Horses who are dangerously reactive to loudspeakers and crowd movement, don’t eat or sleep normally, pace the stall, or are nervous in the warm-up ring, can take a long time to learn to cope with stress at a competition. Most riders hope that with time and experience a horse will learn to let go of their stress and live up to his or her potential, but that doesn’t always happen, or it can take so long it becomes discouraging.
I worked with a horse just like this at the Equine Affaire expo in Pomona, California, this past January. Adrienne Bessey brought her 12-year-old Hanoverian gelding, Winston Churchill, to work with me on the recommendation of her dressage teacher, Amie Beauregard. Amie has hosted two TTEAM trainings with me and saw the possibilities for change when I worked with her warmblood gelding, Truman, at the Western States Horse Expo last June. During an exhibition performance the day before, Truman was spooked in the arena by a fast-moving baby carriage, and the movement of the crowd caused him a great deal of stress. When Amie saw me ride him bridleless and with only a rope around his neck in front of more than 1,000 spectators, and saw the trust that allowed Truman to move brilliantly and with confidence, she was hopeful Winston could also be helped.
Adrienne sent me the following email: “Winston is my dream horse – the one I’ve waited for the 30 years I’ve been riding. He is such a gifted dressage horse, but we’ve had so much trouble because he is so sound sensitive and nervous at our competitions. Last year in our first high performance class – a qualifier for the Pan American games – he became so upset by the background music playing over a loudspeaker that he kept spooking and bolting until I decided to excuse ourselves from the show arena. Since then I’ve been trying to expose him to sound in small doses to ‘desensitize’ him, but it is clearly not working. Even at smaller shows, a strange sound may frighten Winston so much that I can’t regain his focus for hours.”
We certainly picked the right venue to demonstrate the behavior Adrienne had to deal with at competitions. The large, open arena at the Pomona expo featured loudspeakers blaring from several directions, dozens of horses warming up in the adjoining ring, carriages driving noisily back and forth, and plenty of noise and movement from the stands full of people come to learn about TTEAM work.
I asked Adrienne to ride into the arena so the spectators could see the issues she was dealing with. However, he was so agitated that first afternoon that for safety’s sake I decided we should work him from the ground because of his tendency to bolt under saddle.
Something I discovered many years ago is the value of lowering a horse’s head to override the flight reflex. My sister, Robyn Hood, coined the phrase “high-headed equals high-strung” to describe a horse who is extremely highheaded and tense. When you can get his nose down to chest level, a terrified horse can begin to relax and respond to the handler on the ground.
We first worked Winston in the labyrinth to calm and focus him. Normally a horse settles in a matter of minutes when he is brought into the labyrinth, but in the beginning Winston could not lower his head until both the noseband and girth were loosened. Few horse people seem to realize the negative effects of a tight noseband; more often than not, horses brought to me with behavior problems have restricted breathing from a tight girth and pain caused by a tight noseband. Within minutes of loosening Winston’s girth and noseband, he was able to lower his head in the labyrinth.
The wand works its magic
One of the first moves we make in hand is to stroke a horse’s legs. Flighty horses become calmer and more focused within minutes when their legs are stroked from chest to ground with the TTEAM “wand”, our name for a stiff white 4’ lightweight dressage whip. I find that if a person is asked to stroke their horse with a “whip”, all kinds of negative experiences come up for them; by calling it a “wand”, they’re quicker to see what a magical and calming effect it can have.
During the entire first session Winston could barely be touched with the wand, but he did settle enough to lower his head for TTouches on his ears and legs. This had a calming effect that was clearly noticeable by observers in the stands.
The second day of the expo I again decided to do only ground work with Winston. He was already more relaxed from the beginning of the hour-long session. This time I could stroke his front and hind legs with the wand without him reacting.
Below the surface
A basic concept of TTEAM is teaching a horse to be comfortable and confident about walking on a variety of surfaces. This is based on a rarely acknowledged premise that when a horse is nervous, a message is sent from the brain to the body inhibiting neural impulses and bloodflow to the legs, and allowing more power for flight (or fight). Horses who are fidgety and easily stressed are usually wary of their legs being touched and are spooky about strange surfaces. Using a combination of leg TTouches and a variety of surfaces, a “grounding” occurs that makes the horse feel safe, minimizes stress, and makes enables adaption to new situations.
At first Winston was very spooked by the plastic on the ground, the pool noodles above his head, and the 4’ by 8’ piece of plywood he was expected to walk over. With quiet leg-stroking using the wand, and some grain placed on the platform, his response shifted from fear to calm.
By the end of the session Winston was standing quietly, free of stress, as three people did TTouch on various parts of his body, in spite of the constant surrounding blare of loudspeakers. He could also walk quietly over the platform and between bales. Several people from the audience later told me that they could see him begin to think and actually seem to enjoy the attention.
I decided to take Winston again on Sunday morning, even though the TTouch demo was to take place in a small indoor arena where Adrienne thought he might be terrified and uncontrollable. Quite a few spectators who had been to all three demos said they could clearly see the change in Winston. He was able to walk in quietly and stand with lowered head while I TTouched his ears and mouth, legs, tail and every other inch of his body.
Adrienne’s subsequent email says it all: “I can’t thank you enough for working with Winston at the Equine Affaire in Pomona this past weekend.
“I had been so discouraged, wondering if I would ever be able to take this beautiful and talented horse to the ‘bigger’ competitions. A friend recommended your techniques. It seemed meant to be, because soon after I heard you would be coming to Pomona!
“I can’t stop telling all my stable friends about my experience. The first day he had so much stress, I could barely lead him into the arena to work with you…he kept leaping and spinning and running backwards. (The crowd and the level of activity at the Equine Affaire were so much bigger and more intense than anything he’d ever seen.) The change in Winston by the end of the session was unbelievable – I literally felt ‘all choked up’. He walked out of the arena slowly and with his head lowered, breathing normally. I was so happy and relieved and proud and grateful – all at once! And I wasn’t alone. The next day, people who had seen him the first day could not believe it was the same horse. And by the third day we were able to walk Winsty down a long sidewalk next to the interstate into a small demo arena surrounded on three sides by metal bleachers with children running up and down! I would never have thought that was possible for this horse!
“I’ve started working on the TTouches at home and I can see the difference in Winston even there. Things that he’s always shied from don’t seem to cause him stress anymore. I can’t wait to see how we do in the next show!”
Linda Tellington-Jones lives with her husband, Roland Kleger, in Hawaii. Her offices are in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She travels the world teaching the Tellington Method for horses and companion animals as well as for people. She has produced 16 books in 12 languages and many DVD s. There are more than 1,000 certified Tellington Touch practitioners working in 26 countries. To see some of the TTouches on YouTube and for more information, go to www.TTouch.com.