History & Uses of THE TELLINGTON LABYRINTH
by Linda Tellington-Jones
1983 was the year that two of the most popular horse magazines in the United States, Equus and Practical Horsemen, introduced the Tellington Method with major articles and cover stories. That year I received fascinating feedback from happy horsewomen who had taken the magazine out to the barn and simply followed the directions from the photographs. I chuckle as I write this at the memory of Bobbie Lieberman, then editor of Equus Magazine, first being very resistant to the idea that horses could learn how to learn from work on the body or that there could be anything new to be learned about working horses from the ground. At that time classical longeing for English riders and round-pen work for western riders was all that anyone knew.
There was so much interest in this new concept that Equus Magazine published the first little booklet entitled “Tellington Equine Awareness Method” that sold countless copies. Twenty years later Bobbie Lieberman co-authored with me “The Ultimate Horse Training and Behavior Book for the 21st Century”.
It’s remarkable how the work has spread around the world and in Germany there is now an official competition with ground exercises that are inspired by this idea of preparing horses from the ground to be safe and cooperative under saddle.
Photo: This overhead shot shows the shape of the basic labyrinth. Linda is leading a horse through in the ‘Dancing Cobra’ an exercise unique to Tellington TTouch Training.
Credit for photos: Gabriele Boiselle
The first new idea for working a horse from the ground was the Labyrinth. It just seems impossible that such a simple concept could so hugely affect the mental, physical and emotional balance of a horse, can enhance learning and cooperation rather than submission, and be so interesting to horses. We’ve actually seen horses who where loose in an arena, take themselves through the labyrinth, sniffing the poles, and clearly being interested!! What is that about??? There is so much we do not yet understand and so much to learn.
What Inspired the Tellington Labyrinth?
The Tellington Labyrinth for horses is formed by laying six poles, each 10 to 12 feet long, on the ground in an architectural pattern unique to the Tellington TTouch® Method. This form was developed for horses in 1975 during the first summer of my four-year Feldenkrais Training taught at the Humanistic Psychology Institute in San Francisco, California.
On the second day of the training, 63 eager students were lying on the floor being guided through an “Awareness Through Movement” exercise when Dr. Feldenkrais made a statement that made my ears prick up and set me on a path that would change my work with horses and ultimately all animals. To paraphrase, he said, “It’s possible for a human to learn in one experience, without constant repetition, by moving the body in gentle non-habitual ways that activate unused neural pathways to the brain, increasing human potential for learning.”
I remember thinking, as clearly as if it happened last week, “If non-habitual movements can enhance the learning ability of a human, it must be true for a horse.” My immediate thought was, “How could I move a horse in ways that would activate unused neural pathways to the brain, enhancing a horse’s ability to ‘learn how to learn’ and actually enjoy the process of learning?”
Over the ensuing weeks that summer, I often worked with horses after class exploring gentle movements a horse could not do itself, searching for ways to enhance the animal’s ability to learn without the widely-accepted use of force, dominance or repetitive exercises.
A Bit of Background
On a historical note, I had been doing massage on our sport horses since 1961, using a form of equine massage I had learned from my American Grandfather, Will Caywood. He had learned it from Russian Gypsies in Moscow in 1903 where he was under contract to ride horses belonging to a Thoroughbred breeder from Graz, Austria. My grandfather stayed on in Russia after his contract was up and became a trainer. In 1905 he won the title of leading trainer at the Moscow Hippodrome with 87 wins that season. He attributed his success to his form of Gypsy massage, and he also told us that he never entered a horse in a race unless the horse “told him” it was feeling fit enough to win!
In 1961 my grandfather visited my first husband, Wentworth Tellington, at our Hemet Thoroughbred Farm in California and me and introduced us to this Gypsy form of equine massage. Including much of what we learned from my grandfather, in 1965 Went and I wrote a book, Massage and Physical Therapy for the Athletic Horse, which we believe to be the first book on equine massage available in the United States. It was first co-published by the Arabian Horse Journal, and later published by Doubleday & Co. in 1972 as a chapter in our next book, Endurance and Competitive Trail Riding.
I must take a moment here to acknowledge Went Tellington and how his brilliance has inspired me. In many ways, his influence guided me in becoming the person I am today. I was so young when I met Went, a mere 15 years of age, so having him sweep me along and present to me an entirely new way of thinking and learning was an extraordinary building block for my life. Went was 20 years older than I, and graduated in the last Cavalry Class at Norwich University the year I was born. His classical cavalry background with horses, combined with the excellent education I had received from Alice Greaves-Metherall at Briercrest Stables in Edmonton, Alberta as I was growing up, certainly gave me a unique foundation.
So you can see that the idea of searching for new ways to train and apply bodywork to horses was not new to me as I lay on the floor at the Humanistic Psychology Institute being guided by Moshe Feldenkrais through these initial “Awareness Through Movements”. I had been working with horses professionally for more than 15 years. Along with Went Tellington, I had been the co-founder and co-director of the Pacific Coast Equestrian Re- search Farm and School of Horsemanship since the mid-1960s. We created a Research Farm newsletter with subscribers in 20 countries. From 1964 to 1974, our 9-month residential School of Horsemanship attracted students from 9 countries and from all over the United States. I had had my hands on countless horses while evaluating them as a North American Trail Ride judge, and had trained and competed in the U.S. and Canada extensively in hunter/jumper classes and three-day events, as well as setting a record in 100-mile endurance riding that lasted for 6 years.
For 10 years I had found massage to be clearly helpful for speeding up recovery time of our competitive horses, but it never crossed my mind that work on a horse’s body, or movement exercises from the ground (without a rider to control the horse), could enhance their ability to learn, or that the horse would actually enjoy the process.
During that first summer of my Feldenkrais training in 1975, I explored different ways of moving horses’ bodies with movements they could not do themselves. I saw remarkable changes in several horses and it was exciting to explore creative ways of training and relating to horses in a way that they seemed to en- joy as much as I did.
I remember the first success I had with these “non-habitual movements” was with a mare who was hard to catch. After one 45-minute session of gently moving her body in ways she could not do herself, she began coming freely out of the pasture to the person she had habitually run away from.
The Evolution of the Tellington Labyrinth
The form of this Tellington Labyrinth was inspired one day during my on-going Feldenkrais training while working with a polo horse at a stable in Woodside, an hour south of San Francisco, California. Along with my friend, Roger Russell, who was also in the Feldenkrais training, we were considering new possibilities for creating non-habitual movements that would allow a horse to learn without the interference of a rider on its back. We played around with a number of ideas, trying several possibilities, bolstered by what we were discovering with these ‘non-habitual’ movements.
Let me tell you a bit about Roger. Roger Russell is a very creative person with a brilliant mind; he had even won a national science award in high school. He wasn’t a horse person, but his extraordinary ingenuity and inventiveness prompted him to try all sorts of things. Having this opportunity to explore and brain- storm with other people, like Roger, is how so much of the in- formation that comes to me has been birthed.
Back to the labyrinth! In the arena at that farm in Woodside were a number of jump poles. I cannot remember exactly how the idea initially took form, but the fact remains that on that day Roger and I laid out the form of labyrinth that we now use, and began leading a horse through it. From that moment, the results of using the labyrinth have continued to expand; what I have experienced with horses in the labyrinth is nothing short of remarkable.
Over the years we’ve found that after just a few times through the Labyrinth, the horse was able to pay attention in a new way and achieve the mental, physical and emotional balance that makes for a safe, happy and healthy individual.
Influencing Behaviors in the Labyrinth
By using the variety of leading positions that are an integral part of the Tellington Method, some of the behaviors you can influence with just two 5-minute sessions in the Labyrinth include a horse who won’t stand still, ignores many of your cues, is high-headed or ewe-necked, unfocused, and sometimes downright dangerous under saddle or from the ground.
Also integral to the leading positions in the Labyrinth are asking the horse to keep his head high or low, doing a half-walk, take two steps and stop, shift to one of the basic ‘dance’ steps, etc. All of these different ways of working in the Labyrinth can affect the behavior of the horse.
Another exciting aspect of the Labyrinth is that it works for all disciplines. For instance, a cutting horse needs to learn how to go slowly and carefully into a herd of cows with its head low. You can easily teach a horse this approach and focus in a Labyrinth and it only takes a minimal amount of time compared to any other exercise to show the horse what it feels like to have the posture and balance to walk quietly into a herd of cattle carrying a rider.
You can also get jumpers much more balanced and coordinated by doing this groundwork in the Labyrinth. For trail horses, we know that Labyrinth exercises get them listening to the rider, and they’re able to make choices that will keep them and the rider safe. We’ve also found the Labyrinth to be useful for a veterinarian to assess a horse’s movements, balance, posture, and range of motion.
Changes in Relationship
Working a horse in the Labyrinth from the ground to start with (before being ridden), can make a difference in the relationship of the horse and rider. After a session in the Labyrinth and be- fore the rider gets in the saddle, the horse is interested and listening. With Labyrinth work, you can save as much as 30 minutes of warm-up time with an excited horse before putting a foot in the stirrup. Instead of riding at the trot or lunging in circles to theoretically work the horse down (oftentimes these at- tempts just get the horse more excited, fit, and anxious), if you take him in the Labyrinth in-hand and do some exercises, you’ll find that the horse will be calmer, more focused, and have a feeling of self-control and awareness. It’s been scientifically proven that you learn more from slow movements than from anything that tires you.
These leading exercises in the Labyrinth include a half walk, getting the horse to take a few short shortened steps, stop, lower the head, and come forward. This is an exercise called the ‘Dancing Cobra’ where the horse learns self-control and with just a few sessions a bond develops between horse and rider like nothing else that we’ve ever seen.
A full description of these positions and others can be found in the books, “Getting in TTouch with Your Horse” and “The Ultimate Horse Training and Behavior Book,” both of which can be found at www.TTouch.com.
Influencing the Mind
One of the fascinating aspects of the Labyrinth is the discovery we made in 1984 with Anna Wise, then the director of the Bio- Feedback Institute of Boulder, Colorado. We worked with a small number of horses by hooking up electrodes to a horse’s head that were then attached to a remote “Mind Mirror.” This Mind Mirror measured the animal’s brainwave activity. Much to our wonder and excitement, we discovered that when a horse took a few steps around the corners in the Labyrinth there was an activation of the beta brainwaves. What are beta brain- waves? These are the brainwaves that humans use for logical thinking. We haven’t done this Mind Mirror experiment with enough horses to come to the conclusion that this beta brain- wave activation is always the case, but we were absolutely fascinated when we saw this brain activity as the horses were being led around the turns through the Labyrinth. On an equally interesting note, we did not get the beta brainwave activity when the horses were being led on a straight line. Anna Wise wrote about this study on pages 213 to 215 in her book, The High Performance Mind.
The form of the Tellington Labyrinth differs from the classical spiral labyrinth. When I enter a classical spiral labyrinth it gives me the feeling of being in an altered/alpha state, and that’s what others also report. Our form of Labyrinth, with the combination with straight lanes and angled turns typically get people and animals more focused – a form of relaxed awareness.
When horses are worked in a Labyrinth, they start to think in- stead of just react to things. One of our goals with the Telling- ton Method is to actually increase a horse’s ability to ‘adapt to new situations,’ which is one definition of intelligence. Ultimately we do not want the horse to submit, but rather to be able to think, feel safe and cooperate rather than “obey”.
Bring on the Dogs!
Although the Tellington Labyrinth was first developed for use with horses, we now use it consistently for Tellington Training For Dogs. It’s remarkably effective in getting a dog to focus, listen, and cooperate. In the Labyrinth, one of the basic results is that it teaches the animal to ‘learn how to learn’ without force and through cooperation. The dog learns to enjoy the process as much as the person who’s teaching the animal. The corners of the labyrinth help dogs learn to bend through the body that helps overcoming reactivity and improved performance in dog sports.
What About Humans?
What we’ve also discovered that hyperactive kids love to pre- tend they’re a horse or a dog with amazing results. When children have experienced that feeling of calmness and mental and physical balance that they get from playing the role of a horse or a dog in the Labyrinth, they’ll voluntarily take themselves through the Labyrinth when they begin to feel a loss of control. The results are a sense of calmness, awareness, and self-control.
We’ve also found the Labyrinth useful for people in wheel- chairs, resulting in focus and calmness. In a number of dramatic cases people have chosen to take themselves everyday in their wheelchairs through a Labyrinth (oftentimes painted on a drive- way or concrete surface). One of our TTouch For You triumphs was a man with Multiple Sclerosis who found that the Labyrinth made such a difference to him that he painted one on his garage floor so that in the winter he could still propel himself mindfully in his wheelchair through the Labyrinth.
36 Years Later . . .
Since my sister Robyn Hood began publishing the TTouch Newsletter in 1984 there have been many fascinating cases re- corded about the use of the Tellington Labyrinth. If you have a Labyrinth story please share it with us so we can pass it along to others. The path of discovery and the continued sharing of information can benefit many animals and their human companions.
Aloha and Heart Hugs, Linda
TTEAM Connections Newsletter Volume 13 Issue 1 January-March 2011