Balance and bend – the labyrinth

One of my favourite ground exercises is the Tellington Labyrinth. The labyrinth is a great way to assess your horse’s range of motion and agility, it helps a horse to focus and pay attention to you, it improves balance and coordination, and they enjoy it. I have used it with Minnie, who is very nervous and high-headed at the best of times, but the labyrinth really helps her to relax and come back down to earth. What I also really like about the labyrinth is the way horses have to bend their body to negotiate the turns. They gain flexibility, but more importantly it helps to straighten a crooked horse. Minnie, who used to stand with her right front leg slightly forward, now always stands square in front. It is interesting that a form of the labyrinth is now routinely used as an obstacle in sports like TREC and Horse Agility, although the object there is to lead your horse through without knocking any poles.

The labyrinth is basically an S-bend, and to make it you ideally need 6 12 ft poles. The poles are spaced 4 ft apart and the openings are also 4 ft wide. According to the official instructions, you have to lay it out in such a way that you enter on a bend, so the opening is on the short side, not on the long side. There are clear pictures in Linda’s book “The Ultimate Horse Behaviour and Training Book”. If you don’t have poles you can use anything to lay it out, even rope is suggested, although I wouldn’t like that. I have used 4 poles for the inside and 2 PVC pipes that were left over when the electricity cable was buried. If I had a place where I could leave it laid out like that year round, I would.

Cassie is a very crooked horse. She is left-bend, so the muscles on the left side of her body are short and stiff, and the muscles on the right side of her body are long and weak. Cassie will invariably stand with her left front leg back. When she lies down she prefers to lie on her right side. Apart from being crooked Cassie is also unbalanced and she often doesn’t seem to know where her feet are. Well, she does have very long legs.. A horse that is unbalanced in their body is also unbalanced emotionally and mentally, because their mental and physical state are so closely connected. So when I started to do some straightness exercises with her last summer, it came as no surprise that temper tantrums and volatile behaviour would generally happen on the right rein. Cassie does not like bending her body to the right.

The past couple of months during her rehab I stuck to the recommended straight lines, so I walked her in-hand on the road, and Cassie didn’t have to do any bending.  Until now. Last week I was trying to think of other things I could do to help Cassie relax and start breathing properly,  things that would keep her in a thinking frame of mind and not trigger flight mode and that’s when I thought of the labyrinth again. So I set it up and took Cassie into the picadero. The labyrinth is in the middle, and I decided to walk around a couple of times on both hands as a kind of warm up. I started leading her from the left on the left rein first. That went fine, Cassie was totally relaxed and stayed nicely at my shoulder the whole time, not a trace of spookiness, so I walked across to change direction and I was just thinking how wonderful that giving them free access to the picadero at all times had worked so well when the whole thing fell apart and I spent the next few moments sand-skiing. And it was so helpful that Minnie was whinnying loudly from the stable the whole time! Anyway, skiing over I thought we had enough of a warm-up and led her into the labyrinth. The first time was not a success; I led her from the side and she just went straight on instead of turning as we came in, kicking the poles out of alignment. I decided to try walking backwards myself and let her follow me. And that was it. She calmed down and followed me around without touching the poles, eyes intent on me and we were both breathing again! Not that it was pretty; she was as stiff as a plank and she more or less crow hopped through the turns, but she was calm and relaxed and focussed.

It will take a while before Cassie will be able to do the turns properly, and I’ve actually put the poles a little bit further apart than 4 ft, but we’re having fun with the labyrinth. Linda Tellington has devised many different ways of leading a horse, with different ways to hold the lead and the stick, but I normally don’t use a stick because I actually hate having it in my hand. I just do my own thing, without stick. We walk through it really slowly and after negotiating a turn, we do a bit of a Cha Cha; two steps forward, one step back, pause and move on. I also lead her across the poles, either the four ground poles or the two electricity pipes which are higher, so that gives us a bit of variation too.  It’s a good work-out. When we’ve finished I take her head collar off so Cassie can roll if she wants to, but often she just stays with me. Which is very nice!

Linda over at Beautiful Mustang has an interesting post on labyrinths here.

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12 thoughts on “Balance and bend – the labyrinth

  1. This seems like a good exercise and way to get her to focus and breath. I’ve been reading a lot about the TTouch and labyrinth. One blog in particular that I follow is Linda at http://www.beautifulmustang.blogspot.com in case you might be interested in what she’s doing. She put up a labyrinth post this week that was interesting too. Good luck and have fun with the girls and their exercises.

  2. Thank you for describing your experiences with this in such detail. This definitely something I’m going to have to try with Dove! (Now all I need is to find something to use for poles.) I’ve noticed when we do liberty stuff that she tries very hard to keep me on one side of her body (even though I’ve been careful to work with her from both sides), and after reading this I’m going to have to keep an eye on which side she prefers to lie on, etc. I’ve also seen tantrumy behavior when I try to get her to move her body in a way she’s not used to, and I really hope that doing some of this work will help her gain some mental maturity.

    • Horses like to keep you on their “good” side, Cassie is the same during liberty work, she likes me on the left. When I lead her I actually lead her a bit more often on the right side to try help balance her. Part of the reason why the labyrinth is so good is that it is non-habitual movement, in other words it’s a way of moving that a horse won’t do for itself. In her book Linda Tellington explains the effects in more detail, apparently non-habitual movement triggers beta-waves in the brain; they are closely linked to logical thinking. Chess for horses!

  3. Hi,
    this is great. I’ll keep this labyrinth in mind and will try to find out even more about it so I can use it with Evie. Sounds like a good way to exercise a horse, both body- and brainwise 😉 Love your writing. Sorry about the skiiing part, although it did make me chuckle.

    • When I was reading up on the labyrinth I came across a paragraph that recommends using the labyrinth with young horses before you go on with your normal exercise, lungeing or riding or whatever. Puts them in a learning frame of mind. Hmmm, so actually, if I had led Cassie through the labyrinth first, and done the walking after, we might never have gone skiing at all. Ah well…things that are not fun at the time often make good stories afterwards. And horses provide plenty of those!

    • You know, the labyrinth works as a ridden exercise too. I’d practise on the ground first though, but it’s amazing how many things you can do with a labyrinth, which is why it’s one of my favourites!

  4. Love your sense of humour, makes me laugh every time. Maybe Cassie thinks it’s funny too – you know – taking you for a ski and all – do horses have a sense of humour do you think? 🙂
    – I hope they do –

  5. I love how you are working to help your horse create balance where she was tight on one side. I certainly shows how much you care. And I agree, horses have a sense of humor, there is no doubt!

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