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 ARTICLES > TTouch > A-tension!
  TTouch  Article:
Article By: Sarah Fisher       

Tension in a horse’s body is often the underlying reason for behavioural changes and physical ailments in our equine friends. TTEAM Practitioner Colleen Mulrooney takes a look at how TTouch can help relieve tension and make for a healthier, happier horse.

Tension held in the body is the invisible intruder that lies behind many equine ailments. It’s often the reason for sudden changes in behaviour and it can result in unsoundness. As responsible horse owners, we should learn to recognise the symptoms associated with tense muscles, and learn how to alleviate them.

The TTeam approach to tension
The Tellington Touch Equine Awareness Method (Tteam) was developed by Linda Tellington-Jones who recognised that once incorrect posture was corrected it influenced the horse’s behaviour and attitude accordingly. One of the aims of Tteam is to relieve stress and tension in horses. Tteam involves TTouches (a specific system of circular touches and lifts on the body), groundwork and exercises under saddle which encourage relaxation, aid learning and speed recovery from injury.
Tteam methods are unique as they utilise non-habitual movements, helping horses to bypass instinctive behaviour. Gentle Ttouches free the body from the holding patterns of tension. Working horses from the ground helps them to focus and be attentive, encouraging them to think versus react. Horses are more likely to learn under stress free conditions and remember their lessons too.

What is tension?
Tension relates to a horse’s emotional, mental or physical state of being.
Areas of tension which occur throughout the body are linked to unacceptable behaviour and problems under saddle. This influences all aspects of your horse’s life: from shoeing to travelling, tolerating everyday tasks such as grooming and even digesting his food!
Identifying tension patterns enables you to make a positive contribution to the well being of your horse. By being aware of the effects of tension in your horse’s body, you gain a greater understanding of why your horse behaves and moves as he does.
Ignoring the warning signs of tension and pushing through or working around it, usually results in an explosive situation like bolting when ridden; or dangerous behaviour such as biting and kicking.

How to recognise it
Although it might not be that obvious, horses tell us a lot - they are giving us information about how they feel all the time. Their use of body language is a highly developed tool used to communicate with their fellow equines and humans. This subtle language becomes more insistent when we fail to recognise what they’re saying. Being the practical horse people we are, we tend to “get on with it” without questioning why horses respond the way they do to everyday stimuli. Responses such as “he always does that” and “that’s just the way he is” illustrate just how much we overlook when working with horses who fidget, spook, rush, resist and barge their way through life.

Pay careful attention to how your horse responds to being saddled, groomed and having his feet picked out. Spend more time with your horse and observe what appears to be normal behaviour and what upsets or disturbs him. It’s important to question our horse’s behaviour, as these clues help us discover the underlying reasons for their reactions.
When riding, continue your observations. Is one rein favoured more, is there stiffness more to one side than the other; consistent spookiness; or resistance to the aids?
To identify areas of tension, using the flat of your hand and starting at the poll, move over the entire body. First one side and then the other noting any indications of tension, including:

  • muscle tone and uneven muscle development
  • temperature: note hot or cold changes on the body
  • lumps and bumps
  • coat texture: dull, staring, raised or rubbed away
  • flinching of skin and muscle spasms when touched
  • tightness in the skin or muscle
  • a defensive attitude, flattening ears, avoiding contact, kicking and trying to bite when touched.

The importance of lowering the head
What is the first thing a horse does when it gets a fright or becomes alarmed?
It raises its head. This tells the body that it needs to ready itself for flight or fight. The nervous system’s survival mode kicks in as the body readies itself for defence. The horse’s respiratory rate increases as adrenaline rushes into it’s bloodstream. Ready to react instinctively, the horse is unable to think in this reactive state. This reaction will continue as long as the head is in the air.
We must teach our horses to lower their heads, thereby switching to neutral mode which allows for thinking to take place. Lowering the head is the first step in overcoming the fear of a threat or the fear that is associated with tension and pain. The calm state that follows, allows one to begin exploring the body and releasing the areas of discomfort. Another purposes of TTeam work is to teach horses to override this survival reflex, which no longer serves them as domesticated horses. We achieve this by encouraging the horse to stop and think rather than react. The prevalence of tension in the body will exacerbate the likelihood of reacting instinctively in stressful situations.

Feeling your horse’s neck soften beneath your fingers and hearing him sigh softly is reward enough for easing tension. We owe it to our horses to pay more attention!

How to alleviate tension

• Check the fit of saddle and rugs
• Ensure that your horse’s feet have appropriate care
• Your horse’s bit should fit correctly and be suited to the horse
• Dental care is essential. Sharp teeth affect the fitting of bits and cause tension in the jaw
• Nutrition is important, as is the manner in which horses receive it. Eating from teff nets tied up high cause tension in the head and neck and the unnatural wearing of the teeth.
• Create a routine which is as stress free as possible. Being stabled for lengthy periods of time can be boring, psychologically stressful and causes tension.

What causes tension?

  • Genetic: The horse may have been born that way.
  • Injury: Horses compensate their weight distribution and way of moving to accommodate an injury. The new holding pattern can result in changes in behaviour and posture, resulting in unsoundness. Once healed, there may still be the memory of pain associated with certain actions. For example, a horse who has worn a badly fitting saddle, may still react to wearing one that fits properly.
  • Trauma: The residue of any kind of shock or trauma, such as an accident or operation may affect the horse emotionally and result in tension in the body.
  • Training/management: When a horse’s basic physical, emotional and mental needs are not met: ie environmental stresses compound behaviour problems and exacerbate habitual and instinctive behaviour patterns.

As printed in HQ Magazine, Issue No. 12

Sarah Fisher is a TTEAM Instructor in England and runs the Tellington TTouch Program in the UK. You can learn more about Sarah at www.ttouchtteam.co.uk

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