Getting a horse to enjoy working - The Horse Forum
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post #1 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 08:23 AM Thread Starter
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Getting a horse to enjoy working

I've owned my mare for just over a year now and as I'm asking her to work harder and do some more difficult things she's just seemed like she'd rather not be there. She works fairly nicely for me now but I feel like she's doing it because it's the easiest thing for her, not because she wants to. I feel bad for her because I don't know what I can do to help her enjoy being worked.

She's 6 years old, but we've only been recently asking her to do some more complicated stuff (basic framework, transitions and a little bit of jumping, I say complicated as in harder work than plodding around a field) due to issues I've had with my own confidence, could she maybe just be a bit annoyed that after almost a year of not really doing a lot she's suddenly being asked to work harder?

Her saddle fits well, her teeth have been done and I'm fairly sure pain isn't what's causing our issues. We take her for hand-walks off-property and ride her out into a pine plantation near our house and she seems happy enough, but we don't take her out really as often as I'd like to (we have to walk down an 80km/h road to get there and some of the drivers in my area are idiots). I make sure to go out and see her every day in her paddock and she's quite happy to be around me so long as she's not being asked to do anything hard.

I've been fairly soft up until now when I'm starting to ask for more and tolerate less from her, and she doesn't act up in any major way- she just acts like she would rather be literally anywhere else (pulling faces, laziness, general attitude). I want to do more exciting things with her but I can't until we have a float and she's more reliable.

Does anyone know what I can do to get her to enjoy being worked, or have any ideas of interesting exercises I can try to keep her interest?

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post #2 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 08:39 AM
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Horses are individuals. They all have their likes and dislikes and many have preferences for what they enjoy. Change up your riding exercises and location see what happens. You may have already ruled out teeth, pain, tack fit but diet and nutrition may need to be addressed as well as some illnesses that can give the impression of no enthusiasm when it may be lethargy.
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post #3 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 09:40 AM
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Of course her favorite thing to do is eat, hang out and be a horse. But since she is a riding horse, you need to think of that as her job. Even if you were to go out for two hours every day (grooming, tacking, riding, cooling) that still leaves 22 hours of every day when she does what she pleases. That's a pretty sweet gig for anyone!

I don't worry too much if my horse is having super fun because frankly I've just disturbed his day. He may be a bit stodgy but once he gets warmed up and we're doing our thing I do think he begins to enjoy the mental diversion and physical exercise. It is after all an hour or so of work, not like we're out all day gathering cattle from rough brush or hauling logs out of the woods.
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post #4 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 10:38 AM
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Glad to hear you WANT your horse to WANT to work! It is different if there is actual work to be done, if both horse and rider are working as a team to do paid labor and NEITHER has to enjoy it. I think horses at some level understand a difference between "WE must do this" and "YOU must do this". But I think too often folks are content with dominance instead of cooperation.

There are times in learning a new skill where you have to push thru the boring stuff to get to the good stuff. Nothing wrong with pushing a horse past its comfort level in order to create a larger comfort level, or to get it to where opportunities open up. But if I don't care about their pleasure, only mine, then I'm being a jerk. I was told once - several times, actually - that one should always ride with a crop or whip. I find that depressing. Who wants to work for a boss who only knows how to threaten?

I suggest some give and take. Horses do seem to understand "If you do what I want for a few minutes, we'll do what you want for a few minutes". That requires one to look for ways of rewarding a horse so that a give and take is possible - and the reward can differ for every horse. It is something to discover.

I'll give two quotes that have, over time, given ME a lot to think about. The second one comes from a woman who eventually tried riding in fox hunts and jumping competitions without reins:
The French say, when speaking of a horse that shows restiveness, "il se defend" - he defends himself...There is much truth in this expression, and it is one that riders should constantly bear in mind, for insubordination is most commonly the result of something having been demanded from the horse that it either did not know how to do or was unable to perform...

...There is another thing to be considered with regard to the horse's character - it loves to exercise its powers, and it possesses a great spirit of emulation; it likes variety of scene and amusement; and under a rider that understands how to indulge it in all this without overtaxing its powers, will work willingly to the last gasp, which is what entitles it to the name of a noble and generous animal...

..Horses don't like to be ennuye, and will rather stick at home than go out to be bored; they like amusement, variety, and society : give them their share of these, but never in a pedantic way, and avoid getting into a groove of any kind, either as to time or place, especially with young animals. It is evident that all these things must be taken into account and receive due attention, whether it be our object to prevent or to get rid of some bad habit a horse may have acquired ; and a little reflection will generally suffice to point out the means of remedying something that, if left to itself, would grow into a confirmed habit, or if attacked with the energy of folly and violence, would suddenly culminate in the grand catastrophe of restiveness... ----On Seats and Saddles, by Francis Dwyer, Major of Hussars in the Imperial Austrian Service (1868) - 150 years ago!
When I gave up trying to control Portia and tried instead to find out what she was, both she and life took on a different complexion. Here in my very back garden and under my own hand was the novelty and thrill I had missed while traveling over five continents. Here was the adventure, knowledge and inspiration which some people seek in outer space, others in the unexplored centre of the earth's surface. Here, in front of my eyes as soon as I opened them to it, was excitement enough for a lifetime...

...Ridden by neck-aids, the horse is a free individual. It cannot be forced. It can not be controlled, but it can and does have to be guided. It has to have everything explained to it, and its cooperation has then to be won over. If it is asked to do anything absurd, it will merely say, "This fool rider does not know what he is talking about," and go its own way. It is hopeless to try riding by neck-aids until one has learnt the horse's language...

...As soon as a person is prepared to follow his horse, his seat will come automatically. His only problem then is the eternal one of the educationalist and the politician - that of getting what he wants out of his subject. This is an art, not a technique; it is a skill, not a science. When to give in, when to press forward; when to exert authority and when to withdraw it - these are moments whose recognition cannot be taught by rule of thumb. They can only be recognized by the sympathetic - by the person who is not entirely engrossed in his own welfare....

..."It was during the next week that Nona and I really found a true understanding. As I gained confidence in her and came to realize I could trust her in emergencies, I allowed her more freedom; concentrating less on the stops and turns, I had more time to think of widening her experience. She in turn obeyed my orders with more alacrity as the number of orders decreased. She began, it seemed, to take a pride and pleasure on guessing my intentions." - Adventures Unbridled - Moyra Williams 1960
I think riding instruction (and competition) focuses too much on riding the body when the real adventure comes in trying to ride their minds. "As soon as a person is prepared to follow his horse, his seat will come automatically." Riding the mind is a never-ending challenge, but if one DOES ride the mind, then riding the body is easy! In terms of motivation, this part of the 150 year old quote has challenged me the most: " loves to exercise its powers, and it possesses a great spirit of emulation; it likes variety of scene and amusement..."

FWIW, the biggest motivator I've found so far with MY horse is being a team. My horses seem to like the idea that we are doing things TOGETHER. But in order to form a team, I have to give up the idea that the horse must do what I want. The fewer orders I give, the more cooperation I get. A paradox.

Riders ask "How?" Horsemen ask "Why?"

Last edited by bsms; 11-14-2018 at 10:43 AM.
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post #5 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 11:10 AM
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I used to audit clinics at the barn where I took lessons on my own horses. The clinician used to say....”YOU work 8+ hours a day to feed this horse...this horse can WORK for you for one hour. “

My horses always enjoy doing what *I* enjoy doing. I am not super crazy about going around and around an arena, so my horses can look a little sullen when asked to do that for more than about 15 minutes. They do what I ask, however, and 10 of them are mares, do they usually voice their opinions!!

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post #6 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 12:00 PM
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From the horse's perspective, there's no reason to like working for a human. A natural enemy straps a saddle around its middle, stuffs a piece of metal in its mouth, takes it away from its friends and asks it to do very unnatural things, maybe adding tight nosebands, whips and spurs to the coercion soup. As individuals, and according to the way they are handled, they learn to tolerate (or not) what we do to them. The most important thing I've learned in the last six years of working with a very resistant (spoiled) individual is how to strip away human attributes that we all tend to apply to our horses (such as "wanting" to do things for us) and understand more about what is important to the horse. Once you know what's important to the horse, then you have to access programs that teach horsemanship within that framework. In other words, instead of putting it all on the horse, you have to look inward and adapt your teaching methods in order to exploit the horse's natural behaviors and priorities in a manner that will encourage it to be WILLING to work for you. Given the choices of natural behaviors such as grazing, or bending to your will, the horse could never be expected to choose to work for you. When you throw "want to" out the window and change it to "willing to", it casts a whole different light on your expectations of the horse. Be very very grateful if the horse works for you confidently and congratulate yourself for making that happen. Suggested reading: Equitation Science" by Paul McGreevy and various other authors.

Last edited by dogpatch; 11-14-2018 at 12:12 PM.
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post #7 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 03:35 PM
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Of course she'd rather be eating hay, munching on grass, or hanging out with her pasture-mates. That's normal.

Try to keep things interesting for her though. Change it up a bit. Your horse isn't going to enjoy every single little thing you do with her. My horse is very willing to please & at times I can tell she's like 'really? we have to do this?' LOL. She has her moments/days. But they get over it! Try doing some ground stuff with her, or maybe some liberty stuff. That will be fun for the both of you!
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post #8 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 04:50 PM
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My horse enjoys trails -- but she drags her feet leaving the stable anyway, if she's going out alone. After ten minutes she forgets about the idle life she left behind and starts looking around more brightly.

Ring work is stressful, there is no two ways about it. There is no intrinsic fun in it for most horses and it can be dull, uncomfortable or even awful for them. I try to make lessons short and upbeat with a lot of rewarding releasing of pressure for any effort to do better. I never do anything for long and mix it up with things like obstacles, and playing with a horse ball (most horses love to push a big ball around).

People love to drill. Drill drill drill a hole in the ground. Horses do not learn by drilling. They get bored and dull and cranky, just like you would. They work for that release of pressure.

A horse who knows his job finds ease and a kind of pleasure in it. It's comfortable. You can add a new thing or a new subtlety into it and it makes it harder for awhile but if they know that if they get it right they'll get the release, they will work for it. If your horse does one single thing right and you get off, loosen the girth, and lead your horse out of the arena, your horse will remember what they did to make that happen. That's an exaggerated release -- a release can be, usually is, as simple as just stopping the ask.

Arena work is very unnatural to a horse, and frankly I think it is too much to ask that they enjoy it. I look for an increase in softness and obedience and when I get it, I open the gate and we go for a real ride someplace.
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post #9 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 05:16 PM
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My mare sounds much the same as yours. Sometimes she just didn't want to do it. My mare does, however love ground poles. For some reason it wakes her up and gets her moving. I use poles every other session in different patterns each time, even a typical jump pattern except they are on the ground or raised only slightly. For some reason this really piques her interest and we always have a great ride with poles. Sometimes I start without poles and add them later, sometimes I start out with poles and put them away before the end of the session. When I don't use poles at all I can still get a good session as long as I don't bore her with only circles or around and around the arena for the entire ride. I think the different pole patterns keep her awake and interested and I can use them for transitions and other work even lateral work.
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post #10 of 17 Old 11-14-2018, 05:18 PM
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Just want to say this thread has been full of thoughtful replies. Well done HF!

"We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that death will tremble to take us."
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