Good Reasons for Bad Behavior

The TTouch originator offers insight for getting to the root of the problem when a horse's performance or attitude isn't up to par. By Linda Tellington-Jones with Bobbie Lieberman for EQUUS magazine.
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More than a quarter century ago, I began looking more deeply into the reasons why horses behave the way they do. Using biological and neurological principles, I developed solutions that any person could safely and successfully use. The system, called the Tellington Method, is based on my discovery that working on a horse's body releases fear, tension, discomfort and pain in a way that changes his behavior, influences his personality and enhances his overall health and well-being.

Linda Tellington-Jones |

Linda Tellington-Jones |

The Tellington Method has three components. The Tellington TTouch (known as TTouch and pronounced tee-touch) is a form of bodywork comprised of a variety of circles, lifts and slides done with the hands and fingertips. Coupled with carefully orchestrated ground exercises and ridden work, the Tellington Method dramatically expands a horse's capacity for learning and cooperation, improves horse and rider balance and coordination, and deepens the bond between the horse and his owner.

The Tellington Method embodies a compassionate approach to training and begins with the recognition that when a horse is:

  • uncooperative, there is always a reason, whether it is physical, mental or emotional
  • overstressed, he cannot learn
  • fearful, he cannot listen
  • uncomfortable or in pain, he cannot respond to your requests
  • insufficiently exercised, undernourished or overfed, he cannot cooperate.

Communication and Understanding
Successful trainers intuitively know that a horse must want to work for you in order to perform his best. But only when that desire
is carefully cultivated will he go about his work in more than a mechanistic, obedient fashion. Taking the time to learn your horse's language--the way he communicates with you and with others--can bring a new level of trust to your relationship and enhance mutual progress.

When you are able to interpret your horse's messages, you are likely to discover that a great many behaviors and attitudes are simply his way of telling you that he is not comfortable. For example, a reflexive kick while he's being groomed in cross ties may indicate that he's ticklish or sore and that the style of grooming is too vigorous or harsh. At other times, the behavior can stem from a lack of training. As you begin to tune in to your horse, you might see that an episode of bad attitude is simply his way of expressing that he's sore in the neck, back or croup.

In my lifelong experience with horses, I have found that troublesome behavior often traces to a source that can be readily identified and remedied. As a result, I offer the following list of common contributors to resistance, poor performance and difficult behavior in horses. Consider them before you assume the worst about your horse...before you reach for a stronger training aid...even before you try any of my TTouches and exercises. You and your horse will be better for it.

1. Saddle fit
An ill-fitting saddle can be a source of pain or cause a horse anxiety because it feels restrictive or unstable. Some behaviors associated with poor saddle fit include irritability, going crooked, and overreacting or not responding to the aids. In addition, a horse may move with a restricted range of motion, hold his breath and exhibit a high level of tension. He may spook, buck, bolt or develop a sour attitude.

Saddle-fit problems can affect a horse's way of going in many ways. For instance, a saddle that pinches inhibits movement from the poll to the pelvis, creating discomfort and forcing him to shorten his stride. A saddle that is too narrow or set too far forward can jam his shoulders and withers, restricting movement. Pressure from the pommel crowding the withers can be exacerbated when a horse is high-headed, dropped in the back or traveling downhill. A saddle without sufficient gullet clearance can compress the withers, causing soreness.

A saddle that is too long may jab the loins. Bridging--which occurs when the front and back of a saddle rest on a horse but the midsection does not--is a common source of discomfort.

Riders, too, can be affected by poor saddle fit. For example, a saddle that is too big will not be stable, and the rider will experience the feeling of always trying to catch up with the horse.

2. Hooves and shoes
Refusal or inability to move freely forward can appear to be stubbornness, unwillingness or laziness. But the cause may trace to one of a wide variety of hoof conditions, such as abscesses, quarter cracks, corns, sore heels and tender soles. Other common problems include contracted heels, long-toe/low-heel syndrome, chronic laminitis, imbalanced trimming and/or shoeing, close or quicked nails, and leaving the shoes on too long. An experienced farrier can identify problems and help to keep a horse's hooves in good condition.

3. Body soreness
It is my conviction that body soreness is the most often missed or misread reason for a decline in attitude and behavior. A horse can be sore virtually anywhere on his body, but the common hot spots are the back, hips, girth area, shoulder/neck junction, poll, legs and feet. Stiff or tight muscles--particularly those of the rump, gaskins and forearms--can leave him hurting, too.

Body soreness may result from a single episode of work that overwhelms the system (acute) or from continuous effort without sufficient attention to rest and recovery (chronic). It can occur when a horse is worked in footing or other conditions to which he is unaccustomed, such as deep sand, rocky going, irregular terrain or hills. Other contributors include inadequate preparation for work, excessive jumping, long hours under saddle, longeing in small circles, overcollection and extended periods of sitting trot when the horse is insufficiently conditioned or protected by padding.

In a number of cases, body soreness can be detected through physical signs. Be alert for heat, swelling and tenderness--especially in the legs and ankles--as well as a dull hair coat and a loss of enthusiasm for work.

4. Teeth
Dental issues, especially in younger and older horses, can be responsible for a range of problems that may be mistaken for uncooperativeness on a horse's part. They include head tossing, rooting at the bit or an unwillingness to accept it, sticking the tongue out, hanging the mouth open, stargazing, fidgeting, nervousness and a lack of focus. A competent equine dentist will be able to identify and remedy the hooks, ridges and other unevennesses that result from normal wear and tear as well as problems such as abscesses, broken teeth and baby teeth that don't fall out as the adult teeth emerge.

5. Diet
A horse who is fed an overabundance of protein or supplements and then insufficiently exercised will be so full of energy that he will be difficult to control under saddle. It may be a challenge to keep him straight. He may buck and fling his head. In contrast, a horse who is underfed won't have enough energy to get the job done. He'll lack impulsion, willingness and spirit.

Good-quality forage is the foundation of the equine diet. If you have concerns about your horse's daily ration, consult an equine nutritionist and have your hay and feed analyzed. Nutrient deficiencies can be responsible for a variety of conditions. For instance, a lack of vitamin E and selenium can lead to short, stilted strides and even tying up. Allergies to grain can cause resistance, uncontrollable temperament and inconsistent performance. Studies show that grain puts horses at risk for colic and founder.

Beet pulp (high fiber) and rice bran (high fat) have proven to be safer alternatives to grain-based diets. I have seen a number of horses become unmanageable when fed sweet feed, and I have watched many behavior problems disappear when the feed program is adjusted.

6. Conformation
Any horse whose conformation is suitable for the discipline or style of riding that interests you is less likely to become resistant or develop undesirable behaviors because he is physically overfaced.

For instance, it's common for narrow-chested, long-legged horses to be flighty--a problem I attribute to a sense of insecurity caused by poor balance. Long-backed, wasp-waisted horses generally have limited weight-carrying capacity and a tendency to be strung out. Steep-shouldered, straight-pasterned horses aren't able to produce long, floating strides. A horse with extremely straight or bent (sickle) hocks may have difficulty going downhill. A ewe-necked horse will have a tendency to be unbalanced and flighty because of discomfort in the back.

7. Hormones
Some mares are more sensitive to the fluctuations of the estrous cycle, and their behavior may be affected for the five to seven days each month that they are in heat. Occasionally, their actions and reactions are a sign of something more serious. When a mare kicks or squeals to light pressure almost anywhere on her body, or if she is constantly difficult to control under saddle, call your veterinarian to check for an ovarian cyst, persistent corpus luteum or other endocrine anomaly. Ten minutes a day of TTouches during the rest of the month may be helpful in reducing the intensity of hormone imbalances and mood swings during the heat cycle.

8. Training and riding
A heavy or unyielding hand and a driving seat can contribute to tension and soreness throughout a horse's body, especially in the poll, shoulders, back, loins and pelvis. Any training technique used excessively can cause repetitive-motion stress. This risk is most apparent in sports that emphasize repeated drilling of patterns and lateral movements, such as dressage, reining, cutting and barrel racing. Be alert for explosive and resistant behavior, a sour attitude, uneven gait, tight neck, pinned ears and filling in the ankles. To avoid these problems, alternate a horse's training sessions with trail rides, ground driving or other types of cross-training.

9. Rider attitude
I feel very strongly that a rider's attitude is far more important than his or her raw skill. The most technically proficient rider in the world will limit a horse's potential if he or she does not recognize and honor the horse's individuality or is not flexible enough to work with him. A compassionate attitude that allows the horse the freedom to be comfortable and expressive is the foundation of a rewarding relationship.

10. Stress
Many common equine activities are stressful, including confinement, training, shipping and competition, and many mental, emotional and physical problems are the direct result of stress. To reduce its impact, always give your horse a chance to adapt gradually to new situations or training, and then carefully monitor his response.

In addition, use TTouch (read "How to Do the TTouch" at the end of this list). It has been proven to reduce the stress levels in horses in training and for trailering. It can also help to relax those who spend the majority of their time in stalls. In situations where a horse cannot be turned out with companions, TTouch can substitute for social contact.

11. Exercise & stabling
Horses need plenty of daily exercise to be healthy, sound and willing. Those who spend much of their day confined to a stall or small corral can become lazy and lethargic or turn difficult and explosive when they are first released. In such instances, it's unrealistic to think it's possible to jump on the horse and fully collect him or take off at a gallop down the trail without causing him to become stiff, sore and resistant.

Horses who spend the majority of each day confined benefit from daily activities and exercise. In addition, the Tellington Method offers an alternative to longeing or the round pen to work a horse prior to riding or training. Ten minutes of TTouches before riding can relax a horse as much as 30 minutes of longeing.

12. Environment
If horses had an equine "bill of rights," it would require safely constructed facilities and fencing, clean bedding, fresh and palatable food and water, shade in the summer, a windbreak in the winter and limited exposure to flies and other biting pests. Additional entitlements would be daily turnout and grazing as well as contact with other equines and people, and kind handling. All of these factors maximize a horse's health and well-being and minimize stress, which can adversely affect attitude and performance.

Adjusting to new surroundings can take time. A horse who has been moved to a new stable may miss the buddies he left behind as he's also attempting to cope with the stresses of shipping and becoming accustomed to different barnmates, smells, feed and handlers. Even the invisible microbes in the earth provide a new antigenic challenge for his immune system, which must quickly adapt.

13. Eyesight
I have seen horses who were tense, skittish and high-headed because their eyesight or depth perception was not 100 percent. One horse labeled unwilling, unresponsive and dumb turned out to see very little. There also was a warmblood who spun around whenever another horse approached him head-on. His eyes were set so far to the side that I believe he could not see forward enough when he was on a collected rein. Your veterinarian can check your horse's eyesight.

As you become fluent in equine conversation, your horse will no longer have to "shout" to get your attention. You'll recognize from a subtle shift in his behavior or attitude that something is wrong and take appropriate steps to uncover the cause. By overcoming behavioral and training challenges without force, you'll enhance your horse's trust, cooperation and willingness to learn. You'll build his confidence as well as your own and improve your enjoyment of him.

How to Do the TTouch
The basic TTouch--there are dozens--is a circular movement of the fingers and hands all over the body. Its purpose is to activate cellular function to speed healing or change undesirable behavior.

To do the TTouch, imagine the face of a clock--about a half-inch to one inch in diameter--on your horse's body. Place your lightly curved fingers at six o'clock and push the skin around the face one and a quarter times. Place your thumb two to three inches from your forefinger and feel a connection between the two. When possible, support the body gently with your free hand, placing it opposite the hand making the circle. Maintain a steady rhythm and constant pressure, whether light or firm. Pay attention to the roundness of the circles.

After each TTouch, randomly move to another spot or run parallel lines on the body by making a circle with a little slide and then another. Both approaches induce relaxation. Placing your free hand in a supporting position and making a connection between your hands will keep your horse in balance and enhance the effect.

Clockwise circles usually are most effective for strengthening and rehabilitating the body as well as improving performance. However, there are times when counterclockwise circles are appropriate for releasing tension.

This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of EQUUS magazine. Read the Linda Tellington-Jones' story in the January 2007 issue of EQUUS, and check out her new book The Ultimate Horse Behavior and Training Book at HorseBooksEtc.com.

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