1. Signs of Negative Muscle Tension
Some obvious signs of negative tension in the horse are a raised head with a bulging sternocephalic muscle (under neck muscle), and a shortened semispinalis capitis and trapezius muscles over the top of the neck causing a dip in front of the withers. He may show a dropped back and in some cases a crease in the spine and the belly hanging down. The legs will move independently and away from the body. A trained eye will notice how a tens or weak horse pulls himself forward with his shoulders. In some horses the eye will roll back showing his third lid and the tail may swish unrhythmically and rapidly. You may observe the horse leaning more on his inside front leg or in the direction of travel weighting his fetlocks excessively causing strain. He may stomp his feet in agitation and bite at his side with aggression repeatedly. Any horse may exhibit these signs of negative tension at one moment or another, what you will want to observe is if this tension is often repeated or unceasing. A horse that moves in this way constantly is in a state of negative and painful tension. This kind of tension puts the horses body in a permanent state of flight. These horses spook easily and often resist to being tacked-up or hand walked. To learn more about muscle tension sign up for one of our sculpture anatomy courses online.
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2. All muscle tension is not created equal
Its important to note that muscular "tension" does not always refer to a negative tension in the body. Tension or better referred to as contraction of muscles is observed by way of movement and facial expression in the horse. A contraction maybe a voluntary or an involuntary response to a particular movement or exercise. When something is difficult but not painful, the horse will show a face of concentration, with light consistent breathing pattens. If he is working in pain he may show a plethora of signs which must be learned and understood by the owner and trainer. To learn more about training your eye through observation download our observation worksheet now.
Muscle contraction and extension causes natural relaxation and tension in the body. When one group or pair of muscles work the other may relax. However, its also important to learn how to observe the differences between negative and positive tension in the body. For example: a horse who engages his core and works over his back is experiencing positive tension in some areas of the body and as a result of this tension he experiences relaxation in other parts. This is much like when you go to the gym. For example, to build your core, you must contract and relax those core muscles repeatedly to strengthen them without causing pain or over exertion. This is positive tension, becasue it strengthens the body without damaging it, neither physically or mentally. This makes the animal healthier for a long active life. This intentional action of applying tension and relaxation builds body strength both for you and for your horse.
3.Understanding Psychological Tension
Psychological tension is caused by misunderstanding, which triggers the fear, fight, flight or lethargy response. All of these responses must be avoided to achieve not only an optimum training experience for the horse, but also develop his muscles appropriately. A horse who works in pain will respond in one of the four responses listed above. Horses have an innate response to tension. This tension triggers certain muscle groups or chains to activate depending on what the horse is experiencing. When asking a horse to do certain exercises it's paramount to understand how the muscles work to assist the horse in achieving his highest potential.
4. Signs of Muscle relaxation
A relaxed horse will blow air softly through his nostrils sometime in a heavy sigh. His sternocephalic muscle will relax and become floppy as shown in the video. His legs will work closer and more under his body even in the young horse who has not built strength. If he is relaxed through his top line his tail will softly lift and hang with a light rhythmic motion to the beat of his feet. He will walk with an even 4 beats you can sing to. His head will be held at wither hight or lower and he will not show fear in his eyes. Rather his eyes will be soft and round like he want's to take in the moment. His nose and lips will hang crisp without deep wrinkles. If he itches his side it will be with a careful motion of the head. Subscribe to our YouTube channel for visual examples!
A big thank you to Qlalibertee for the use of their photo and example of correct early development.