How to Determine "Is My Horse Relaxed?" - And Why It's Not a Yes or No Question

How to Determine

At any given point in your ride, is your horse relaxed? Or is he tense and anxious? If this isn't something you evaluate consistently throughout your training sessions, our latest Masterclass instructor, horse behavior expert, and upper level event rider Tik Maynard has good reason for you to start.

"A lot of times in clinics I'll ask a rider if their horse is relaxed and calm and ready to start jumping. They always answer yes or no, which is fine because it's how I phrased the question, but for me and my horses I really think of relaxation and tension as a scale from 1-10," Tik explains.

The higher the number, the more tension. A 1 would be assigned if the horse is completely relaxed and could doze off and take a nap, or is as relaxed as he is when he’s in the field munching on grass. A 10 is a dangerous horse who is in a “flight” mindset.

"I really think of relaxation and tension as a scale from 1-10."

In his Masterclass, Tik explains that when your horse gets above about a 3 on that scale, they are not in a learning mindset. Even if they are doing the movements you ask for, they’re not truly learning or progressing mentally. Often times you’ll see horses that are routinely worked at this level of anxiety stay at the same level for many years without progressing. It's also worth noting that horses will often change numbers on that scale over the course of a ride, or day to day in their work.

While we have many ways to communicate with horses (voice, body language, stick and spurs, the bit, etc.), horses communicate with us through their body language, Tik explains. That body language indicates where they are on the relaxation scale, as well as whether they're becoming more tense (moving up in numbers) or more relaxed (moving towards 1).

So, what are some signs of relaxation?

  • Ears moving back and forth in a casual way
  • Eye is soft and blinking
  • Licking and chewing

And some signs of tension would be:

  • Muscles tight and/or quivering
  • Gaze fixed on something for long periods of time
  • Whites of eyes are showing

For a more comprehensive list, become a Masterclass member today and check out Tik's Masterclass videos and workbooks.

In order to understand how to bring your horse down on the relaxation scale, you first must understand the root cause of your horse's tension. To determine this, understanding a horse's natural source of fear is the next step.

"Have you ever heard that horses are scared of predators? To be more precise, horses are scared of things that act predatory. A plastic bag blowing in the wind is not a predator, but it startles horses and incites them to flee," says Tik.

Traits of things that scare horses/act predatory include:

  • New/never seen before
  • Coming towards the horse
  • Making noise
  • Remind the horse of previous bad experiences
  • Acting or moving erratically
  • Accelerating
  • And especially when the above are combined.

If we want to get the horse used to something/comfortable with something (say, a tractor), then make the tractor:

  • Quieter
  • Slower
  • Steadier/more rhythmic
  • Go away from the horse/retreat from the horse

This is just a glimpse of the wealth of information in Tik Maynard's latest Masterclass. This course is a must-watch for anyone working with horses! Join thousands of Masterclass members today by clicking here.

Photo by Kaitlyn Karssen for

Written by Caroline Culbertson

Caroline Culbertson is the Editor-in-Chief of A southern girl at heart, she's currently braving the Northeastern winters with her two homebred Hanoverians, rescue pittie named Pig, and a variety of adopted cats and critters.