A tight horse has a hard time relaxing and finding a neutral state.

I often wish I could sit down and watch myself work with my horses 10 years ago. I think back on different problems I encountered and how most of the time I just chalked it up to the individual. “Oh, she’s just bad to catch,” or “he just doesn’t really like ropes” and “I don’t know, sometimes he just bucks.” With more experience, dedication, exposure and seasoning as a human pursuing horsemanship, I realize most of the trouble all had a common denominator (besides me): tightness. 

What is a tight horse? Well, I suppose it can mean a multitude of things. Sometimes it means something that bucks, or might buck. Sometimes it’s something looking for trouble around every corner, clamp tailed and spooky. But beyond that, I think of a tight horse as one that is nervous and can’t relax and just be in a natural, neutral state during certain activities.

Signs of a tight horse include bucking.
Photo by Ross Hecox

It can be very apparent or a ridiculously subtle read, depending on the animal. Sometimes a horse is tight on the ground. He might kick or whirl or tremble when you try to catch him. Sometimes a horse is tight to mount or ride, or sometimes he just carries a “tight spot” that is triggered by certain actions or expectations of the horse by the rider. He may just hold his ears flat behind him, always thinking about the person on his back as he’s ridden. He might hold his breath, keep his muscles tense, and travel sideways, worried about something on the side of him.

I’ve got one gelding that’s really bothered by another human riding toward him. I have another one that’s reactive and concerned when I take my rope down to swing it, or pick up a plastic tarp and move it by his front legs. Luke just took a gelding a week ago that is big, beautiful and very talented but will cut in two or bolt with anyone who has tried to ride him. When we checked him out in the roundpen, it was obvious by the horse’s body language and actions that he was just very tight, anxious and scared. He wasn’t ready to ride yet. 

I have a bit of a heart for equines that are this way, and it’s probably why I own several of them. Shoot — I understand that feeling. When nerves hit me, I tend to hold my jaw funny and hunker down mentally, a strong contrast to when I’m in a very comfortable and relaxed state. But with the right situations (and a lot of them!), I can overcome my nerves. I hope the same for a tight horse. A lot of the performance horses I’ve encountered that end up tight and scared are often sensitive, intelligent creatures with a lot of self-preservation. They have a lot to offer their person if they are worked with and can get through their tight spots. Sometimes they can overcome their fear with efforts, but in some horses, it will always be there to an extent.

It’s not always manmade either. Some horses just seem like they’re born skeptical and hang onto their tension throughout life. My string of “keeper” geldings all have quirks and funny tight spots, because a horse like that is not something I feel good about selling to most folks. I don’t really prefer it myself, but I’ve learned so much about it that I appreciate the education. 

I really do enjoy riding something gentle. What a joy to swing my rope, or haul to a new place, or start colts from a horse that stays right under me and has no worries in the world. No reaction, no skepticism, no concern for a flag or a cow or another person riding towards them. Happy to go somewhere, happy to be washed. Lots of folks have horses without tightness and it’s wonderful. Some have tight spots and they go undetected and get along fine. And sometimes, the tightness in an individual horse may cause issues and tough spots to work through down the road for a rider. It can be discouraging and often dangerous in many situations. 

I didn’t really understand how to read tightness in a horse, or what it really meant until I really delved into my quest for better, well-rounded horsemanship. I appreciate what the different horses I’ve known have taught me, and their levels of tension and anxiety has been a blessing on my journey. 

And together, I hope we keep getting better.  

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2 Comments

  1. Very well said, thought out wonderful ! I have a rescue mare and this is her for sure, I paid a lot of money to get her away from a situation that was not good for her, it has been more than a humbling experience to see her change her outlook on life, a tremendous athlete with such ability but her tight spots have been dragging her down! It has taught me a lot about horses, as I get older my passion for them has grown tremendously, every day is a new experience for this rider, a very profound experience, I’ve learned so much about an animal that no one took the time to understand, it is very ironic that I have gone thru life with some of the same issues, thank you for your insite

  2. Ward Thompson Reply

    Allowing these horses to move their feet with some form of direction is usually the most soothing relief.

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