldn’t see a worried, wrinkled eye or a big white eyeball.
• Tail carried and swinging with the horse’s movement.
• A rhythmically swinging back (that the rider can easily sit).
• Horse chewing the bit lightly with a closed mouth and “wearing his white lipstick” produced by relaxation through the neck and jaw, which creates a foamy saliva.
• A purring, rhythmic snort or blowing, which is a sign that the horse is mentally relaxed. Some horses sound like a tractor, others give an occasional snorting sigh of relaxation. It is not a tense fire-breathing snorting. We riders should also remember to breathe, as it releases our own tension.
• Losgelassenheit is achieved when the horse moves naturally and rhythmically forward in all three gaits, with his neck lowered forward/downward and with his back swinging. The horse should now accept the forward driving aids without rushing, and the rider should be able to push.
Let’s now address the next part of your question—my favorite exercises to develop Losgelassenheit. You say that your Thoroughbred gelding gets easily excited. There are many good exercises to choose from at this step of the Training Pyramid. The “what” is not as important as the “how,” or as the song says, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” The goal/priority is that the horse is working with a swinging back, with his core engaged, giving you a place to easily sit, and an absence of physical and mental tension.
There is not one recipe for all horses. You need to do what works best for each horse. I use different exercises for different aspects of this stage of training as well as adjust them for a horse’s natural mental state. A hot and easily excitable horse requires more things on his to-do list to keep him focused and relaxed (such as riding lots of transitions and changes of tempo), while other hot horses are calmed more by the rhythm and a big to-do list makes them feel more tense because they easily grow overwhelmed when you do too many transitions or changes of tempo. This is where listening to the feedback from your horse is crucial.
Try these exercises to improve Losgelassenheit:
Riding a leg yield in various patterns at trot and canter, as well as trot–canter transitions, decreases negative tension and increases positive tension (or attentiveness). Riding changes of tempo (transitions within the gait) also are helpful and serve to activate the hind legs. Some of my favorite exercises are riding a single-loop serpentine on the long side or a standard three-loop serpentine in trot or canter. When riding three- and five-loop serpentines, you can add some variation by adding walk or trot transitions upon crossing the centerline.
Trot–canter transitions ridden correctly on a circle and cavalletti work round out my list of favorites. I like cavalletti work because it makes the horse a bit more responsible for himself and gives him something to think about. Cavalletti work in general helps to bring up the back and activate the hind legs. You can also make adjustments that encourage stretching while working over the cavalletti—again, all done with focus on being correctly ridden and applying the listed indicators for Losgelassenheit. We riders are working to achieve both lateral and longitudinal suppleness with a mind/body connection.
No matter what exercise you are working on or gait you are in, a good way to test Losgelassenheit is riding a stretchy circle. It is not a break—it is actively ridden—so make sure you keep riding the entire time. You can also ride the stretch on a straight line and in any gait. Be responsible for your own seat and balance. At any time, you should be able to allow the horse to stretch forward and then downward, which should be gradual, with the horse chewing the reins from your hands. You should feel the horse’s back (which will continue swinging) staying up underneath you, and the entire body of the horse maintaining correct balance (not falling on the forehand). The tempo should not change. If the horse speeds up, falls on the forehand, drops his back or loses any of the indicators previously felt or observed, then you have not achieved Losgelassenheit. Don’t be discouraged or disappointed.
Find ways to positively encourage your horse one piece at a time. I go by the adage, “Ask much, accept little and reward often.” I also ask myself when training a horse, Am I being a good boss? Is my horse happy to go to work for me? Remember, Losgelassenheit is mental as well as physical willingness.
If your horse doesn’t understand, take the time to explain his job and make him feel happy to go to work each day. I also encourage you to go to the field or trails for work at times. It can be confidence-building as well as team-building. Also leave your own tensions behind before you put your foot in the stirrup. If you come to the ride prepared and free of your own tensions, you also help your horse to be in a positive place. Sometimes our own mindfulness can be a great asset in relaxing the horse.
Kari Garber is a USDF bronze and silver medalist and a rider member of Dressyringen (the Swedish equivalent of the USDF gold medal). She is a well-known long-lining expert, and along with her mentor and business partner, FEI “I” judge and Chef d’Équipe of the Swedish Dressage Team, Bo Jena, she operates Finesse Farm, a full-service dressage training facility in the Wellington, Florida, area.