4 Easy Tips for Improving His Balance
Depending on where you live, winter often means spending less time in the saddle. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be proactive and productive in the quest to improve your horse’s well-being. Paying more attention to how you affect his posture on the ground can make a huge difference in his levels of relaxation and trust, and in his behavior, leading to better performance under saddle.
One of the most important aspects of a horse’s overall functioning and well-being is his habitual posture. Posture has a huge impact on how an animal balances himself, responds to external signals, interprets information, and even sees and feels things.
The Tellington TTouch™ method places a lot of emphasis on the intrinsic nature of physical, emotional and mental balance. A horse that comes into a session high-headed, tight-backed and short-strided will often be “spooky”, “reactive”, “flighty” or “explosive”. He is likely in “flight” mode, where the instinctive sympathetic nervous system takes over and the “thinking” para-sympathetic nervous system takes a back seat. With enough experience, one look at a horse’s posture may give you some very educated guesses as to what issues the owner or handler may typically have to deal with on a regular basis.
1. Leading Change
Anytime you handle your horse, you have an opportunity to affect his posture, hopefully in a positive way. Leading him mindfully is a great starting point for changing deep-set, postural habits that lend themselves to unwanted behavioral patterns. Remember that muscle memory is a very powerful thing, and the posture you ask your horse to have on the ground should be the same as what you would want under saddle. A few simple changes to your everyday handling can go a long way to changing your horse’s habitual posture into a more functional, healthy state.
One of the easiest ways to start helping your horse lower his head on the ground is to clip your lead line to the side hardware of the halter. Having the lead clipped under the chin is the most common way to attach it, but it can have drawbacks. Applying pressure under the chin on a stuck or tight horse will often result in his raising his head and jamming through the poll, becoming even more braced before he is able to let go and move forward. 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 him to lower his head and relax at the poll more easily. This can be a very useful hint to remember when asking a horse to walk up to a trailer.
An interesting exercise to try is 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 wearer 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 feels easier to follow and does not encourage the chin to lift up.
2. Stop Pulling!
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, it is up to us to disrupt this reflex. If you pull, the horse pulls – and often, if the horse pulls, we pull back. This does not mean letting your horse go wherever he pleases; it means refining the way you make a signal on the lead. This will go a long way to reducing opposition and bracing in your horse.
A simple way to ask or direct without opposition is to allow a little slide on the lead. As you signal your horse, instead of keeping your hand tightly closed or fixed on the lead, allow for the line to slide slightly 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. It usually results in a more relaxed posture with a lower head carriage.
3. Clarify Your Body Language
Most of us were taught to stand at the horse’s shoulder as we lead him. While this is easy to do with a laid back, well-balanced horse, this position is not always very helpful or effective with a horse that is very out of balance and/or braced. For a horse that is not well-balanced or is very high-headed and rushy, try walking level with his head. In this position, you as the leader are less likely to accidentally pull back and trigger the opposition reflex while you’re walking along. It also provides you with the opportunity to use more body language to influence your horse.
Using your entire body rather than just your arm or voice to signal your horse provides a much clearer, more subtle yet powerful cue. For instance, if you want to halt him rather than just stopping your feet and pulling back on the line, start to ask for a halt with a slight signal on the lead as you step ahead and take a quarter turn towards your horse. The quarter turn helps shift the horse’s weight back to his hind end and maintain his own balance.
4. Relaxed Erectness
“Relaxed erectness” is a description of human posture that comes from the original residential riding instructor school Linda Tellington Jones ran in the 1960s. It still holds true today. Your own posture is just as important as your horse’s when influencing him in or out of the saddle! Many people are habitually bracing through their lower backs, knees or hips, which makes signals feel more rigid and actually inhibits your own balance.
Practice standing squarely with soft knees, released hip flexors and a soft, long lower back, with your weight over the middles of your feet. You may notice you feel less stress on your joints and can even breathe and see more easily. Finding that middle spot where you are not slumped or rigid will make a huge difference to your effectiveness as a horse handler and rider. Staying released through your joints will allow you to give clearer and more subtle signals to your horse, without inadvertently pulling or pushing.
These basic principles of handling an out-of-balance horse can help start shifting his habitual posture and change the way he thinks and trusts you. It can also give you new insights into the root of some behaviors. The Tellington TTouch™ Method adds bodywork, groundwork, and riding exercises to these foundational ideas, enhancing cooperation between horse and handler by getting to the basic cause of behaviors rather than simply addressing the symptoms.
Why is a high-headed horse so often spooky? Does the posture come first, or does the behavior create the posture? When a horse is out of balance physically, he will likely be extremely on the forehand and sending most of his weight “base down”, leading through his chest. To counteract this, he will likely raise his head, which in turn drops the back and makes it more difficult for the hind legs to catch up with the front, pushing him even more out of balance and making him feel unsafe when control of his movement is taken out of his hooves.
This horse may be able to get along fine in the pasture without any external pressure – but add a leader and a line and he suddenly turns “bargey” or “balky”, “rude”, “disrespectful” or even “explosive”. In all likelihood, this horse is not “trying” to be dominant or disrespectful. He was simply falling out of balance in the first place, and this is being exacerbated by a human on the end of a lead. To make matters more complicated, these dysfunctional habitual postures often lead to tension patterns that can cause discomfort and bracing through the soft tissue.
Mandy Pretty is a certified practitioner of the Tellington TTouch® and Connected Riding®. She lives in British Columbia where she trains and teaches both modalities. For more information please visit ttouch.ca