Working through Anxiety based tension

A couple of months ago I wrote about horses with tension and how it can affect the horse and the training process. This month I want to offer a few suggestions to help the horse relax even when they get stressed out. One of the biggest sources of tension is anxiety, and more specifically the horse’s inability to deal with anxiety. Anxiety is a sincere emotion and I know many, many horses that are often overwhelmed by it. It can stem from a variety of places but where it comes from is less important that helping the horse deal with it.

In order to help the horse deal with his anxiety he needs support from two different areas, Mental and physical. Mentally he likely is a low confidence horse that does not trust his own judgment. He is possibly afraid of being punished if he is wrong and there for anticipates being wrong and being in trouble. Physically his anticipation of getting in trouble or just confusion can initiate an adrenaline based response that causes over reaction. He can not think straight or relax physically when he is high on adrenaline.

So we need to decrease our expectations and increase our tolerance and most importantly remove any and all negative emotion from the situation. We also must allow and encourage movement to be slower and more relaxed. Our perception of “correctness” has to be re assessed and our encouragement of effort must increase. If we only reward correct movements from him he will continue to fail. In fear of sounding like a broken record I believe we need to change our idea of success until we can guarantee to our horse that he is always right. It is his confidence and willingness to try regardless of whether he is “correct” or not that he needs to develop.
It is not a specific exercise that he needs to be worked through. The technique we employ is irrelevant. It is in our intentions and our willingness to support him whenever he says he needs it. We need to start to pay closer attention to the horse and he will tell us when he needs more guidance, when he needs corrected and when he just needed more time to work through a problem. If we give him these things he will develop the responsibility he needs to work through conflict. He will develop the confidence in himself to trust his own judgment. He will learn how to build on small success to eventually be “correct”. He will not be afraid to be wrong and he will anticipate reward rather than reprimand.
Changing the mental approach to training will allow him to develop the confidence in himself that is crucial to developing a relaxed horse.

Physically we can support the change in our approach by directing his energy not trying to contain it. We need to start thinking about riding our horse from back to front. Tension develops in the hind quarter and works through the body and shows up in our hands. We can not effectively fix it if we can not recognize where it comes from.

If we work on bending and flexing him with forward movement his body can become supple. I try to encourage the horse to lower his head and neck while still maintaining soft contact with the bit. I want to work on creating an arc in the body rather than an articulation point at the withers.

In order to do that I need to break the body into small pieces, the head, the neck, the shoulder, the rib cage, the hip. These areas should all be articulation points that when working together create a natural bend in the body. When one locks up we get tension and imbalance. Forward movement is also very important to maintain. We want movement with impulsion but not speed. It should be slow and deliberate but we still need access to power. If we have speed, momentum starts to work against us. If we are coasting we are not engaging the body and the horse may have flipped the switch to auto pilot.

Think about impulsion as driving your car up hill. If you don’t keep the gas on you won’t get to the top. When you are at the top of the hill you can coast but if you wanted to pass a car in front of you couldn’t. Then when you start down the other side if you aren’t careful to be in the right gear your car will start to run away with you because you have too much momentum. With impulsion you can work, when you coast you are not getting anywhere and if you have a runaway you are in trouble.

There are many good exercises that will help to make your horse suppler. I don’t have the space to get into technical detail about how I would personally do it but I am sure if you look at past issues of PPHJ I have written about working in hand and on the longe line to get a horse started and develop quality in movement. Or contact me directly and I can help with your specific situation.

When I ride a horse I am always trying to measure tension and where it may be coming from. I need then to be able to effectively eliminate the tension if I am to progress with the horse in his training. It is very difficult to teach a horse if he is tight through the body and in a reactive frame of mind. As a rider I never feel that I am not accomplishing anything if I have to step back and spend days or weeks dealing with anxiety based tension. I try to keep the big picture in mind about what the horse will become when we have worked through the tension and a supple, responsive, reliable horse has come out the other side. If you do not address tension and anxiety it will continue to get worse, or it at least won’t get better and could lead to other problem behavior or an accident that has the potential for injury to horse and rider. I am pretty sure your horse is worth the time it will take.
© 2009 Will Clinging