Most of us hold tension in some part of our bodies—our shoulders, our lower backs, our jaws maybe. It might begin as just a little tweak (say, on Monday) and end with us stiff as a board (by Friday).
The thing about tension held within the body is that it affects our abilities to connect with others. We don’t feel good, so we don’t want to be touched, and we’re distracted by our discomfort, so we’re not able to engage fully with those around us.
This is a common issue in our horses, too.
“Most horses have a spot where they tend to hold their tension,” explains renowned horseman and liberty trainer Jonathan Field in his book The Art of Liberty Training for Horses. “This makes it impossible to connect. For my horse Hal, it’s his tail; for Cam, his ears—especially the left one; for Jack, his poll; and for Tessa, it’s her soft belly, near her flank. These areas are common tension spots for many horses.”
When we need to rid our “hotspots” of accumulated tension, perhaps we find different sitting positions, incorporate stretches into our days, or (if we’re lucky), maybe we get a massage. But what should we do to prevent tension from coming between us and our horses? (Besides the massage, that is…)
Jonathan Field says it is all about getting to know your horse and where his tension hotspots are, then checking in with those areas regularly.
“When you have your horse standing at neutral after an exercise it’s a great time to check for tension spots,” Field says. “Touch him all over. If you find a spot where he doesn’t want you to touch or flinches when you touch it, be ‘friendly’ with that spot until he relaxes. For example, with Hal, I know he’s tense when his tail is clamped down against his rump. So I rub all over his tail and move it around until it is really soft in my hands.
“You can also check for tension when you are playing with your horse. For example, during one of my liberty exercises, I might rub my hand up Jack’s face, over his ears, and down his neck. If he flinches or moves his head away from my touch, I know he’s holding tension.
“If you don’t remove your horse’s tension spots, they will become barriers as you advance. Therefore, always be on the lookout for tension, and take the time to desensitize the horse with friendly touch when you do. Approach and retreat toward the area. Be very polite and patient when showing your horse that it is okay if you touch a spot he is worried about.”
This excerpt from The Art of Liberty Training for Horses by Jonathan Field is reprinted by permission from Trafalgar Square Books.