Bodywork for your horse is awesome. What’s even MORE awesome is when you address the postural habits and tension patterns that create the acute need for body work in the first place!
If you find that your horse is in constant need of body work to address discomfort and tension, it is probably time to put your detective hat on!
Postural habits and patterns of compensation, whether from injury, training, hoof imbalances, or other discomfort can remain ingrained even when the issue that caused the habit in the first place has been resolved! But have you ever considered how seemingly innocuous handling practices can help or hinder these habits?
Over the years, I have observed how many standard practices of everyday handling inadvertently influence their behavior and performance – not to mention your relationship. Most people consider that training only occurs when you are on the horse or specifically doing groundwork.
In reality; there is often a thread that connects behavior under saddle to the horse’s response from the ground during everyday tasks.
For instance, if your horse is “too forward” under saddle, look at their habit on the ground and how you may be able to influence that behavior. Or, if your horse is tense from the beginning of a ride, think about his response to grooming, tacking up and standing for mounting, displaying even the smallest signals of concern or anxiety.
These are all connected, and you may be surprised at how changing a few things about your everyday handling can change your horse’s behavior under saddle and your overall relationship and connection.
One of the easiest ways to start helping your horse lower their head on ground is to clip you lead line to the side hardware of the halter. Having the lead clipped under the chin is the most common place to attach the lead however it can have its drawbacks. Applying pressure under the chin on a stuck or tight horse will often result in the horse raising their head and jamming through the poll, becoming even more braced before they are able to let go. Attaching the lead to the side hardware, assuming the halter is well fitted and the lead does not have an excessively heavy snap, will often encourage to lower their head and relax at the poll more easily than when attached underneath. This can be a very useful hint to remember when asking a horse to walk up to a trailer.
When a lead is attached under the horse’s chin and he is nervous, high headed or rushes, how do we traditionally stop him? The choices may include moving the horse in a circle around us, sticking an elbow into his shoulder to keep from being stepped on, or “shanking” or shaking the lead rope to keep the handler feeling safer.
What response does the horse give to these actions? If we simply circle a horse that is walking too fast or put an elbow into the shoulder, we are encouraging a horse to be one-sided and habitually lean to the left (since it is the habit of most people to lead from the left side). It also puts the horse out of balance instead of teaching him to walk quietly and stop in balance without raising his head.
When a horse is shanked or the rope is shaken, the horse’s usual reaction is to throw his head up and drop and tighten the back muscles- the opposite of what we want from a horse under saddle.
When handling any horse, especially a high headed, unbalanced one, it is incredibly important to remember the concept of the “Opposition reflex”. Since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and we are the species who came up with theory, it is up to us to disrupt this reflex. If you pull a horse pulls and often, if a horse pulls, we pull back. This does not mean that you just let your horse leave or go wherever they please but refining the way you make a signal on the lead will go a long way in reducing the amount of opposition and bracing you find in your horse.
Consider why your horse may be rushy, bargey or “disrespectful” (descriptions of behavior we usually avoid, personally) on the ground. In our experience the most common reason for horses to display this behavior on the ground is simply a lack of balance. This horse is generally on the forehand and crooked. When attached to a handler, their balance is further altered and the “Opposition Reflex” is trigger creating a domino effect of forward motion. Interestingly horses that are extremely slow or “stuck” often have the same balance issues but display them in a different way.
A long-term solution to this issue is to teach the horse how to move, stop, and turn in balance on the ground. When helping to create new habits we use a variety of different leading positions and pole configurations to take balance into movement.
To re-educate a horse that is unbalanced we use what we call a “Zephyr lead”, flat halter and a Dressage whip we call a Wand.
The Wand can be used to make contact with the base of the neck, which helps activate the thorasic sling through transitions, and allows for the neck to stay released. These tools can help teach the horse to move forward in a balanced posture that helps encourage the use of the neck and back the same as we want under saddle building correct muscle memory. This allows horses to move in better balance which makes them feel safer and have more self-control. It usually takes only a few sessions of leading this way to and from the pasture to see a change in response. Once the horse has learned new habits (you may have to learn, too), you can go back to using a regular lead line.
For everyday leading we prefer a flat halter with a rope that has a light snap attached to the side of the halter.
Attaching a lead to the side can encourage a high headed horse to relax.
If you have a horse who is slow to move forward, a signal from the side of the halter does not “jam the poll”, making it physically more difficult to move forward.
Horses who tend to dive towards grass, or any direction away from you, can be more easily directed with a side attachment.
When asking for a true bend or circle, the side attachment does not create a “tipping” motion through the atlas axis the way an attachment under the chin will.
A simple way to ask or direct without opposition is to allow little slide on the lead. As you signal your horse, instead of keeping your hand tightly close or fixed on the lead, allow for the line to slightly slide through your hand. This will create a softer, more elastic, cue that is actually easier for any horse, especially a braced one, to respond to and usually results in a more relaxed posture with a lower head carriage.
It is also useful to consider the limitations imposed by leading your horse exclusively from the left side. The horse is getting more input from one side and will continually develop asymmetrical muscle memory and posture. We would never dream of riding on one rein the entire time, so it does not make sense to do all of our handling on one side based on centuries of military tradition, despite what our BHS handbook taught us in Pony Club.
If you find your horse stiffer on one side than the other, falls into the handler or is having trouble going straight, consider your leading habits. If a horse has the habit of grabbing the lead line as you walk, lead from the other side as it is non-habitual. “Non-habitual” means doing something that is different from the usual way. We pay more attention to things that are non-habitual because they require that we respond in a new way mentally and physically.
It can be interesting to “wear” a halter yourself and have a friend lead you with the lead attached underneath and then on the side. The underside attachment often gives the wear-er the sense of having to lift away from the weight of the lead rather than relaxing to the signal. Having the lead on the side often feels easier to follow and does not encourage the chin to lift up.
Cross -ties were designed for human convenience, not horse health. Once you start noticing the expression and posture many horses have in cross-ties, you may re-think how and when you use them.
The height of cross ties is rarely changed, regardless of the size of the horse and can put a horse in a very tense, undesired posture. Ideally a horse should be able to relax their head just below wither height while in cross-ties but this is rarely seen.
If a is horse sensitive about grooming it will often react by tightening his neck and back muscles in response to the brush. Many handlers do not “listen” to this reaction. This situation is then compounded if the head is tied too high, taking away the horse’s ability to further communicate other than by moving around-shifting his quarters to the side, flipping his head or biting at the ties or the air.
To achieve the maximum benefit from grooming, the horse’s head should be nearly level with his withers. For a horse’s back to relax completely, the top-line should be fully extended. If the head is up with the sternum down, the back drops. When the head lowers, the back can rise and the muscles relax.
If you board at a place where you must use cross-ties, consider attaching them to the upper ring or adding an extension while you groom.
The way most people have been taught to groom is not relaxing for some horses. If you have any doubt about this, feel for yourself the traditional grooming method- short, brisk brush strokes done very quickly in order to get on with riding. When I demonstrate this type of grooming on a person, even through a jacket or sweatshirt, the usual reaction is for the person to become tense.
Instead, we teach a method, which we learned from one of our late instructors, Annegret Ast of Germany, that is not only relaxing to the horse but also a way to get him clean.
With a horse who is reactive to grooming, take his pulse and respiration before starting to groom and then during the grooming session. Use of a heart-rate monitor on a horse being groomed can demonstrate that it is possible to change a horse’s response to grooming so he enjoys it. This can dramatically affect performance.
Annegret recalled a dressage horse brought to her because his pulse and respiration were so high he was considered un-rideable. Annegret watched the horse in the stall and paddock. His respiration was normal. She found that when the grooming tools were brought toward him, his pulse and respiration shot up to 100 and stayed there.
Annegret changed the horse’s response to grooming by combining a wool sweater and the TTouch until he was accepting and comfortable with grooming. She was then able to go to a soft brush and with long, slow strokes, the horse was fine. He went from being considered unusable by veterinarians to winning the Austrian Junior Dressage Championship. The catalyst to improvement was changing his response to grooming.
I have seen many cases where people interpret a negative response to grooming as disobedience. They either slap or yell at the horse to make him stand. This may get some horses to stop biting or kicking and even to stand still. However, if you watch the horse, you will see that he is tense, perhaps grinding his teeth or pinning his ears, and certainly not enjoying the experience. The next person who grooms will have to go through the same process of “getting after” the horse, who is using his language to try to get the message across.
Many years ago I worked on one of the Canadian Olympic horses who had become difficult to handle at the World Championships and was not jumping well. We found that he seemed to have inflammation all over his body just under the skin. We also noticed that the only brushes in the barn were stiff dandy brushes. The horse was intensely reactive to grooming. (We are trained to groom in order to make a horse clean and often ignore behaviours displayed by horses during grooming that may indicate other issues.) Along with TTouch body work, we suggested grooming him with hot towels-instead of a brush-for a week. The horse improved greatly during the week and was able to continue showing successfully for the season.
Several months later, I met a young woman who had been the horse’s groom up until traveling to the World Championships. We discussed the horse’s attitude toward grooming and she mentioned that she had always used the softest brushes and in a very careful manner because the horse was so sensitive. When a new groom took over, she used more traditional methods, including a stiff curry comb and dandy brush. While I don’t think the grooming was the only thing that caused the horse’s difficulties, it was certainly a strong contributing factor.
I often think about horses who must be longed before they are ridden. I believe that their tension could be greatly reduced if grooming were done slowly and with the intention of relaxing rather than solely removing dirt. The process may take a bit longer in the beginning, but will shorten as the horse starts to enjoy being groomed and improve other seemingly unrelated behaviours, eventually shortening warm up time.
Have you ever seen a horse stretching his head and neck up to peer out over a tall stall door? This also encourages over development of the underside of the neck and hollowing of the crest and top-line.
If this is the case at your barn, replace the door with a stall guard or stall screen that allows the horse to hang his head over the door at a natural angle, with his neck and back level. The same is true of feeder and hay net placement.
Of course for most horses, living with others in an outdoor environment with space, forage and enrichment is the ideal. If this is not possible, do your best to make their conditions as comfortable for them as possible.
Lunging is another common practice that can cause physical problems. In my view, lunging is an art; yet few people pay enough attention to the way it is done. I have seen horses run around on the end of a lunge line to exercise and condition. Texas A&M University did a study in which researchers took X rays of horses’ legs before and after six weeks of light work on the lunge. The results showed considerable calcification of the joints. When horses race around on the end of a lunge line, they can create damaging torque to the back and legs; the horse is generally out of balance and often leaning to the inside with the head to the outside creating a posture that is not desirable in any capacity.
The use of draw reins and short side reins often causes the horse to suck back or drop this head behind the vertical and develop the wrong muscles for correct, functional posture. This can result in a loss of elasticity in the neck and back muscles and result in the horse dragging his hind feet. Some horses never relax when longed, and it can become a rather mindless exercise unless done with variety. Using poles in creative ways can keep lunging interesting for both horse and handler.
Putting a TTouch Body Wrap on the horse can have great results while encouraging lengthening and movement from the back end instead of restricting it from the front causing retraction.
Why do we mount from the left? Because soldiers wore swords on the left hip they had to mount from the left and this became the tradition. Since most people today no longer ride wearing swords, consider the downside of continuing to mount only from the left.
By continuing this tradition the saddle will tend to be repeatedly pulled to the left. This causes a repeated pull on the horse’s back, may encourage the horse’s left shoulder to develop unevenly and, in some cases, contributes to the saddle tree twisting. When I suggest that people should also mount from the right, the response is, “But it’s so difficult.” When a person first learns to mount, it is awkward whether it is from the left side or the right side. It is a matter of practice and may be as strange for your horse as for you, so have someone hold your horse.
It is also worth noting “how” you mount. Do you pull the saddle over by grabbing the cantle? Does your toe dig into the horse’ elbow? What happens to my horse’s posture when I mount? Does my horse stand happily? All of these questions are important when considering your horse’s overall well-being and back health. Rarely does a horse stop standing for mounting due to a “behavioural issue”. A horse who suddenly becomes “impatient” or “fidgety” during mounting is almost certainly uncomfortable.
With this in mind, the use of mounting blocks have become increasingly important. While it is a good idea to be able to mount from the ground, it should not be your primary practice. Mounting from a block or other raised platform is MUCH easier on the horse’s body (and usually the rider’s too!). Michigan State University conducted a study that demonstrated that mounting from the ground resulted in significantly more force on the horse’s body than from a raised platform. As we learn more it is up to us to do better! Today there is not reason not to regularly use a mounting block when getting into the saddle.
Many riders use various modalities on their horses to improve performance and maintain soundness. If a horse is reactive during grooming, if he is being led or longed in a way that promotes poor posture, is not getting enough turnout time, has an ill-fitting saddle or out-of-balance rider, it doesn’t matter how much massage, acupuncture, laser or TTouch body work you use, the tension, stiffness, or resistance will reoccur. Re-examining your everyday handling practices is an easy, effective, and inexpensive way to help maintain your horse in a more functional, healthy, and sound posture.
Take the time to observe your horse’s response to even the most mundane of everyday tasks, looking for the smallest signs of concern. Listen when he whispers to you instead of waiting for him to yell. Become aware of posture. Think about issues or “resistances” you may be having under saddle. There is usually a thread that connects them.
If we become more observant and aware, then make a few simple changes, our time with horses can be more mutually enjoyable and productive. As an added bonus, this new sense of awareness can do wonders for overall behavior, performance AND the quality of relationship we have with our horses.