Dealing with tension

Tension in horses can lead to all kinds of problems and hinder the horse’s ability to learn. Some horses are so tense and stiff that they are incapable of many of the maneuvers we ask of them. This can lead to frustration and anxiety that just lead to more tension.

Tension can come in many forms, physical stiffness throughout the body, choppy reactive movement and explosive behavior.

Before I try to deal with tension I think about what the cause of it might be. That will obviously depend on the horse, his age, maturity, confidence, fitness and level and quality of training. It could be caused by too much work, not enough warm up, poor equipment fit, unsoundness and pain. I may not be able to pin point a specific cause but I can gain a fair deal of insight if I take all of these things under consideration.

If the horse is young or very green I try to deal with the mental tension first. I have found that removing fear, establishing a little authority and sharing some responsibility with the horse can help the horse understand what is expected of him and helps him know where to look for comfort when he gets upset. When he knows that he has some control over his fear and that a release of pressure is always available to him when he looks for it he is much more inclined to relax. Once in a less stressed frame of mind I can re evaluate his physical tension?

If the horse is at an early stage of his training or is not yet started I might first start with him loose, to evaluate cadence, headset, reactivness, and a general picture of the physical body. If there is nice rhythmic movement at a walk and trot, and he carries his head comfortably I will look to see how he bends his body. Is he over bending one way or the other, is he counter bending one way or the other does he bob his head? These are all physical things that I can deal with either in hand or on the longe line and I would continue the work along those lines. If the horse is seemingly calm but has a hard time responding comfortably or smoothly to a request for a transition or his speed is erratic it might mean that more time is required to comfort him and deal with his mental tension before we can proceed to the physical tension.

If I think that the tension could have been brought on by past events like a bad training experience, or frustration from the rider because of the lack of performance from the horse I will visit that situation before I look to fix things through physical mechanics.
If the horse has built up anxiety that only is expressed in a specific situation I want to try to simulate that situation so I can help the horse resolve whatever the cause of his anxiety is. It is often a little confusion on the horse’s part that was not clarified by his handler and has lead to anticipation of that confusion again. Before we know it the horse is anticipating things way ahead of what we are asking for and he has himself in a knot before we get a chance to answer his questions. I try to back track to where we were before the horses anxiety level changed and try to find the cause. I t could be a change in the handlers presentation; It could be the increased use of a whip or some other stimulus it could be a change in some environmental factor that has distracted him from the work at hand. Whatever the cause I can not proceed beyond that point until the horse is again in a relaxed frame of mind. Only then will he hopefully have a clearer understanding of what scared him and how he might be able to better handle it.

Some horses are so tense that they can not find any comfort mentally or physically. These are horses that are often muscle bound; this can be a breed related problem, particularly in quarter horses. They have a very powerful hind end and are often very strong through the neck, combined with being short coupled they find it very hard to bend through their body. They are basically stiff and strong as a board. And it is not easy to bend a 2 x 4.

Their amazing power and lack of ability to deal with that power in a relaxed manor can lead them to overreact. They then put too much strength into their reactions and scare themselves because they can not deal with their own power. This causes them to panic and they continue to build speed and anxiety until they are simply out of control. It is kind of like driving a race car, it is very easy to give it too much gas and swerve out of control and the brakes don’t work because you are driving on ice. In these situations I work at the body as I try to help them not overreact so they don’t get away from themselves as easily. The horse needs to learn to slow down and be comfortable, they also need to learn that if they do get out of control that they know how to get themselves back into a more comfortable situation. Trying to encourage them to bend through their body correctly is initially difficult but ultimately will help them become much more supple and relaxed. The hard part is allowing the horse to get out of control or at least not punishing him so he can learn that he will not be hurt and that he can recover himself. I try to stand back to support him but not to protect him from giving it too much gas. The horse will eventually learn to moderate his power through a combination of physical relaxation which will allow correct mechanics and a lower level of anxiety because they aren’t anticipating being out of control. It is not always an easy task but without physical comfort he will never become relaxed. If he can not relax it will be harder to find physical comfort. Which came first the chicken or the egg? Ill let you decide.
© 2009 Will Clinging