Redefining Work Under Saddle.

I had a blog request, in two parts. First: “[Does] training and working a horse inherently make a horse less “happy.” I know I am happier on vacation, but that doesn’t mean work is bad for me. Balance is key right? When is it too much? When is it too little? I had one trainer tell me “don’t let her (my mare) get away with that! You work 8 hours a day, she can give you 45 minutes.” 

First, is she sound? She can’t give you 45 minutes if her saddle doesn’t fit or if her feet aren’t trimmed properly. It’s too much time if her back is sore or if she has ulcers. Is she in her heat cycle? Here is the tricky part: What if you think it’s all good but she’s still cranky? Who’s right? Of course, she is. Keep looking.

Let’s assume all is well. Does working a horse make them inherently less “happy?” Well, horses are all individuals. That’s what’s fascinating about them. I’ve known many horses who were unhappy under saddle because of harsh training but also from just being misunderstood.

It’s depressing but I think some horses trade that hour under saddle for the rest of their life. Kind of like doing the dishes in exchange for a meal, they make a trade. I’m not critical; I like horses being owned and cared for. Some humans live lives of quiet desperation; I suppose horses could do the same.

It’s humans who make training hard work. We’re perfectionists and we like drama. We approach every new thing like a potential problem. A problem getting him in the trailer. A problem to get him over cross-rails. Early on, I had a client who moaned endlessly about her horse’s problem picking up the canter. (Is it obvious who it was that had the problem?) In the meantime, horses begin to hate arena work.

That doesn’t mean that horses want a life loitering in the pasture, eating treats, and waiting for the next farrier visit.

I think the majority of horses don’t want either extreme; not vacation and not work. They want a relationship with us. It’s a crazy notion. Humans aren’t a very emotionally stable species but perhaps they see some potential in us.

Second: “[My mare] was stopping at the gate every time we walked/trotted by clearly thinking the increase in physical exertion was unnecessary. She was not winded, or sweaty or tired in any way. Just didn’t enjoy my increase in focus and being pushed to work harder. I was new to riding and [my mare] was not new to riding.”

You’re partly right. It doesn’t sound like she’s tired but that doesn’t mean she “clearly” thinks the physical work is unnecessary. It’s easy to misread horses by superimposing human thoughts. Perhaps if you are new to riding, she was being patient. She knows more than you, after all. (Mares always do.) Of course, she doesn’t like being pushed to work harder. Why would she?

I’ve never met a horse or rider who’s benefited from domination. I’m not necessarily talking bloody whips and spurs. It could be the force of nagging passive aggressive legs and marginally repressed frustration or anger.

It’s about now that a rider could feel like giving up on lessons. You could decide that training and competing are cruel and you don’t want to fight. So, you think about just wandering the property or sticking to ground work or even retirement. But I still don’t think that’s what most horses want.

Stopping at the gate is a clear message from your mare. It isn’t a disobedience. You’re doing what your trainer suggests but your horse gets an opinion, too. A better question might be, “How can I have a better partnership with my mare?”

In case it isn’t obvious, beginning to ride is easy enough. Progressing past that entry-level is the hard part. That’s why there are so many long-time novice riders. The reason to hire a trainer and try to push past that point is because horses tolerate us when we ride badly. They routinely save our lives, literally or figuratively, giving us more grace than we deserve. Consider learning better riding skills, like following hands and an independent seat, as a thank-you gift to your horse.

If you are almost overwhelmed, then good. You’re starting to understand how challenging it is to ride kindly and well. It may take the lifetime of a horse to become a better rider for the next horse. You have no time to lose.

First, make sure you are laughing in your lessons, even if you throw your hands up at the same time. Horses like us when we laugh and it’s an antidote to trying too hard. Take riding seriously but do it with a light heart. Remind yourself that you love your horse. Then trust your horse to tell the truth.

Start here: Is your warm-up effective? If not, it’s the deal breaker from the horse’s side. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. If a horse wants out of the arena, we need to improve their experience there. Done properly, the “work” should make your horse feel strong, supple, and balanced.

If work has become a four-letter word to you and your horse, exchange it for another four-letter word –play. Horses taught me the more we blur the line between work and play, the better we all get along. It’s a change in perception.

Defining training as hard work that will only be learned through harsh struggle makes riding feel like a factory job.

Lift the conversation. Training is easier than that. Humans and horses both learn through positive reinforcement. In the end, good training is simply a collection of positive experiences. That’s the goal each ride. Warm-up well, ask for a few steps at a time, and reward your horse generously. Be zealous–even ambitious– but have laughter be your music.

Horses are beings of light. And so are we, remember?

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

How to Train Your Horse to Hate Arena Work.

WMCayLesDoes your horse go better out of the arena? It seems like some horses just won’t go forward and no amount of kicking and yelling work. Sometimes they’re gate sour: fast toward the gate but then getting away from the gate is a wrestling match. Horses that are normally quiet and good become cranky and drag their toes in the arena, counter-bent and tense.

Riders tell me that their horse is bored in the arena. I notice that there is a predictable coincidence between how a rider feels about things and how her horse responds.

It goes like this: we head into the arena. Let’s say he’s sound and responsive most of the time. There’s no problem when he’s ridden in the pasture. Now in an arena, things change. Even if there’s no traffic, the rail beckons and for the first time, there is a place his feet need to be, so maybe we use our reins more than in the pasture. There are actual corners to navigate and he’s nowhere near where he should be, so even more steering is in order. We correct each stride, trying to get him to a particular place, not noticing it’s already too late for him to make it.

Maybe there are dressage letters posted. Even western barns have them because it’s easier for a trainer to say circle at B than circle at the fifth post. So we decide to circle at B, but start too late and act like there’s a cliff just past B. One more hard pull hard with the inside rein. He pulls back, of course, and tosses his head. Then we correct him even louder because the position of the silly letter means he’s wrong.

In the arena most riders feel watched, even if no one is there. So we get self-conscious. If there are other riders, or worse yet, a trainer, it means every stride is visible to the world. Of course they must be judging us…so we decide to out-judge them, as if skill is defined by being our own worst critic.

Then we drill it and drill it–closer to the rail, more bend, deeper in the corner, bigger stride, and more cross over at the leg yield. If we have a few good tries, we celebrate by doing more, just in case the crowd didn’t see the first few. Then the horse begins to dull, of course. He thinks he’s doing what he’s being asked for, but the cue continues again and again. There’s no release or reward, so he loses confidence and tries something else. While trying to find the right thing, he stops doing the right thing. Then we push harder, just one more and we can quit, but he has given you a stack of good tries already and now he’s as frustrated as we are. Nag-nag-nag. Who wants in the arena with you? Did no one ever teach you to say thank you?

The horse’s opinion of arena work is much simpler. “Everything I do is wrong.” And that sounds just like I hate the arena.

To add insult to injury, there is some idiot on a horse, smiling and laughing while her horse is doing beautiful, complicated work. She isn’t even trying and her horse likes the arena. Gotta hate that, when you are so serious and some giggle-puss, undeserving rider gets lucky. Add a bit of envy to the mix.

Sometimes riding in the arena gets too precious. And it’s my job to remind you that every time you’re in the saddle, you’re training your horse. So yes, congrats on training your horse to hate the arena.

But the good news is that every time you’re in the saddle, you’re training your horse! This is easy to fix.

If your horse is better out of the arena, that might be an answer. Ride AS IF you’re out. I’m not sure trail riding is more fun for a horse than the arena; I do know riders don’t constantly correct their horse’s every move on the trail. Ride in the arena as if it’s a huge meadow and there’s no wrong place to be. Let him move big–take up all the space you need. Go on a long rein and give him time to warm his joints. Then pat him and give him even more time.

Less correction, more direction.

Ride like nobody’s watching and if you aren’t prepared for the circle by B, then do it past B. Don’t punish him because you didn’t prepare in time. Have a plan for what you want to work on, but don’t care about it too much. In other words, set him up to succeed.  Relaxed and forward gaits are always a bigger priority than anything else, because they are required before a horse can actually do anything else.

Change things up. In dressage, we believe doing transitions is how we get a horse’s attention. The small print says that doesn’t mean the same transition again and again. Step one is to ride freely, to encourage a supple and fluid body. Dressage rhymes with massage for a reason. Past that, it’s the rider’s job to get creative. When you canter, ride for the horizon. When you walk, breathe slowly like you’re passing a pond. If you get stuck in a corner without a plan, use the default plan–laugh and start over. Partners don’t blame each other.

And in this perfect moment, whether it’s a mountain meadow with wild flowers or inside a dark, dusty indoor arena, remember you are in a sacred, sweet place–being lifted and carried by a horse. Today is irreplaceable. Thank him every chance you get.

Anna Blake, Infinity Farm.

Reminder: If you like my blog, I have written a book that will be out this year. Follow that rodeo at Thank you.