Therapeutic Riding–Improve Communication by Releasing the Tendon Guard Reflex

 Releasing the Tendon Guard Reflex

The Tendon Guard Reflex which is activated by stress may be relieved by the action of “heels down”.   Horseback riding can be used as a tool to reduce the tendon guard reflex which is the body’s natural response to fear. This reflex causes all the tendons in the back of the body to shorten.( Judith Cross-Strehlke)

Shortened calf muscles, toe walkers, often show up in autistic and speech impaired people. These people may be exhibiting an exaggerated tendon guard reflex in response to stress. Carla Hannaford, PhD., has found a correlation between shortened calf muscles and the limited ability to speak or communicate.  She advocates for activities that consciously bring neural attention towards a relaxed calf and the whole back body.

What is the Tendon Guard Reflex?

The Tendon Guard Reflex is activated with stress in response to protecting the muscles and tendons and is characterized as Red or Green Light.  A healthy mature Red Light reflex initiates a freeze and fight response. A person with a hyperactive red light TGR is over-focused on unimportant details, can perseverate, or simply shut down or freeze. A person with a hypoactive red light TGR seems unaware that focused attention is needed and continues with whatever activity he is actively engaged in, remaining oblivious to any need relating to a looming danger or obligation. .  (Dr. Masgutova, MNRI Body System Integration Program)

 A healthy, mature Green light response initiates a flight response when posed with certain stress.  A person with a hyperactive green light TGR often acts without much forethought, can misread the situation, and respond impulsively, often resulting in a fight or flight reaction without much provocation. A person with a hypoactive green light TGR remains relatively nonresponsive to events and experiences that generally elicit action in others.  (Dr. Masgutova, MNRI Body System Integration Program)

Therapeutic and classical horseback riding provide opportunities to stretch and relax the tendons and muscles along the back of the leg.  Riding students are encouraged to bring their heels down, allowing their weight to drop into their heels.  Exercising and stretching the tendons, which facilitates tension release via the Tendon Guard Reflex; helps bring the whole body to a renewed relaxation.

Riding lessons and time with horses naturally provide physiological benefits.  The calm nature of horses becomes a calming force for our riders. The horse’s gaits act as a soothing mechanism for riders.   Equestrians have always encouraged heels down for safety purposes, and now Therapeutic Riding instructors and those working in the field of Equine Facilitated Psychotherapy have another tool to aid with releasing the TGR and exploring the benefits.