Help your horse love his job

If you’re having trouble motivating your horse to do his best in your chosen discipline, consider the possibility that he’s just not cut out for that kind of work.
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If you’re having trouble motivating your horse to do his best in your chosen discipline, consider the possibility that he’s just not cut out for that kind of work.

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have had a job we didn’t like. Maybe you were a solitary type who had to endure the chaos of a busy office, or a nature lover trapped in a cubicle, or a shy person who struggled to make it in sales. Chances are, even if you tried your best, your heart just wasn’t fully in it, and you probably did not perform as well as your peers.

riding in ring

Career mismatches can occur among horses, too, and their performances are likely to be affected as well. The easygoing gelding may never accelerate hard enough to excel in barrel racing. The energetic mare may have trouble adapting to the slower rhythms of the trail. You would expect your horse’s breeding to indicate what sports and activities he is best suited for, but there are always surprises. Most Thoroughbreds are Energizer bunnies---perfect candidates for eventing or show jumping---but some individuals just seem to prefer life in the slow lane. The occasional ranch-bred Quarter Horse may be afraid of cows. And not every Arabian, even if bred for endurance, is made to be a long-distance horse.

Becky Hart, three-time endurance world champion and veteran trainer, has experienced this phenomenon firsthand: “One mare I remember in particular. She had the right breeding, the right conformation, and she was physically fit and capable of going the distance. But at about the 45-mile mark, she’d tell me she was finished. She didn’t have the desire to be a great endurance horse, but she was a very nice horse for other disciplines.”

Whether your horse dislikes the work you do with him may be obvious, if hard to admit, or maybe you’d have to scrutinize him for more subtle signs of displeasure. And, of course, the occasional grumpy mood or “off” day does not mean that your horse is seriously unhappy. But a horse who gives you a constant, daily struggle to perform may be telling you something.

Recognizing a problem is the first step. Yet if your horse is unhappy in his work, it doesn’t have to mean the end of your relationship. Often, you can take a number of steps to help accommodate him. And keeping your horse happy and interested in what he’s doing is a sure way to make him a more willing and dependable partner, whatever you do together. 

Evidence of dissatisfaction

The biggest indicators of equine unhappiness are hard to miss---we’ve all seen the horses who grind their teeth, flatten their ears or wring their tails when cued for the smallest requests. And maybe those horses were also hard to catch in the pasture or resisted bridling back in the barn. They may be barn sour or ring sour---overeager to finish the work at hand and get back to the barn or pasture, pulling hard against their riders in the process.

But there are also more subtle signs to be found if you pay close attention to the finer points of a horse’s body language. “His expression will tell the story,” says Mary Ann Simonds, an equine behaviorist and educator who has studied horses for more than 35 years. “Providing his tack fits him well and he’s not in any pain, his eye should look interested and soft. If he’s looking worried or ‘checked-out’---it could mean he’s overwhelmed by what you’re asking or, on the other hand, he could even be bored.”

Simonds recommends getting into the habit of observing the expressions of horses as they work: “Practice watching not just your own horse, but others as well. Go to a horse show or clinic and pay attention to the horses. Flicking ears, too many wrinkles around the mouth, tension in the jaw, a lack of ‘light’ in the eye---these are all signs of a stressed horse who isn’t happy doing whatever it is he’s doing.”

A horse who is happy under saddle looks relaxed and eager---his eye is soft and curious, his ears are attentive, and he has the ability to comfortably move his mouth. Most horses in a relaxed and open-learning state have no trouble looking you in the eye. “I always make soft eye contact with a horse I’m going to ride,” says Simonds. “If they don’t want to make eye contact, it often means they’re not trusting people and could be anticipating something negative. Horses don’t like being looked ‘at,’ but rather look ‘with’ them as if you are experiencing their world and feelings.”

Some horses aren’t especially stressed by their jobs---they’re just bored. In that case, they may not be paying full attention to their work, with a distant expression, sometimes even tripping over their own feet.

What you can do

As always, the first step in addressing any potential behavioral issue is to have your veterinarian thoroughly examine your horse to look for underlying health problems that may be causing him pain. The discomfort of bad teeth, arthritis or sore muscles, for starters, can make any horse react badly to any work that makes him hurt worse. “Many horses have ulcers that go undetected for years, which causes them to lack confidence or display behavior traits that disappear once the ulcers are treated,” says Simonds.

Next, keep tabs on your horse over time to notice when the evidence of unhappiness is more prevalent. Is it every day, or only occasionally? Is it only when riding in larger groups, or alone? Are there any specific drills you do that seem to set him off? Does he plod through arena exercises but “light up” over jumps? Is he grumpier on the hottest days or in rainy weather? Keeping notes in a diary might help you to notice more subtle patterns in your horse’s mood swings.

Also consider your horse’s person-ality traits. What aspects of his character set him apart from others? Is he bold or timid? Curious or suspi- cious of new things? Active or sedate? Does he pick up new skills quickly, or does he require serious amounts of patient repetition? Does he thrive on mental stimulation, or prefer to stick to a schedule? Does he require or merely tolerate the company of other horses?

“Although all horses are motivated by at least two things---they want to trust their humans and they want to feel comfortable both physically and mentally---once those needs are met, it’s fascinating to study the different traits and characteristics that make every horse an individual,” says Simonds.

Once you’ve explored the condi- tions and triggers that affect your horse’s attitudes, it’s time to objectively consider whether the work you ask of him clashes with his basic character. If the answer is yes, or even just maybe, your best course of action will depend largely on your horse’s own issues and preferences. You can try a number of strategies:

• Change the routine. If boredom seems to be your horse’s primary issue, consider mixing up the routine. Many people take their horses out on the trails to alleviate the repetition of arena work. If you’ve never done this before, start with a small group. “Two or three other confident horses are best,” says Simonds. “They can help to teach your horse about how fun going out on the trail can be.”

To keep things interesting on the trail, add some exercises to the trip. Try using trees, rocks, or logs as obstacles---trot a perfect circle around a tree, side pass over a log, or teach your horse to stand still at that boulder. Simply learning new skills may be enough to keep your horse alert and engaged even as you continue to participate in your chosen discipline. 

Conversely, if your horse is too nervous and reactive on the trail, despite all your efforts, you might consider limiting your rides to the arena. Our Thoroughbred mare was like this. Most horses prefer that their days follow a certain routine; this mare’s personality demanded it. For years, we tried to mix up what we considered a boring arena routine with a little trail riding, but no amount of training or desensitization seemed to work. She was tense and unhappy out on the trail but calm and confident in the arena. She found her niche as a hunter/jumper.

“I see a lot of horses who are motivated by curiosity; others really like things to be consistent,” says Simonds. “If you give a horse something to do that meets his individual needs, you’ll have a horse who loves his job---no matter what that job is.”

• Experiment with different disciplines. “We often choose a discipline for the horse instead of the other way around,” says Simonds. “That can be a mistake for both the horse and the rider. Some horses are genuinely not cut out to do what’s being asked of them.” And trying to make it work is like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. If you’re game to try new things, consider trying your hand at other disciplines.

If your trail horse just wants to run, maybe it’s time to release your inner cowgirl and have a go at the barrels. A horse bored with routine drills may thrive on obstacle courses. Don’t overlook more unusual activities, just as jousting for rings, skijoring or mounted orienteering.

“A horse who needs to be prodded and bumped up the trail might be trying to say, ‘But see how nice I can make my gaits? Maybe I can be a dressage horse!’” Hart says. “Of course, horses don’t know all the endless possibilities open to them, but if you pay attention to what they’re trying to tell you, you may be surprised at how much happier they can be if you find a job more suited to their individual personality.”

• Find the horse a more suitable home. It’s not easy admitting we have the wrong horse for the discipline we love, but if what you really want to do is trail ride and your horse jumps and spooks at every falling leaf, it might be time to find him a new job---even if that means finding him a new home. It can be a wrenching decision to let go of a horse you love, but consider what will make him happier in the long run. Offering to lease him to someone who rides in a different discipline might be a way to test the waters without relinquishing complete control of your horse.

“There’s no shame in placing your horse with someone who will put him in a job he can excel in,” says Simonds.

“It often works out best for everyone involved, providing you take the time to figure out what it is he likes to do. A solid horse with no talent often makes a great police horse or pleasure horse; you just have to find the right person.”

Once, during a visit to a therapeutic riding facility, Simonds was walking along the stalls meeting all the horses when one in particular caught her attention: “I couldn’t believe it when I saw him. Here was a horse I knew from the jumper circuit, where he was so difficult that he regularly bucked off his rider, reared on line and was very hard to handle. And, yet here he was---a quiet and well-respected member of the therapy team. All the kids and handlers loved him. His expression seemed to say, ‘Oh please don’t tell them! They don’t know about my past, and I love my new job!’”

Becky Hart agrees: “I meet people at competitive riding clinics with horses who are spooky and reluctant to go up the trail. Sometimes no amount of training will change that. It’s just not in their personality. If there aren’t any physical issues causing the behavior, finding the horse a new home or discipline isn’t something riders should feel bad about. In fact, I often see it work out better for the horse.”

When your horse loves what he does, you’ll feel it. He’ll be fully engaged and ready to go whenever you are. “Horses enjoy social interaction with us if we make it fun to learn and work,” says Simonds. “They are social animals. Being with you feels safe, fun and interesting---or it doesn’t. So, if your horse meets you at the gate, that’s a great start. He trusts you and is eager to do the work you’ve chosen for him---whether that’s a trail ride or classical dressage.”

This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #447, November 2014.