Any successful pro will tell you that a happy horse is key to success. What does it mean for a horse to be ‘happy’, and what’s the best way to develop one that is?
Producing a happy horse goes beyond his care. Every horse needs access to clean water and quality forage at all times, have shelter, be in good physical health, etc.. But beyond the basic necessities, it must be remembered that all horses are uniquely individual. Not every horse will respond similarly to the same stimulus, and horses can lose confidence quickly. Therefore, it is the rider’s responsibility to create a training program that works for each individual horse.
A happy horse should be the goal and the outcome of any training program. Evaluate your horse’s program by asking the following questions:
1) Is my horse physically capable of doing the work I am asking of him? Are his basic needs being met? Is he in good weight and health? Could he benefit from some additional care, such as a GI supplement, supplemental joint care, or bodywork? Our horses are athletes and it is up to us, their caregivers, to ensure that they receive the attention necessary in order to perform at their greatest potential.
2) Is my horse mentally capable of thriving in this program? For example, while some horses are unaffected by frequent travel and long shows that require on-ground stabling, other horses will require more time to decompress, relax, and recover after travel and between competitions. Similarly, some horses do quite well in a more intense program while other horses need more hacking or “mental health” days.
3) Does my horse understand the question being asked? In most cases, it is prudent to grant the horse the benefit of the doubt. If he is not responding to your requests, help him better understand what you are looking for and don’t ever become frustrated. A horse’s natural tendency is not to be “bad” and in the majority of cases, what is perceived as bad behavior is actually just a lack of understanding on the horse’s end. This confusion can easily be addressed by re-presenting or simplifying the question.When it comes to building a strong foundation and helping your horse understand the questions being asked, international event rider Lauren Kieffer gave her input for keeping horses happy in their work.
“One of my main goals with my horses is for them to not only have successful but long careers,” said Lauren. “I have produced most of my horses since they were young and I find it is very important to listen to them in those first few years about how much training/competing their bodies and minds can handle.”
Especially in the early years, it is important to take your foot off of the accelerator when the horses are showing mental or physical fatigue.
“Some are very coordinated from early on and some need a few years to grow into themselves. I like to give them lots of mini holidays of just hacking and playing on the trails after they have learned new things. It’s good for their minds and their bodies,” she said.
“I also try to spend a minimum of one year at every level, even if they seem ready to move to the next. In the long run, they will be better off with a thorough education at each level and usually don’t have any holes in their education when they step up to the next.”
When training or producing a horse there will always be trials and tribulations. There will always be days with highs, and days that you feel like you and your horse are banging your heads against a wall. Keep your perspective and accept that these difficulties are simply part of the journey.
If you arrive at the barn defeated and unhappy, with a poor attitude, how can you expect your horse to be happy? Your attitude and body language have a strong influence on your horse. A rider who is able to maintain a positive attitude is well set up for success. As corny as it may sound, a happy rider really does make for a happy horse.