At one of my classes recently a new student asked at her second class, "Do you still want me to relax this week or are we done with that?" She was totally serious but I couldn't help but laugh. Not at her, but at our culture and how so much of what we do is supposed to be focused on "achieving results for an external image" as opposed to learning and having fun. What else can you do but laugh? Anyway, I told her I will always want her to relax and said that one of my other older students had joked that by the time she's done with a session with me she'll be sleeping on her horse. Ok, I don't want anyone sleeping on their horse because you need to be actively riding at all times in order to be safe, but this bracing and posturing that is pushed in so much of our society just doesn't fly with riding horses. Can you imagine two ballroom dancers if both of them were bracing themselves in a specific posture while they were trying to dance? It's the same with riding horses, it is very much like dancing and you the rider are the lead - you're moving with your partner and directing and physically supporting their body movements. Imagine if Fred Astaire was constantly pulling his shoulders back and positioning his body while trying to dance at the same time!
I love the discipline of dressage and I will be training in it as long as I can to go as far as I can, but I have to admit that there are plenty of trainers in our discipline who really perpetuate this braced, hard, posed way of riding. Well, they do it in all disciplines so I may just see it more because this is the one I'm most involved in. It's so sad because in reality dressage is about training both you and your horse to use your bodies correctly to receive your best results for "dancing together" when you're riding. And the last thing that's going to help is the rider bracing and holding tension in their body.
Here's an example of relaxed riding (by a cowboy nonetheless!) with contact on the reins, but not pulling on the horses face. This is something that I feel like I'm constantly harping on is that dressage is NOT pulling on a horse's face and that you should NOT pull on a horse's face if you are riding properly. Not only do I have to constantly tell that to beginner English riders, but the other riders with no experience with dressage who believe that is how we control our horses - yanking on their head and that is it. Anyway- relaxed cowboy (with legs more forward than I would ride but that's a reining seat which is done differently than my dressage seat)
Here's another example of relaxed riding. These are some of the best riders in the world who train every single day for decades on end to become the riders they are. One thing you do not see is any of them bracing their bodies, pushing their heels down, or pulling on their horse's faces. They have firm contact with the horse's mouth, but if they let go of the reins the horse will still be able to hold his head in that position because if he couldn't he would not be conditioned enough to do these moves correctly. And you'll see that in some Grand Prix tests (sadly) where the rider is yanking the horse's head down but the horse has not been trained or conditioned enough for proper confirmation but not at the Spanish Riding School.
I can understand how people can look at that and think "They're barely moving and the horse's movements are so exact - they must be holding themselves so rigidly!" But back to dancing, you are not going to look quiet and still and like it is easy if you are holding a lot of tension in your body. And as you can see in the second video nobody's heels were down. Hmmm ... blasphemous! But then these riders have learned to relax their leg and in much of the ride they were using their heel to give cues to the horse on how to move his body so having their heels pushed down hard would've kept them from being able to do that. For me, riding is a lifelong education on how to have a relaxed body with support and control by certain muscles (especially my core), but not have tension and bracing.
In short, most everything we do with our bodies is better executed and a lot more fun if we are relaxed and not braced. Riding horses is the same way.