Leading Your Horse With Clear Intentions

Elements of Leading with the Tellington TTouch Method – Clarity of Intention

In order to engage your horse and ask for a movement, you want to be very clear about the movement you are asking for. Many times, we are not really clear even in our own heads what we are asking and lack specificity in our directions. This creates a sense of confusion in the horse, and leads to frustration for both of you.

Imagine yourself entering a busy office building without knowing where you are supposed to go. You look around, spot the reception desk and ask. The busy receptionist is juggling a phone, stacks of files and chatting with another staffer. Without making eye contact, he gestures in a direction and says “over there”.

This vague and nonspecific direction leaves you feeling unsure, and you wander roughly in the direction he pointed but feel no certainty whatsoever that you are going to the right place. You walk in a tentative manner, looking around for clues where to go.

This is the feeling I think a lot of horses have when we work with them. They know you are expecting something of them, but aren’t really sure exactly what it is. This lack of clarity will very likely unsettle a nervous horse, put a bored horse on the hunt for some excitement, and cause a quiet horse to check out entirely while he waits for you to ask for something.

If you are like me and most of my clients, you have a busy life. We are a lot like that receptionist, constantly multi-tasking and juggling a variety of distractions. However, when we arrive at the barn we can create a practice of single-tasking when we engage with our horses. This is certainly the best option for safety. When we are fully present with a horse we are much more likely to spot the early signs of trouble. Additionally, being present with your horse will help him know you are there to look out for him so he can relax.

One of the tools we use in the Tellington TTouch Method is the wand. This stiff white dressage whip has many functions, one of which is for communication. I use my wand as a tool to clarify my intention to the horse, creating a clear intended line of travel. Depending on the distance I hold from the horse, either the button end or the tip will create an imaginary line for the nose of the horse to follow.

Many times, new students of the Method will be skeptical of this idea at first. However, a horse quickly learns to watch and follow the wand, and most horses find it very interesting to engage with you in this exercise. Give it a try and see how your horse appreciates the clear direction from you.

One of the things that will help you develop this skill will be to set up an obstacle or two from the Playground for Higher Learning. Not everyone can have a full Playground set up all the time, but you can become very creative with random objects you might have around the barn. Even a trash can or a single pole can used as an obstacle to walk around. You can come up with a pattern of travel in relationship with almost anything. As long as you create a clear plan in your mind, then communicate it to your horse step by step, you will both be in sync.

Flower Essences to help you be present with your horse

My favorite flower essence formula to help keep my mind from wandering is Mind-Full from the Flower Essence Society. This formula is a mixture of flower essences including Madia for focused thought and Morning Glory for sluggishness. It also has a little essential oil of citrus and mint included for an extra boost. Mist on your tongue and around your head when you get to the barn, and keep the bottle in your pocket as you work. Using the formula 3 or 4 times during a session can really help keep you focused, and if you wish you can spray your palm and offer to your horse to breathe in. Take a moment to breathe together, get present, and then take the next step together.

How To Spot Signs Of Fear In Your Horse

How many times have you heard of a horse exploding in a huge reaction “out of nowhere”? It can happen anytime: a horse out on a ride suddenly bucking, in the crossties pulling back and snapping the halter, or panicking and scrambling in the trailer.

Any experienced horse person can tell you, these things can simply happen out of the blue. But what if you learned to notice the warning signs and could defuse this dangerous situation?

You might think of the last time you went to the dentist. Most people have at least some level of concern when they go, and feel at least a little bit worried that they might experience some pain. Fortunately, dentists and staff have been trained to watch their patients closely, and to regularly check in with them. They ask you as the patient to tell them if you feel any pain, and tell you to raise your hand to ask them to stop.

Imagine yourself in a dentist’s chair, but this time, you are being held down by the assistant while the dentist works in your mouth. No one is noticing you are becoming more and more anxious, and a small amount of pain you feel causes your adrenaline to spike, expecting it to get  much worse. You start to wiggle, and are reprimanded for doing so. What are the chances you would panic and bolt out of the chair and room without further notice?

This scenario reminds me of how horses are often treated. We as the handlers know there is nothing to fear, and there will be no pain or harm caused. But the horse may have very little idea of what to expect, and has no way of asking you to slow down or stop what you are doing. This causes his tension level to rise, and he may over react to a tiny amount of pain or discomfort.

One of the principles of the Tellington TTouch Method is to observe your horse closely, to notice even the smallest sign of discomfort in the horse, and work to alleviate the horse’s concerns. These signs can be very small, and are often mistaken for good behavior. For instance, a horse may become completely still before he explodes in fear. This is a type of response to fear termed freezing, and can be very dangerous for the handler who thinks the horse is just fine with what is going on around him.

Some of the signs of concern we look for when handling or training a horse are:

Breathing – Many horses hold their breath when they are concerned or worried, or take shallow breaths. Look for the ribcage and belly to fill with each breath, and to release easily and completely. Often we only notice a horse has been holding his breath when he exhales deeply.

Mouth – A nervous horse will often hold the mouth very tightly and will have a hard chin. He may also fidget and nibble on ropes or anything nearby as a source of distraction to himself when he is nervous.

Tail – Many worried horses will have a very tight tail, tucked close to the buttocks. It is also a sign of distress for a horse to whip the tail back and forth as opposed to the gentle swish to remove a fly.

There are of course many other signs to notice, but these are some of the most obvious and easy to spot. Next time you tack up your horse in preparation for a ride, you might go a little more slowly and see if you can spot any areas of concern for your horse. Each small concern you can address and release will have a cumulative effect on your horse’s ability to relax and focus on the job.

Techniques to help alleviate your horse’s fears

Acupressure on Conception Vessel 17

This point is a powerful calming point that will both settle the horse and help him to relax and breathe fully and deeply. The point is located on the ventral midline, just behind the line of the horse’s elbows. There is usually a depression or soft spot here about the size of a quarter. Apply your fingertips gently to this spot, hold and take deep slow belly breaths as you wait to see the horse’s response. Most horses will start to relax, lower their heads, and start to breathe deeply.

TTouch Tail Work

There are a number of techniques from TTouch to help soften a tight tail and help a horse relax. One of the ones recommended is to do Tail Circles. First, check to see if the tail is not too tight – if it is completely clamped, start with some Hair Slides and TTouch circles on the dock itself. Once the tail has relaxed a little, reach with your hand up under the dock and lift it firmly skyward. With your other hand, grasp the lower part of the dock and arch the tail in a rainbow shape. Holding this angle, circle the tail as if winding up the horse. This movement will help the horse relieve tension and soften the tail.

Mimulus Flower Essence for fear

One of Dr Bach’s original flower essences, Mimulus, is an excellent choice to ease your horse’s fears. It is specific to “known” fears, fears that are clearly defined to the horse. For instance, your horse may be frightened of needles, or blankets, or the wash rack. Mimulus will help ease these specific fears and help him relax. Give two drops on a cookie twice daily for at least a few weeks to make a lasting change.

Helping Your Horse Overcome His Fear – Part Two

In Part One, I discussed a method of desensitization intended to help a horse overcome fear. This process is problematic as it often causes dulling and dissociation in the horse, rather than helping him overcome his fear. I’d like to show you some other ways to help the horse become less fearful and more confident. These techniques work with the horse to encourage his inherent curiosity and help him stay calm and present, thinking through a challenge rather than rushing through fearfully. The best part is once a horse has had a few positive experiences of working through a new situation with your assistance, he will be more likely to trust you as he is presented with the next one.

Helping a horse overcome fear with Tellington TTouch Training

The Tellington TTouch Method incorporates a broad variety of techniques and tools that can be applied individually or layered together. There are no fixed recipes and you are encouraged to use your creativity to figure out a way to work with an individual horse on any given day. There are many great resources to learn the Method, but I’d like to show you one way we might work with a specific fear – that of walking on a new surface.

It is common for horses to be nervous to step onto an unfamiliar surface. He may refuse to load in a trailer because of the feel of the floor, or stop at a water crossing, or simply shy at a shadow on the ground. We can help a horse overcome these types of fears by using plastic tarps.

You will need 2 plastic tarps and a still day (wind is not your friend in this process!). Take your tarps and fold them lengthwise into strips. Depending on the type of tarp you might end up with a 10’ length and a 12-18” width. Lay the tarps on the ground in a very wide “V” shape. Depending on your horse, you may need to start out with the narrowest part 6’ apart (no part of the two strips are touching each other). This shape allows the horse to enter at the wide part of the “V”, walk through without touching or coming close to the plastic itself. Your goal is to let the horse take a good look before approaching the opening, then walk through calmly.

Monitor your horse closely for any sign of nervousness or concern, and make sure he has really seen the tarps before you enter the space between. Allow him to turn his head and raise or lower it so he can really see and process the tarps on both sides. You don’t want him to paw or grab the tarp with his teeth at this point as he could frighten himself and set the process back. You always want to give him the choice to say “I can’t” as you invite him to walk through. You can always make the obstacle easier by widening and taking it slower. When he feels heard, and can trust you to listen to his concerns he will develop more confidence in you and be more willing to try.

As he shows you he is comfortable walking through the opening between the tarps, you can gradually narrow the space between them. Be aware of where your footsteps land, as you don’t want to frighten him by the noise of your boots suddenly scrunching on the tarp. I recommend letting him watch you as you move the tarps around so you can notice if the sound is concerning to him. If so, go slowly, and avoid startling him with a big noise. You may find that a head wrap and a body wrap will help a nervous and sound-sensitive horse. The wanding technique I discuss in Part One will be very useful to you as you help him overcome fear of the noise.

As you work through the process of narrowing, then eliminating the gap between the tarps, you can also widen out the folded tarps as well, creating a larger surface to walk between. Eventually, your horse will be completely comfortable stepping over the tarp. This may happen in one session, but don’t push your horse. Watch for little steps of improvement, and make sure it is easy for him to be successful. These positive experiences will build and he will develop greater and greater trust in you as you progress.

This experience of safely and bravely stepping on tarps will help your horse with many new footing and surface challenges. You can also give your horse different experiences by doing this exercise with pieces of cardboard, plywood, carpet, or rubber matting. Be creative with whatever you have around the barn and keep your horse interested to see what you have up your sleeve for the next work session.

Calm your horses fears with Acupressure

One of my favorite points to teach my clients is Governing Vessel 24. This is an excellent choice to calm a horse and help him focus. It eases anxiety and busy minds (and busy mouths).

This is an easy point to find, and safe to use for any horse where you can touch the head.

The point is located on the central midline of the forehead, directly under the forelock. Hold the halter while standing off to one side of the head, and apply a fingertip to the area directly under the forelock. Your horse many respond well to a gentle steady contact, or prefer a light circular rubbing motion. Whichever technique you use, allow a few minutes to let the horse experience the acupressure and relax. When introducing acupressure to your horse, he may more easily accept a few seconds at a time, building to a few minutes as he becomes accustomed to the sensation. Regular acupressure on this point before or after training sessions will help him be calmer and able to think more clearly.

Flower Essence for confidence

Sometimes a horse may be needing a boost in confidence, rather than being particularly fearful. He is just a bit timid, and doesn’t dive into new things like his herdmates. In this case, try Larch flower essence. This is one of the Bach flower essences, and is useful in any circumstance where a horse (or dog, or person…) is nervous about trying something new, and is afraid to fail or be embarrassed. It shifts the perspective into a sense of excitement and possibility and an eagerness to learn and try new things.

Offer a few drops on a cookie before sessions and see if your horse finds a new sense of courage. You may find it useful to take a few drops yourself before a lesson or a class.

Signs Of Stress In Your Horse: Mouthing

How many horses in your barn are constantly “busy” when they stand tied? They chew on anything nearby – ropes, blankets, handlers… constantly fooling around. When they cannot reach anything with their mouth, they may paw or walk back and forth to the limits of their tie.

This is very common, but should it be ignored? And, what can you do about it?

Many people have been instructed to correct any of these behaviors by shanking on the halter, or smacking the horse in the neck with a loud “no”. It has not been my experience that this works to stop the behavior, instead becoming more of a cyclical action/reaction that repeats daily while the horse is handled.

These behaviors are usually chalked up to the horse being bored, impatient, or spoiled. If you are certain this is true, you are likely to punish these bad behaviors. But what if your horse is not doing these things to drive you crazy, but instead is acting out of stress?

There are many ways you can help your horse feel less stressed. Many of them are just good horse keeping practices like maximizing turnout, providing hay at all times, and regular exercise.  There are also a number of wellness techniques you can add into your routine to help, creating moments of calm and connection with your horse on a regular basis. I find that problem behaviors such as mouthing and fussing can be reduced or eliminated using stress relieving techniques like TTouch, Acupressure and Flower Essences.

TTouch Mouthwork to relieve your horse’s stress

I do Mouthwork with nearly every horse I work with. This technique is one of the most powerful ways I have found to relax tension and reduce mouthing behavior. Anytime a horse shows mouthing, chewing, licking, or biting I consider it a call for help and a sign of stress, and step right in to help him.

There is not a fixed way to do Mouthwork, simply start moving around the skin on the horse’s muzzle, nostrils, lips, and chin. You are likely to find quite a bit of tension and holding in the area. Just keep working away at all the areas of the muzzle, being careful with your hands to avoid being bitten. Always keep a hand on the halter when you are doing this work so you can manage the horse’s head.

Once your horse has relaxed a bit, and you have worked around the exterior surfaces, you may want to work the lips and gums. This is not necessary – skip it if you do not feel safe doing so. You may wish to have an experienced horseperson show you the inside of a horse’s mouth, and teach you where you can put your fingers in on the sides of the mouth to avoid the teeth.

I usually introduce myself to the horse and get them used to the idea of my hands in their mouth by starting with tiny TTouches on the lip surfaces, then put my thumb under the lip while keeping my fingers on the exterior of the mouth. This helps prevent my hand from being pulled in and bitten. 

Once I have worked the lips, I may slide my hand under the surface of the upper lip and rub the gums. Most horses, once they get over the initial reaction of “what is she doing?” relax and enjoy having their gums rubbed. I do this firmly, holding the halter with my other hand for safety.

TTouch Mouthwork is very different from letting a horse mouth you, or play with your hands. A horse can lick or play with hands endlessly. It is more of a distraction behavior, and helps him tune out whatever else is happening to him. Mouthwork actually helps release tension. Doing a few minutes of Mouthwork will help him stand calmly afterwards, and he will be much less inclined to fuss with his mouth.

Acupressure on Pericardium 6 to relieve your horse’s stress

Pericardium 6 (PC6) is a powerful calming point for horses. This acupressure point has many other uses, for instance, it is an important point to relieve digestive problems. But nearly every horse can benefit from the calming effect of acupressure on PC6.

One of the easiest points to find, PC6 is located in front of the chestnut on each front leg. Simply stand at the shoulder and run your hand down the back of the leg on the inside surface. Locate the chestnut and rest your fingers on the skin in front of the chestnut. The point is located just in front of the chestnut, 1/3 to 1/2 way down the length of the chestnut. Gently rest your fingertips, breathe, and watch for signs of relaxation in your horse. Your horse may sigh, blink, chew and drop his head.

Flower Essences to relieve your horse’s stress

I’d love to see a bottle of Rescue Remedy in every first aid box. This combination flower essence formula is a first line remedy for shock and fear. It helps calm the body and mind, so you and your horse can come back to center after a fright. I prefer the Healing Herbs brand, labeled as Five-Flower, with the misting top so I can easily dose myself and my horse. 

You can give flower essences to your horse by misting a cookie and offering, or mist your hand and pet your horse’s muzzle. It is also great to use on your hands as you do Earwork.

Another important flower essence for stressed horses is Cherry Plum (Bach). I use this essence for horses that mouth, bite or fuss while tied. It is specific for mental stress, the fear that you will “lose it” and react in an extreme fashion. With horses, I see this type of fear manifesting in the above behaviors while tied or when otherwise confined, such as while trailering. This flower essence can help dial down the anxiety and help the horse cope with stress better.