Calm Your Nervous Horse

Enhance your enjoyment on the trail with this 12-part problem-solving series from world-renowned trainer Linda Tellington-Jones. This issue: Learn how to calm your nervous horse for a safe, relaxing ride.

It’s a gorgeous day, not a cloud in the sky. You saddle up at the trailhead where your trail buddies have just arrived. You’ve been planning this ride for weeks; you’re excited to explore a new trail and are looking forward to a picnic afterwards.?


Unfortunately, your horse is anxious, which was obvious from the moment he stepped out of the trailer. He has a tendency to be nervous. Plus, he was pawing and swinging his hindquarters from side-to-side while you saddled him while he was tied at the trailer.?

Now that you’ve mounted up, you can literally feel his anxiety through the reins as he mouths and chews the bit, and through your seat as he begins an anxious jig.?

It feels like you’re riding a coiled spring, ready to explode.?

A tense, anxious horse can take all the joy out of a ride. It’s impossible to relax and enjoy yourself when your horse is fretting and you’re worried he may be “uptight” the whole time: bolt, buck, whirl around, jig incessantly or hurry at all gaits, crowd other horses, or even rear. Equally important, you worry about your own safety.?

“There’s a big difference between a horse that’s anxious or tense and one who’s spooky,” notes top trainer Linda Tellington-Jones. “The tense horse is often wary of contact with the mouth, flanks, or hindquarters, and is over-reactive to leg aids.?

“He may be ?touchy’ all over the body and tight in the abdominal muscles. Tense, anxious horses tend to be that way all the time, unlike spooky horses that can shy from fear, or as the result of playfulness or habit.”?

“When riding your anxious or flighty horse, you might inadvertently worsen the problem,” says Tellington-Jones. “You’ll have a tendency to ride ?defensively’ with shorter reins, but when you tighten up on those reins, you create additional tension in the horse’s neck and may even cause him to raise his head high, which may click him into flight mode,” she says.?

“This tension affects the horse’s breathing and can create more trouble because it actually makes the horse more tense. His tense muscles impair the blood flow to his brain and he can’t think clearly. The neuro-impulses are inhibited, which makes him less able to feel his limbs.”?

The solution is to teach your horse to come into a more grounded, connected form of mental, physical, and emotional balance. This can be done with Tellington TTouches (a form of bodywork comprised of a variety of circles, lifts, and slides done with the hands and fingertips), Tellington ground-work exercises, and under-saddle work.?

Here, Tellington-Jones gives you three TTouches and one ground/under-saddle exercise designed to calm your nervous horse.?

TTouch #1:
Coiled Python Lift?

Overview: This TTouch is excellent for releasing muscle tension in the back and increasing blood flow. It relaxes the nervous horse, increases confidence and awareness, and helps “de-spook” the flighty horse.?

Coiled Python Lift

Key spots: Legs, back, inside thigh.?

How to perform: Begin at the top of your horse’s forearm, placing both hands lightly on either side of his leg. Start the movement with “two pressure.” (For an explanation of the TTouch pressure scale, see “How Much Pressure?” below.)?

Make a circle-and-a-quarter with one hand, then lift the skin upward with both hands with just enough contact that your hands don’t slip over your horse’s skin. Hold for several seconds, supporting the skin as it returns slowly to its normal position.?

Note: On most parts of your horse’s leg, you’ll see very little movement. Your touches simply stretch the skin upward, increasing circulation and minimizing the effects of gravity for those few moments.?

Slide your hands down several inches, and repeat the circle and lift. Work from top of your horse’s legs all the way down to his fetlocks. If your horse shifts away from the touch, you’re squeezing too hard or pushing the skin up too much.?

TTouch #2:
Lick of the Cow’s Tongue?

Lick of the Cow’s Tongue

Overview: Named for its long, smooth sliding strokes from mid-belly to mid-back, this TTouch improves your horse’s flexibility, enhances coordination, and helps calm a tense or “goosey” horse who dislikes leg pressure.?

Key spot: Barrel.?

How to perform: To calm a tense horse, use a flat hand, as curved fingers will stimulate and energize. Stand near the girth area. Place one hand on your horse’s back and the other at the belly’s midline, just behind the elbows.?

Draw the hand toward you, across your horse’s hair, in a long, soft, continuous stroke. As you approach his mid-barrel, rotate your hand so your fingers point upward toward the horse’s topline.?

Continue the stroke smoothly upward until you reach the middle of your horse’s topline. Finish the stroke when you cross over his spine.?

Start your next stroke on your horse’s belly one hand’s width behind the first stroke. Position the strokes about six inches apart so you cover his entire belly-barrel-back area from behind the elbows back to the flanks.?

Try different pressures and speeds as you work on both sides of your horse.?

TTouch #3: Chimp Touch?

Overview:Named for the way chimpanzees lightly curve their hands, this TTouch is easy to do and is ideal for enhancing the connection with your horse. It’s also less threatening to him when working on sensitive areas. This TTouch will enhance your horse’s awareness of his whole body, something tense horses often lack.?

Key spots: Anywhere on your horse’s body.?

Chimp Touch

How to perform: Hold your hand softly curled, with your fingers gently folded in, toward your palm. Touch your horse using the flat surface on the back of your fingers between the second and third phalange. Move your hand in this position making circles and connecting lines using “two pressure” to “three pressure” all over his body.?

Tellington Exercise:
Lower His Head
A nervous or anxious horse is often high-headed (as you see in the “flight mode”), meaning his carriage is such that he carries his head high most all the time, and not just because he’s of a particular breed.?

By teaching your horse to lower his head, it makes a huge difference in his anxiety level. A lowered head is a sign of relaxation and trust, but more important, it puts him in a different mind-set than when he’s anxious and high-headed.?

This may be one of the most important lessons you can teach your horse, especially if you have a tense or anxious horse. Lowering the head overrides the flight instinct and helps “de-spook” the flighty, high-headed, unpredictable horse. Not only does it relieve muscle tension in the horse’s neck and back, but it encourages relaxation, trust, and cooperation.?

Lower His Head

Ideally, you want the horse to lower the head so the poll is slightly lower than the withers, with the nose no lower than knee level. Lower than that and horses tend to “shut down,” which is not the response you’re looking for. ?

You’ll need: A halter; a chain lead-shank; and a Tellington Wand (a four-foot long stiff, white dressage whip with a plastic “button” on the end; the Wand acts as an extension of your arm.) If you don’t have a Wand, use a dressage whip.

Before you begin: Thread the chain up through the bottom left halter ring, along the left cheek piece and snap to the top ring. Attach the snap to a link in the chain just below the lower halter ring. (This configuration will encourage your horse to lower his head more readily than if you place the chain over his nose.)

Once your horse responds to your requests to lower his head, you can shorten the chain by threading through the top left ring, then back through the bottom left ring.

Step 1: Apply downward pressure.Stand on the left side of your horse, and cue him to lower his head: Hold the end of the lead in your left hand, and make a sliding motion down the lead shank with your right hand. (Do not shank your horse! The chain is meant to give a subtle, light signal.) This downward pressure should be brief, but encouraging.

Step 2: Stroke. At the same time, use the Wand (or dressage whip) to lightly stroke your horse’s neck, chest, and legs down to the ground (Photo 1). The stroking is a calming form of reward, and also keeps him from stepping forward. It may be helpful to bend your upper body forward, but be sure to stay to the side of your horse, not in front of him.

Step 3: Apply nose pressure. Once your horse accepts lowering his head using the above cues, stand in front of him. Place one hand lightly on the halter’s noseband and the other on the chain to ask him to lower his head (Photo 2).

Step 4: Apply crest pressure. After your horse willingly lowers his head using the above cues, ask for lowering by placing one hand on the noseband and the other on his horse’s crest near his poll. With your hand gently curved and fingers together, use the pads of your fingers to make small circular touches on the crest. (This is called the Clouded Leopard TTouch.) The first time, it may help to gently rock your horse’s head from side-to-side with the hand that’s on the noseband.

Step 5: Mount up. Once your horse has learned to lower his head when you place your hand on his crest, mount up. While mounted, reinforce this cue by sliding your hand forward and TTouching his crest. How Much Pressure?

TTouch pressures range on a scale from one to nine. A “one pressure” is the lightest contact you can make with your fingertips to move the skin in a circle-and-a-quarter without sliding over the surface.

ellington-Jones recommends a “three pressure” for most parts of the horse’s body to reduce tension and promote relaxation. TTouch isn’t a form of massage. The intent is to communicate with the body at the cellular level. To learn the scale, begin with the “one pressure” as a guideline.

To establish this criterion, place your thumb against your cheek. With the tip of your middle finger, push the skin on your eyelid in a circle and a quarter with the lightest possible contact. (Be sure to move the skin rather than just sliding over it.) Take your finger away, and repeat this movement on your forearm to get a sense of the pressure. Observe how little of an indentation you make in the skin. This is a “one pressure” TTouch.


Ear Work


For a “three pressure,” make several circles on your eyelid as firm as feels safe and comfortable. Repeat the circles on your forearm, noting the depth and pressure of the indentation. It should still be very light.

For a “six pressure,” tip the first joints of your fingers so that your fingernails are pointing directly into the muscle, and apply three times the pressure.

Use enough pressure to be effective, but not so much that your horse doesn’t like it. Listen to what your horse “says” in response to your TTouch intention.

Ear Work

Stroking and doing small TTouch circles on your horse’s ears are fundamentals of Linda Tellington-Jones’ work. Working the ears is effective for lowering your horse’s pulse and respiration, getting him to relax, alleviating colic, encouraging proper digestion, helping an exhausted horse, and keeping a horse from going into shock or bringing them out of shock. You can use TTouches on the trail, when you’re away from immediate veterinary help. For more on how to perform TTouches on your horse’s ears, visit

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