Monday, August 7, 2023

Tristan Tucker: "The foundation should be the horse's belief in himself

When Tristan Tucker entered the indoor arena at Ruskeasuo in Helsinki, you could feel the energy change. Tristan Tucker is not a very tall man, but he has a big energy, and with his Australian accent and charming demeanor, everyone seemed to sit very upright and attentive, listening to what this horseman had to say and share with us during the full day clinic. 

I for once had really looked forward to seeing Tucker in real life but I had no idea that all he would be sharing would be of such importance. I could not stop writing and during the whole clinic my brain was on fire because there was so much interesting information and so many new things that I had never even thought about when working with horses. 

In the beginning of the clinic Tucker asked us to think about some childhood memory of when we first met a horse and to imagine what it felt like. He then said that he always feels a sense of love for horses when he enters a room and that he always starts by following the horses and the riders and to talk slower and in a more monotone voice, so that the horses can get the sense of the space and energy.

Horses need to learn to self-regulate

The first horse that Tucker worked with was very agitated and he said that he has years of experience working with horses and that this horse had clearly suffered some kind of trauma and was constantly in survival mode (fight- and flight mode). He said that the horse felt lost in space and had no spacial awareness and did not know how to relate to his rider. The horse did not have any perception of where Tucker was in space either and how he was in relation to Tucker, so he was searching all the time. 

“I want to teach the horses to have spacial awareness and that is why we focus on a reference point on the ground (this refers to a point on the ground that Tucker asked the horse to focus on over and over again). I don’t want to control the horse or tell him where I want him to be, but rather give him the awareness of this space so that the horse can start to slowly self-regulate and move away from the traumatic state that he now is in where he is sure that he will be eaten by a lion and die. When the horse starts to self-regulate, he starts to regulate his own energy, and the physical action that he takes is going to determine how he feels. The horse then becomes more aware of his own physiology and change of energy.”

Tucker explains that when a horse is in a total state of fear or panic (the same applies to humans), the horse gets a disconnection from its physiology and the brain says get the hell out of here. There is no internal dialogue, just a sense of disconnection and the horse's physiology is doing a lot of things without him even knowing it. There is also no point in jumping on a horse in a state of panic, since the sense of fear will always override the rider's aids. 

“We want the horse to reconnect to his physiology and give a change in the direction of energy in his body. I give the horse sound advice and try to be the mentor and teach the horse how to take energy up and down so the horse learns to regulate the energy levels himself. Otherwise the horse will very quickly be a slave to the environment and a slave to the physical environment. When you teach the horses to feel themselves the horse can learn to heal and be in control of his own emotions and can also be fine without you by his side. The truth is that we only work around 2-3 hours a day with our horses, but for the rest of the 22-23 hours per day, the horse is in his own pattern. The 1-3 hours that we spend with our horses can't compete with the other hours when the horse is not managing himself so the horse helps his own longevity when we teach the horse the right patterns for his own body. The horse should be ok even when you are not there and should be good at self management and doing most of it on his own.”

“When I train horses I want to give the horse a feeling and sense of themselves. It is more important to teach the horses to be in control of themselves and not to teach how we control the horses. At home I often keep the horses free and make sure to change the energy of the space. I am not shooting the energy towards the crowd, but focusing on the ground. When the horse starts to have a feeling of his energy he starts to learn how to self-regulate. I am not either sending the horses away saying respect my space because that is dictatorship. I want to create a sense of space for the horse and when he gets that he becomes more secure on how to conduct himself.”

Tucker tells how he was one of the first riders that started to familiarize his horses to the arena from the ground before he went on to ride in a competition. After a while many people started to do the same, and showed the horses the scary things that were in the dressage ring (such as the judge table, a scary flower or flag etc.) The people went and showed the scary thing and then walked away from it and that was never Tucker's point when walking the arena. “It is not about exposing him to objects or things but about teaching the horse about himself. The horse switches between his focus vision (focusing on the details) and peripheral vision (seeing the big picture, the horizon and gathering information about the surroundings). The peripheral vision is his survival vision and his focus vision is about the spot that we teach him to focus on, the awareness or the space.” 

Three different personalities

Tucker says that he always starts to follow the perspective of the person and that there are three different kinds of personalities working with horses: 

The ‘Mummy’ personality - The kind of person that just wants his/her horse to feel ok and that really cares for the horse. He/she tends to tell the horse that everything is ok even when it is not. 

The ‘Dictator’ personality - The Dictator gets angry quickly and doesn't want the horse to do the wrong thing.

The ‘Mentor’ personality - This is the personality that is most consistent and can explain in the best manner to the horse what is expected of him. 

Tucker says that when the horses have an owner with the ‘Mummy’ personality, the owner usually loves the horse and cares for him and likes telling the horse that everything is well and ok. The horse might however not feel well in his body and mind even if the owner says that everything is well, so the horse needs to rely on the owner since he has no self-management or self-regulating skills. A horse like this can easily have a conversation that is in the owners hug / lap? To one of the people that clearly were more mummy-like Tucker said that:

“It is difficult to teach your horse these things, because you are learning the sensation yourself and you should not change how you are deep inside. You still need to come from a space of care, from a space of yourself. It is now about controlling yourself either, but it is about you becoming more aware.”

“Tucker also went on to talk about his newest podcast with his Father in Law, Rob Gervis, the world's leading visual optometrist. In the podcast Gervis explains how our sensory system is being diminished because we are used to looking 90 percent of the time in the distance and 10 percent close. Now we spend 90 percent of our time looking close and 10 percent cent looking into the distance. When this happens we have complications and complaints about our own circulation of energy and creating awareness and this is not good when being with horses. It is important that we can also feel and get a sense of where we are and feel when we and the horse self-regulate. If we don't have a sense of where we are in the space the horses start to bring the energy on us and we start to control it and we get into a bad circle.

“When I meet a new horse, I always look where the horse gets his security from. Is it from himself or the person handling him? The two most dangerous things that I find are the horses that are relying on the institutional and strict boundaries of their education or the comfortable security of the person. I need to teach and give the horse the knowledge that he can rely on himself, not on me, and that he can control all situations when he knows how to control himself. Connection through care and love is a good thing but should not be the foundation of your horse's existence. The foundation should be the horse's belief in himself and in knowing what he will do most of the time. Horses have a map in their mind on how to behave in the wild but their life with humans is very different, so when the information runs out, the horse gears back into fight and flight mode.”

The optimal order of movement in the horse

Tucker says that the optimal order of movement in the horse is relaxation, flexion, opening in the front and bringing energy from behind. 

What we however often create in horses is tension, closing in the front and bringing energy from behind. 

“We never want him to go into tension and close in the front, bringing the energy from behind to something that is stuck. When the horse does this, he has a hard time processing because he has no connection to his own body and when he comes into a nervous situation he locks even more in the body. When the horse locks in the body, the contraction is going to create a sensation of fear. The proper carriage for a horse comes from the right order of movement where the horse feels that he is in charge of his own posture and  is in a physical state of confidence.”

Self-awareness is the only horsemanship you need

During the day Tucker did not have much time to connect and direct the riders themselves but he did pinpoint that the more aware we are of ourselves, the more aware we are of the competence and connection with the horse.

“If the horse gets stressed we don't restrain and control him. We set him free. If the energy in the space explodes, this spot that we are focusing on keeps you safe. You will also start to recognize the breathing patterns of the horse, and when the horse starts to let go he starts to breathe below the midline and the internal breathing pattern is then brought into the physical action of work.” Here Tucker referred to one of the horses and said that he is used to a debilitating breathing pattern above the diaphragm and that this breathing pattern only shows 50 percent of the horse's potential since if the horse can’t  breathe, he can't move. “We do not want a contraction in the horse's belly. When the horse's belly starts to breathe out, you get a different physical reaction in the body and the belly is also directly connected to the leg aids.”

The horses past events are written on his skin

Tucker touched the horses a lot during the clinic and told the riders that they need to start to feel the horse, and not just a place on the horse's body, but the whole body since the horse's past events are written on his skin. Through feeling the horse's body, the horse also learns to feel his own body. “The exterior of a horse's body says nothing about the internal state of mind. A stallion can look great on the outside, but feel very small on the inside. We need to go from contraction to relaxation so that when we touch the contracted muscle we can feel it lengthen and relax and then we can let go of it. We can create tension release and the awareness for the horse to understand what the release feels like. Nowhere is not nowhere on a horse, but it is just a place you didn’t recognize yet.”

Tucker also said that he is not an academic person at all, but for him it is just a matter of feeling how the horses are and giving the horses a feeling of insight through touch. 

There is no healthy level of tension in a horse
Tucker was talking about tension in horses and how tension is an uncontrollable reflex reaction in defense of something. “For me there is no healthy level of tension. To create good movement in a horse we need to have relaxation and have the awareness if a horse is in a contracted, tense pattern or relaxed and grounded state of mind. 

Elements that make horses tense and afraid:




Approach -him being still and the thing approaching him, or him approaching a thing.

Let go of your expectations

Tucker says that a lot of time he meets people that come and see him and tell him that the horse has this or that problem, but he believes that the problems that the people have are only relative to the expectations that they are having. 

“You might have a lot of things that you wanted to see in this clinic, but the expectations will become a disturbance on events like this. In order for you to let all things come to you, you need to let go of the expectations. Every person comes with a  story but the real truth comes from the horse. It is easy to play the expectation and give a solution to the story, but at times the horse is not where we expect it to be and when we release the story, expectations and preconceived ideas and focus on being present we allow the truth to come back from the horse.

“When people bring horses to see me, the focus is on the symptoms and then we miss the actual cause or the problem. And because we view it as something negative we are not open anymore to see what is actually happening. And when we don't see what is happening we can not help the horse. Our expectations are not connected and we have fake expectations that are wrong. It is all about your feelings and the story of you and your horse. The expectation of what we want doesn't always match with our reality. The horses with most things to work on also teach you the most about yourself.”

One of the last horses at the clinic was six year old Felix and Tucker said that when he makes contact with him, the horse blocks everything out. “This horse has a dense isolation between the skin and the inside of his body that comes from him shielding and bracing himself. His physiology contracts and gets hard but I want him to start to feel how his body is and that he starts to create a connection to the parts of his body that are important. He has no connection in his back, so we need to create a connection between the different points in his body. There is a difference between sensitivity that is protecting you and intuitivity of your body. Some horses have no connection to some parts of the body so we need to teach them to reconnect. The same applies to riders since some riders' feet die in their boots once we stop sending connections from our brain to our toes.”

Tucker continued working with Felix and said that he is good at following but not good at knowing where he is. When he is following he can not be a good decision maker. He also said that the horse's natural circle of energy and connection internally in a relaxed state is quite pure which is quite rare and that he does not get so lost in his body and he feels when he is connected. He also said that the horse should have more stability when putting his legs down, so the breathing and stability does not stay too up. That can be helped by lifting the base of the body and letting him sink down so he starts to feel really grounded. 

“He is holding himself in a set posture, a sturdy position. We want him to relax and feel the connection to his body so that he becomes grounded and not light in the feet. When he is nervous you bring the awareness to the lower part of the body (lifting his leg) and let the energy back down, all the time teaching the horse about the sensation in the body. When we create an awareness in the backend he starts to relax in the front end. We are trying to get him from an involuntary reaction to a tension and relief point where he is breathing into the rhythm of the step and the breathing is following the movement. Otherwise his breathing is ahead and faster than the body is moving and he is already in a contracted state of mind. Some have an external protection in the body and others have an internal isolation in the body that makes the surface very hard.

The moment of uncertainty comes from not knowing what to do

Tucker said that the moment of uncertainty and fear in the rider comes from not knowing what to do. “When you know what to do then you can let go of the protection of the self. When the horse spooks and goes backward you don't put the leg on and tighten the reins (the horse thinks that he is already totally terrified so then you kick me and tell me not to look at the spooky thing over there), but you do the opposite and open the leg and open his front leg to the direction that you want him to move. When the horse tucks his own body under, you need to be open. And with a horse like this you also need to rub him hard since he has an internal protection, so you need to get under his skin.”

Make the weakness the biggest strength

Tucker recommends that we try to find the weaknesses in the horse and don't just try to improve his weaknesses but make the weaknesses the horse's biggest strength. “If a horse is for example afraid of noise, then you should make the horse the best horse at noise in the stable,” Tucker says. One of the last horses shown at the clinic was also very tense and Tucker said that this is a horse that sees everything as pressure. For this horse everything is predict and protect, and he has a flight response to everything with his body having a different reaction to the stimuli given. With a horse like this Tucker pointed that it is important to let him experience the different stimuli to a level that he can manage since we don’t want to get the horse to a frustration level but rather want to guide him into the connection of his own body. 

The horse Kyrö Hot Flow came to the clinic because the owner wanted some help with the horse's energy levels. The horse is sometimes a bit slow to the aids and Kyrö Hot Flow seemed to move between a relaxed state into a state of panic only to relax yet again. Tucker explained that when the horses have a low sense of connection and low energy levels, and they get a high injection of energy into their body they don't know what to do with the energy and they are not used to feeling it so much. “These kind of horses are used to being controlled so it is important to teach the horses about the energy going up and down from the ground and learning about posture and relaxation. Awareness is not about pressure. It is about sensitivity. The slower the horse the less I use whip, spurs etc. The ability for speed and to be quick comed from having stability in one leg, so the  other leg can move. Horses that are slow have a poor balance that does not enable them to be quick so it is important to open up in the body and give space in the front end to get the hindlegs through. Laziness in a horse is also a sort of insecurity and we need to teach the horse to believe in his own physiology.”

Tucker tells us that it is important that we do not tell the horse what he is not, but rather tell him what he is and work on the things he is good at and reward him for it. We also need to keep the expectations and the difficult things low and if we want the horse to be confident, we have to let go. We can not go and drag a horse on the dance floor, he needs to want to come toward it himself. 

One of the last horses at the clinic, Frisco is a very beautiful horse but Tucker said that he looked like a painting and wanted the horse to feel more alive. He reminded Frisco that beautiful things also move, have expression and participation and opening of the body. 

“The same thing that created the numbness in this horse also creates the sensitivity. He is not used to thinking himself. He is rather quick to defend himself, but he needs to learn that he does not need to defend himself. He feels vulnerable when something suddenly comes up and he doesn't know how to handle it. He doesn't know how to manage himself. When he learns this key thing, it will change his physiology and he will be an open extrovert after that.”

  • The rope halter is very clear. If you have a halter with many buckles you put pressure everywhere and does not give a precise direction. For me it is a clear tool in guiding the horse. 

  • Just a fun extra note: Tucker tried to tell the rider to take the gloves off and it was hard to understand so he told her to take her 'hand shoes' off.

  • Everyone can look but seeing is something we need to learn

  • “The horse never gets softer than the first pressure you give.”

  • Self-awareness is the only horsemanship you need.

  • If he gets stressed we don't restrain and control him. We set him free. 

  • If the horse can’t  breathe, he can't move. 

  • There is no healthy level of tension in a horse

  • Connection through care and love is a good thing but should not be the foundation of your horse's existence.

  • Some have an external protection in the body and others have an internal isolation in the body that makes the surface very hard.

  • The horses past events are written on his skin.

  • The moment of uncertainty and fear in the rider comes from not knowing what to do. When you know what to do then you can let go of the protection of the self. 

  • ”Awareness is not about pressure. It is about sensitivity”.

  • What we do today may seem very little, but for the horse there are a lot of things going on. 

  • When the horse relaxes we see where the horses balance naturally goes.

  • Transferring the energy from the front end teaching to the horse the point of stability how to redirect the energy in another direction.

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