Package Warning and Disclaimer: This subject popped into my head yesterday as I sat and watched horse after horse bungle the Free Walk. I am not a dressage expert. I haven’t gotten on a horse in more than two months and I could not score even a 7 in beginner novice after bribing the judge with chocolate cake and an all-expenses-paid trip to China. The following is written by someone who watches and listens to trainers, riders and horses, and thinks about how things could be changed so that everyone involved gets more of what they want, and horses get what they need.
In an earlier post, Why Aren’t Horses and Riders Any Better at the Free Walk? I wrote about a dressage judge who told me that she views the Free Walk portion of a test
as a kind of double-exposure snapshot of the horse: its present way of going superimposed over its development and early training.
Once past a certain stage in a horse’s age and development, merely training a horse to lower its head at the free walk will not cut the mustard. In order to mail the Free Walk, you have to do some work on your horse. The good news is you have a huge tool belt full of goodies to work with for making a change. A rider can effect real, positive change in its horse’s topline without the use of draconian tools, dominance or expensive therapists or trainers. You get to spend some quality time with the horse, too.
I like Tellington TTouch® for bodywork because it calms the horse and makes it more receptive to learning. I like it so much that I quit working as an equine massage therapist to use it. Non-invasive and requiring no recovery time, TTouch® can be used in conjunction with most training methods. If anyone out there would like to bring about a change in not only the Free Walk, but also the general demeanor and learning capabilities of the horse, give the following ideas a try and let me know what happens. They don’t take nearly as much time to do as they do to read!
1. Lowering the head
You have to start somewhere, and the head is a good place.
Here’s why: Lowering the head so that the poll lies around 4 inches below the height of the withers overrides what Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) calls “emotional hijacking” of the amygdala, the part of the brain that governs automatic responses. Horse people call it the fight, flight or freeze reflex. Lowering the head allows the horse the critical space both to stop and think as well as to relax the muscles along the topline, releasing tension from the poll, crest, back and through the croup to the tail. Once you’ve got the head low, you’ve got it made for a lot of things. (Yup, you’ve already started making a list of the favorable side effects, I bet: bridle path clipping, haltering and bridling, etc.)
If you can trust the horse not to run you down, start by standing in front of (do not cross-tie), and grasp the halter gently with one hand while asking with verylight pressure on the poll for the horse to drop his head.
Use the Clouded Leopard TTouch¹ while asking for the downward movement.
The moment you get the slightest movement in a downward direction, release your pressure (but not the hold on the halter).
If you don’t trust the horse not to flatten you, stand at about a 45 degree angle from the horse’s head, out of striking range and try it from there. Not many horses will do this at first without some coaxing, because it feels like a pretty dangerous surrender. But once they trust you, and you trust them, it’s a done deal.
Tellington TTouch® has several simple techniques for asking a horse to lower the head. All are simple and effective. Try one out and see. (Careful: lower the head too much, and you will get a drooling, snoozing horse. Hold the head too high, and you will be enabling a high-headed, reflexively reactive horse who won’t learn to stretch out.)
2. Working the crest and neck: forelock circles, mane slides, inchworm
It’s all connected! Relaxation of the neck, shoulders, and back has lasting effects. Stimulation of blood flow and lymph circulation provide long lasting benefits for horses working in collection. Forelock and Mane Slides feel as good to the horse as it feels to us when someone plays with our hair. Granted, there are a few people who detest the feeling, but most report a relaxation response to having sections of the hair gently lifted and “stroked” from root to tip. Remember when you were little and your mother soothed you in this way?
In addition to being a practical preparation for mane-pulling and braiding, forelock and mane slides soothe and relax the muscles of the poll, neck shoulders and back.
3. Lifting the Back
I think this is the single most powerful tool in the entire tool belt. Sometimes I feel like making a stealth run around the barn, doing back lifts on every horse there. If discovered, I’d probably get sued, but I know I’d make a difference, at least temporarily, in at least one horse.
Here’s what Linda Tellington-Jones, founder of Tellington TTouch® has to say on the subject:
How a horse carries his back is central to his ability to carry a rider and perform his job, whether it’s cutting cows, jumping fences, dressage or trail riding. One of the keys to developing a strong, supple back is the ability of the belly muscles to contract effectively and provide strength so that the horse can move in self-carriage.”²
4. Lick of the Cow’s Tongue over the rib area
The area from the girth to the hind leg is just plain neglected. We don’t even notice it when we crank down the girth before hopping on. Yet this portion of the horse’s anatomy is the cradle of its suspension and self-carriage. It pays to give it some love. Simple firm and loving touch here can release tension and free the midsection muscles to move fluidly. The TTouch called “Lick of the Cow’s Tongue” gives a horse a stronger sense of connection between the belly and the back. In addition to helping to raise the back, soften the muscles and increase awareness, Lick of the Cow’s Tongue is unbeatable when it comes to helping girthy horses.
5. Tail TTouch
The tail is part of the horse’s spine. It’s not just there for looks, and it’s not an evolutionary leftover. Horses use their tails. We can help them with their balance, extension, and collection by working their tails. Most horses love it. You’ve seen them out in the pasture, nibbling one another’s tails, rubbing them around. Tails are a big part of horses’ lives. Let’s get at ‘em.
I know some horsepeople who do these exercises and more each day either before or after riding. I think it beats lungeing. The work of Linda Tellington-Jones is so simple it’s revolutionary: Touch your horse and change your horse. The simple act of getting on and riding around becomes a pleasure shared by horse and rider.
But wait…there’s more!
I have by no means been exhaustive in my descriptions of what you can do to loosen and lengthen the horse for the Free Walk. I’ve taken you from poll to tail, but there are many more exercises than these. I learned these techniques for varying equine applications; however, enabling a horse to move freely in rhythm while walking is the pinnacle of any form of bodywork or horsemanship.
At some point after I go with my miracle child to visit colleges, I will add some photos of this work, along with a detailed post of some groundwork exercises to help with the Free Walk. I like the Tellington Equine Awareness Method (TTEAM) groundwork because it does not involve dominance, even in a sneaky way, as many other training methods do. It allows horses a breathing space to think and go beyond their instincts, which is, after all, what we are trying to do when we are riding them in the first place. Let’s face it, Mother Nature did not plan for horses to carry humans on their backs. And while the combination of human and rider may at times feel divinely inspired, we have certain hurdles to overcome if riding a horse is not going to harm it.
¹ Clouded Leopard TTouch: The original, basic TTouch. Hold your hand gently curved and using the pads of your fingers to make contact, softly push the skin in a circle and a quarter (clockwise). Hold your fingers more or less together, but allow fluid movement. Keep your joints rounded–holding them stiffly is uncomfortable for the horse. Keep your other hand grounded softly on the underside of the horse’s neck or back.
² The Ultimate Horse Behavior and Training Book: Enlightened and Revolutionary Solutions for the 21st Century Linda Tellington-Jones with Bobbie Lieberman, page 36.