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How Your Horse's Body Might Affect Your Dressage Test

  • Posted: 1 February 2018

Horse and riderLouise Mauferon Vernet is an Equine Manual Therapist specialising in Osteopathic Techniques. Here she talks about key areas that may create tension in your horse and your test riding.

How your horse's body might affect your dressage test

I have to confess, I'm a huge dressage fan, much more than show jumping, always have been. I don't know why, but I'm much more fascinated by being able to perfect subtle communication with my horse and aiming to reach that 'oneness', than by the thrill of jumping higher and higher. And to be perfectly honest, the only part that I actually enjoy about show jumping is the bits between the jumps when you get your horse ready for the next jump! I know, I'm a weird kid ;)

My point is that when the owner of Dressage Anywhere and I decided to write an article for each other, I got super excited by the idea of writing on my two favourite subjects: body function and dressage!

In this article, I'm going to talk about thre key points that you, as a dressage rider, have to focus on when riding a dressage test. We will see how tension in the musculoskeletal system (MSkS) of your horse can affect those key points negatively, and so why it's in your interest to have your horse checked regularly by a musculoskeletal practitioner.   


In a test, each move has to be done both on the right and left lead, so your horse has to be able to move nicely on the right and left rein. Nothing worse than having a horse that bends beautifully on the left but horribly on the right. Or a horse who does a great walk canter transition on the right, but not on the left. There are a few reasons as to why a horse might act this way:

  • you, the rider, might be crooked on your horse and therefore might not be asking for movements the same way on both reins (without realising it of course)
  • your horse has tension in parts of his/her body and is either trying to avoid the pain caused by that tension OR physically struggle to move symmetrical.

The main thing about tension in the musculoskeletal system is that it brings asymmetry to the movement, so having a horse that is as tension free as can be, means that your horse will be able to move a lot more symmetrically, making a massive difference to how you perform in your dressage test. Plus, as you're not focusing on trying to keep your horse symmetrical anymore, having a horse that moves well on both sides means that you can bring your attention elsewhere, like on the accuracy of your circles and transition! Which we all know is super important if you want to do well.

Type of tension that will affect your horse's symmetry:

I could write a whole book about this because, as I said, the principle of tension is that it is asymmetrical (expect for the rare cases). But here are a few common ones:

  • C7/T1 and the shoulders: C7/T1 is the junction between the last cervical bone and the first thoracic vertebrae, and it's right between the shoulders. Any tension in this area will make it harder for your horse to move its shoulders smoothly and follow a bend. Not to mention exercises like shoulder in or lateral work.
  • The ribs: because we have a saddle and a girth, finding tension around the ribs isn't a rarity, trust me. But the problem with that, other than the fact that your horse's breathing will be more or less affected, it's that it can force the body to maintain a bend. Never underestimate the impact of the ribs!
  • The sacrum: the sacrum is the bone that links the pelvis with the spine. It's also the one that might be causing issue in sacro-iliaque pathologies. Any tension around that bone is going to affect your canter, from making it not so smooth to causing your horse to dis-unit.   

Impulsion, speed and rhythm

I know, there's actually three points here, but as we carry on you'll see that you can't separate one from the others so I prefer to speak about them as a group. But before we start I just want to make sure we all understand each other when it comes to the difference in those three terms, for the purpose of this explanation. This might not be how your trainer uses these terms, but this is how I will use them here, so read on :)

  • Impulsion is the energy put in a movement and the fact that the horse is engaging both back and hind legs. It has nothing to do with speed as you can have a slow trot that has a lot of impulsion, just think of passage and even piaffe. In lower levels you're not asked to have true impulsion, instead you're asked for activity.
  • Speed is how fast the horse is travelling, and depends on the animal.
  • Rhythm is the tempo at which your horse is going. 

So for example, passage is a trot that has a lower speed than actual trot, has a slower rhythm, and a much higher impulsion.

Now that we're all on the same page let's talk about those key points.

In a dressage test, you'll need to work on both your impulsion/activity and your rhythm. The speed isn't important here as it will depend on the horse, but impulsion and rhythm are key when judges look at your test. You have to maintain both, all the way, in corners and circles, and you might be asked to prove you can influence the rythm by lengthening the trot for example.

So how can tension in the MSkS can influence your horse's impulsion and rhythm? Well, have you ever ridden a horse that, if you didn't have your legs constantly on, would lose its rhythm and impulsion? I personally hate that. It feels like the horse isn't in the mood, can't be bothered, and all in all it just feels like a fight the whole way through the ride. Pretty far from that feeling of moving as one!

Unfortunately it's quite a common sign of tension in the MSkS to have a horse reluctant to move forward and maintain rhythm and energy through a ride. It can also be true for horses that constantly try to speed up. In both cases, the animal tries to escape from discomfort by changing the way it's going, losing both impulsion and rhythm. How your horse will act usually depends on his/her personality and natural tendencies.

So once again, having a horse with a MSkS free of tension and discomfort will be really helpful when doing your test! It will allow you to maintain the energy through your test without having to fight your horse for it, and will make everything much easier, from controlling the accuracy of your test, to maintaining a good contact.

Type of tension that will affect your horse's impulsion/rhythm:

  • The lumbar joints: tension in that area (so behind the saddle and before the pelvis) is one of the biggest cause of lack of impulsion and activity. And that tension can often be caused by another area of the body, like the intestines for example. Hence having a practitioner that has a truly holistic approach!
  • The sacrum: yep, that one again. The joint between the pelvis and the sacrum is the one in charge of transmitting the energy from the hind legs to the lumbar joints. Any issue with the sacrum and the system stops transmitting the energy, and so your horse ends up with a lack of connection through its back.


Dressage is one of those sports that are beautiful to watch, whether you like horse riding or not. Most people watched Valegro's retirement routine at Olympia a few years back, and a lot of them weren't horsey but admitted to tearing up because of how beautiful and moving it was. Of course, it was a pretty emotional occasion anyway,  but still ;)

The reason for that is the fact that good dressage horses perform supple and fluid movements. And it doesn't matter which level you compete at, when a horse is moving well, it's always beautiful to watch.

So far we've talked about symmetry and impulsion/activity and rhythm in a dressage test. But even if your horse has both, if he/she is moving in short strides and stiff movements, the result won't be too great to watch. I find ponies particularly good at that!

Judges usually look at suppleness on bends, and on the topline in free walk for example. And of course, if your horse has supple movement in general, it's even better and it could result in a higher place when competing.

So how does the MSkS affect the suppleness of your horse?

We've already discussed suppleness of bending in the paragraph on symmetry, so I won't go back on that one here, but I will talk about suppleness of the topline.

Tension and pain usually causes the horse to hollow its back, and the more a horse moves with a hollow back, the more the tissue stays 'stuck' in that position, making the topline less and less supple. This usually affect not just the suppleness of the topline but also the ability of the horse to engage and give you true impulsion. This is why it's a very common issue in lower levels, where you're not asked for true impulsion yet but simply activity. Some horses, are very good at being active but actually being in pain with a hollow back.

Even if lack of suppleness in the topline isn't going to cost you as much as lack of accuracy or lack of symmetry would in your dressage score, it will most likely cost you at one point as you will not be able to move up in levels if you can't get your horse to go from activity to impulsion, and a horse that isn't supple won't be able to give you true impulsion.

Keeping an eye on topline suppleness is also really important for your horse's health, as it's a very good indicator of pain in the back!

Type of tension that can influence suppleness in the topline:

  • The rib cage: when a horse starts to hollow, the rib cage rotates and keeps the back in that position, even if the pain is gone. I can't count the amount of horses that I have to work that on! And as the rib cage is also linked with the shoulders, you might end up with shorter stride movements too.
  • Locked fascia: when the fascia of the topline is held in a shorter position, and the fascia of the underline held in a longer position, you end up with a horse that can't stretch through its back. It's a very common position that horses get into, sometimes from a young age, and it can take a lot of effort from your practitioner to shift that again.
  • The neck: it's such a common issue for a horse to have tension in the neck. Unfortunately, depending on the tension, it might make your horse reluctant to stretch down whilst moving, making it almost impossible to stretch the topline!     


As you can see, there are quite a few reasons why you should make sure your horse's MSkS is working fine, and I've only scratched the surface in this article, but I could also mention benefits such as long-term health, being able to tackle pathologies before they get out of hand (I'm thinking of things like kissing spine, navicular, tendons...), and having a happier horse! 

Of course, other things can affect the three points discussed here, such as saddle fitting and your personal riding skills. Our aim should always be to make sure we do the best for our horses, and looking at the big picture is part of it :)

I hope you've enjoyed this article and that it's made you think of your dressage test from a different point of view! 

As usual, I wish you and your horses all the best,
Louise x

Find out more about Louise's work as an Equine Manual Therapist here and on Facebook.