It's a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky. You saddle up at the trailhead where your trail buddies have just arrived. You've been planning this ride for weeks; you're excited to explore a new trail and are looking forward to a picnic afterwards.
Unfortunately, your horse is anxious, which was obvious from the moment he stepped out of the trailer. He has a tendency to be nervous. Plus, he was pawing and swinging his hindquarters from side-to-side while you saddled him while he was tied at the trailer.
Now that you've mounted up, you can literally feel his anxiety through the reins as he mouths and chews the bit, and through your seat as he begins an anxious jig.
It feels like you're riding a coiled spring, ready to explode.
A tense, anxious horse can take all the joy out of a ride. It's impossible to relax and enjoy yourself when your horse is fretting and you're worried he may be "uptight" the whole time: bolt, buck, whirl around, jig incessantly or hurry at all gaits, crowd other horses, or even rear. Equally important, you worry about your own safety.
"There's a big difference between a horse that's anxious or tense and one who's spooky," notes top trainer Linda Tellington-Jones. "The tense horse is often wary of contact with the mouth, flanks, or hindquarters, and is over-reactive to leg aids.
"He may be ‘touchy' all over the body and tight in the abdominal muscles. Tense, anxious horses tend to be that way all the time, unlike spooky horses that can shy from fear, or as the result of playfulness or habit."
"When riding your anxious or flighty horse, you might inadvertently worsen the problem," says Tellington-Jones. "You'll have a tendency to ride ‘defensively' with shorter reins, but when you tighten up on those reins, you create additional tension in the horse's neck and may even cause him to raise his head high, which may click him into flight mode," she says.
"This tension affects the horse's breathing and can create more trouble because it actually makes the horse more tense. His tense muscles impair the blood flow to his brain and he can't think clearly. The neuro-impulses are inhibited, which makes him less able to feel his limbs."
The solution is to teach your horse to come into a more grounded, connected form of mental, physical, and emotional balance. This can be done with Tellington TTouches (a form of bodywork comprised of a variety of circles, lifts, and slides done with the hands and fingertips), Tellington ground-work exercises, and under-saddle work.
Here, Tellington-Jones gives you three TTouches and one ground/under-saddle exercise designed to calm your nervous horse.
Coiled Python Lift
Overview: This TTouch is excellent for releasing muscle tension in the back and increasing blood flow. It relaxes the nervous horse, increases confidence and awareness, and helps "de-spook" the flighty horse.
Key spots: Legs, back, inside thigh.
How to perform: Begin at the top of your horse's forearm, placing both hands lightly on either side of his leg. Start the movement with "two pressure." (For an explanation of the TTouch pressure scale, see "How Much Pressure?" below.)
Make a circle-and-a-quarter with one hand, then lift the skin upward with both hands with just enough contact that your hands don't slip over your horse's skin. Hold for several seconds, supporting the skin as it returns slowly to its normal position.
Note: On most parts of your horse's leg, you'll see very little movement. Your touches simply stretch the skin upward, increasing circulation and minimizing the effects of gravity for those few moments.
Slide your hands down several inches, and repeat the circle and lift. Work from top of your horse's legs all the way down to his fetlocks. If your horse shifts away from the touch, you're squeezing too hard or pushing the skin up too much.