Q: Dressage riders often use the German term Losgelassenheit. While it’s often translated as the horse being relaxed, I wonder if there’s more to it. What exactly does Losgelassenheit mean? What qualities does it entail? When do I know my horse has Losgelassenheit?
A:Losgelassenheit is tricky to translate, indeed. Some translations for the word are: “Looseness,” “movability” or “freedom.” But it is more than just a word—it is an entire concept represented by this one wonderful word. In order to explain the term, it is important to understand the word “relaxation” and the word “tension.” Relaxation in itself is not the answer to all questions. There is positive relaxation, for example, when it defines the horse’s movement, marked by a rhythm and suppleness. The willingness of the horse to listen to the rider also comes through positive relaxation.
Negative relaxation, on the other hand, can mean that a horse has tuned out (turned deaf ears) and is no longer sharp to the aids. An overrelaxed specimen of a horse is the one we probably like to take on a hack because a relaxed mind is safe and reliable and basically enjoyable. The opposite of relaxation is tension—but there is good and bad tension. Bad tension is the one a horse holds on to, which prevents any sort of relaxation or throughness. Tension can manifest in the way the horse holds his body and back rigidly. When a horse carries tension, he is often not mentally able to listen to the rider’s aids, often anticipates and has a hard time letting go.
Positive (or movable) tension is the one that holds things together, that can keep connection within the horse’s joints and muscles as if the whole body is connected through bungee cords.
Losgelassenheit is a balance of the good kind of relaxation and good tension. True Losgelassenheit is in a horse who freely lets go of all the bad tension while maintaining true connection. It is the embodiment of an animal who can go forward but not run; who can produce power but maintain a relaxation within that power. It is this free, supple, relaxed focus that leads to the prized elastic movement we all look for.
How do we achieve Losgelassenheit? I won’t go into the many exercises one can use. Chances are that everyday work with your instructor in your daily, weekly or monthly lessons takes you one step closer. The reality is, it’s not the type of exercise you ride that achieves Losgelassenheit, but how you ride it. It takes feel, an independent seat and hands to help create Losgelassenheit in yourself in order to gain confidence and trust from your horse, which, in turn, will allow your horse to fully let go and achieve Losgelassenheit and focus fully on your aids.
Losgelassenheit is the goal I have on every horse, every ride, every day because it makes the rest of the training easy. Much of the answer lies in the partnership that you are able to create with the horse. Forming a partnership may be easy with one horse, not so easy with another. It is always a matter of finding a way to build a bridge of confidence and trust.
Susanne Hamilton is a U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) gold medalist and “r” judge. Originally from Germany, she represented the U.S. at the Can-Am Challenge and trains riders and horses through Grand Prix. She splits her time between Maine and Florida (crystalspringfarm.net).