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 ARTICLES > TTouch > How Every Day Handling Affects your Horse
  TTouch  Article:
Article By: Sarah Fisher & Robyn Hood       

Sarah Fisher is a TTEAM Practitioner and runs the TTEAM training Centre in the UK which is home to 22 horses.    She works at rehabilitation yards around the UK including the Thoroughbred Rehabilitation centre in Lancashire and contributes regular features for national magazines including YOUR HORSE magazine.  Sarah has ridden horses since the age of four and owns a variety of horses including OTTO, who despite a major fall as a two year old, has gone on to win a variety of classes at county and national level including Show Hunter, Coloured Ridden Horse, Dressage and Working Hunter thanks to TTEAM.   He also appeared in the cult show BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER with Sarah’s partner Anthony Stewart Head.

Robyn Hood is the sister of Linda Tellington Jones and co-developed the TTEAM system of training.    She runs the Canadian TTEAM office and owns the Icelandic Horse Farm in B.C. where she breeds and imports Icelandic Horses.   Robyn Hood has been riding horses since before she could walk. She went through Pony Club and showed as a junior competitor in Alberta. She later attended and then instructed at the Pacific Coast School of Horsemanship in California owned by Linda Tellington-Jones. Robyn competed successfully in hunter, jumper, three-day eventing, endurance, western events and more recently in gaited horses.

For information on TTEAM techniques in South Africa, contact Lindy Dekker at equibalance@iafrica.com  or phone 011 705-1501

At a recent seminar organised by the International League for the Protection of Horses in New Market, England, a veterinarian highlighted the problems facing the modern horse, saying “specialisation has led to increased stereotypical training of greater intensity at a younger age”.   

It is no longer just the Thoroughbred youngsters that start their training from an early age.   Warmbloods and other Sports Horse’s are being started earlier and earlier and under ever increasing pressure to perform bigger and better at a younger and younger age.  Even horses destined for the pleasure market are started at three years of age.  The training exercises are often repetitive and their routine is strictly managed.  The way a horse is groomed, fed, tacked up, led, washed off and handled in its day to day existence have an influence on the horse.  With awareness the owner can make adjustments to the horses routine which together with some of the TTEAM body work and ground work exercises can help minimise the effect that tension patterns have on a horse on a mental and physical level. 

Tension patterns can be present from birth and/or arise from negative influences on the body.  They can be linked to specific behaviour problems and if not recognised and addressed can cause a great deal of anxiety for both the horse and its owner/carer.  Behaviour and emotional and mental well-being are closely linked to a horse’s physical state. These findings have been documented many times over primarily through the work of American horse trainer, Linda Tellington Jones who developed the TTEAM system of training.    Each can affect the other for better or worse.   Changing undesirable posture to a more effective way of functioning not only relieves physical discomfort, but also encourages a less stressful and more successful existence.

Conformation, training, development, diet and management are all contributory factors to determining the health of a horse as well as its posture.  The Traditional Chinese Medicine approach of the need for balance between all systems for optimum well being is highly appropriate, for musculoskeletal injury can easily occur if any imbalance exists within the horse. Whilst great emphasis is placed on the need to develop correct muscles and a correct outline when under saddle, schooling difficulties can be improved simply by the way the horse is handled from the ground.


The excessive use of hay nets, restricted turn out, and limited access to traditional pastures and/or hay can have an extremely detrimental effect on the teeth due to inhibited use of incisors, uneven wear of the molars and the overall impact a managed environment has upon the posture of the horse.    In studies conducted in 1980 by Duncan in his study of the Camargue horse, wild equines were found to spend 60% of their day eating and 20% of their day standing.    In the stabled horse with restricted access to hay and feed, only 15% of the day was spent eating and 65% of the time spent standing (Kiley-Worthington 1995).    The massive difference in time budgets leaves room for stable vices such as weaving, box walking and cribbing to develop and also influences gut function, circulation and general stress levels.   Ad lib hay for the stabled horse enables him to maintain roughly the same time budgets as his more natural living counterparts.   Although the horse with access to ad lib hay can spend 57% of his day eating with 23% of his day standing, his ability to move around whilst eating is restricted by the use of hay nets.  

When a horse eats from a hay net, he changes the way he organises his posture through the feeding process.  The grazing horse or horses that are fed hay from the floor maintain a lower head and neck position whilst chewing.   This enables the molars to occlude correctly.  The body remains relatively straight and the horse will generally move around a little whilst it eats.   Little or no excessive strain is placed on any one part of the body.   When eating from a hay net, the horse quickly settles to a habitual pattern of pulling hay from the net.   The back will drop as the horse draws back with a mouthful of hay and the head and neck will often twist in the same way each time.   The horse fed in this fashion will tend to chew each mouthful with its head and neck held higher.  This posture can cause or exacerbate uneven muscle development and inappropriate wear of both the incisors and the molars giving both rider and horse difficulties when under saddle.   It is highly significant that the stabled horse, fed periodically throughout the day from a hay net, is more likely to develop postural, behavioural and dental problems than a horse kept in a more natural environment.


A good indicator of how the horse feels on a physical level is to pay attention to how they respond to being groomed.  Horses that are easy to handle and work freely through the body are easy to groom.   Tension through the neck and back can make the skin tight and grooming may seem like torture to the horse as opposed to the pleasurable and beneficial experience it should be.  The aim of grooming is not only to produce a shiny horse.  The origins behind grooming are to warm and relax tight muscles and improve circulation through the whole body before and after exercise.  Appropriate and sensitive grooming can help correct muscle development and encourage healthy skin. 

If the horse carries tension through the body the skin will be tight and grooming will be uncomfortable.   Even with hours of hard labour the coat may look dull as the tightness of the skin inhibits the natural oil production.   The horse will fidget, bite, pin his ears or kick in a desperate bid to tell the person that the experience is causing distress.    If the horse is punished for his behaviour, the tension will mount and the negative aspects of grooming will be reinforced.  The horse may then develop defensive behaviour as soon as anyone approaches the stable.   

Hosing down with cold water and spraying water in the horse’s face, particularly when facing the horse, can cause muscles to contract and tighten.   A horse that already carries tension through the body will feel the cold more than a horse that is more relaxed.    A negative experience adds to the tension and so the cycle continues.  

Bracing, tensing or being genuinely frightened when being groomed or washed off helps to develop an incorrect posture.   The horses head may be raised and the back dropped.   The tail will be clamped and the heart rate will rise.  Circulation to the tips of the ears and the lower legs will be impaired.   This is the exact opposite of what we try to achieve with our horses under saddle.  Sympathetic preparation will produce a horse that is less reactive, more relaxed, more focused and ready and willing to work. 


In working with horses from the ground using TTEAM exercises, significant changes are noted in behaviour and physical development as the horse learns to release his neck and lower his head.   Altering our habits and teaching the horse to lead from both sides helps the horse to be more balanced and less one sided.   As the majority of horses are handled primarily from their left it is no coincidence that most horses struggle on the right rein.   Clipping the lead rope to the side of the halter as opposed to underneath the head collar can give the handler more control and stops the horse bracing against pressure over the poll.


Much of how we handle horses stems from the early cavalry days when swords determined how riders led and mounted horses.  As with leading, mounting from the same side every day can cause uneven muscle development as the horse braces against the riders weight.   The stirrup leather will lengthen in time as the leather stretches and although this may be imperceptible to the rider the horse will feel the difference in the riders balance, again exacerbating the horse’s ability to move in evenly on both reins.   With swords no longer part our riding equipment it is possible to teach both horse and rider to adapt to new ways of handling to improve the balance and freedom of movement we all strive for.   Care should be taken to teach a horse to be mounted from the offside as it is often so habituated to being mounted from the near side that the change could frightened even the most well trained horse.  The rider often struggles to adopt a new pattern of behaviour as much as the horse!   If mounting from the offside is not an option, changing the stirrup leathers from side to side can help reduce some of the one sidedness.


A horse that is working and living in a correct outline will be less prone to injury and will be generally healthier.   Pain and stress can undermine the immune system.  Traditional Chinese Medicine places great emphasis on the flexibility and health of the spine to ensure proper nerve function throughout the body.   Many records exist to show the correlation between the spine and the internal structures and organs in humans.  For example, C1 is linked to blood supply to the head, the pituitary gland, the scalp, bones of the face, the brain, both the inner and middle ear and the sympathetic nervous system.    C2 is linked to the eyes, the auditory nerve, mastoid bones, the tongue and forehead.  

In studying the posture and behaviour of horses it would appear that the same principles might be applied to the equine.   Horses with tension around the poll often exhibit behaviours that can be linked to the patterns described in the human texts.   Horses with tension around the C1/C2 area are often hormonal in their behaviour, (there is a hormone acupressure check point in this area) spooky, noise sensitive, and unfocused with significant tension across the temporal muscles.   This correlation between the parts of the body and the vertebrae continues through the length of the spine.  Although horses have more vertebrae than humans it is likely that a similar pattern exists in the horse. 

By being aware of how the horse responds and reacts to human interaction we can enhance the day to day existence of our equine companions.  Time in the saddle can be spent on advancing the education of the horse rather than trying to undo tension patterns inadvertently set up throughout the day.  Resistance to ridden work only comes from resistance.   Simple alterations to the horse routine can bring big rewards. The changes remain and the horse, in a relatively short space of time, is calmer to handle and more consistent in behaviour and performance. 

Sarah Fisher can be contacted at sarahfisher@tteam.co.uk or www.ttouchtteam.co.uk
Robyn Hood can be contacted at ttouch@shaw.ca

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