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

Anna Blake

0 thoughts on “Redefining Work Under Saddle.”

  1. Great post! I’m grateful for those first horses who put up with me, and my expectations in the beginning…The other day, thanks to Facebook, I watched a memory from two years ago. It was a video a parent to a little girl took, of their girl riding a mustang I had. When I first saw it two years ago I didn’t watch very carefully. I did now. It almost made my heart skip a beat. The mustang, who had been a wild horse 7 months earlier, really enjoyed being the center of attention. He helped support the 4 year old little girl on his back, and afterwards he seeked out her company. Little things, but his whole body language said that he really enjoyed the experience. It made me incredibly happy to see.

  2. Quote ….. 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….Unquote

    My gelding Marcello finally managed to get that through to me. Now he is a very sweet natured guy with sometimes still outspoken messages.
    I have come from many years of training and competing at high level dressage upto pre-GrandPrix and have finally allowed myself to step down. Step down from the controlling to a more collaborative partnership. I simply had to. All my other dressage horses (1 gelding and 2 mares) for some reason accepted my obvious need to control. Marcello whom I bred myself just would not. And so, now he is 11 yrs old and I am 69 yrs old and I have chosen to listen to him. These days it is more of a 51% – 49% partnership. Either way.
    And then yes perhaps also more aspects have played a role with Marcello and Geerteke. As a human being I have changed. I have become more aware, more accepting, more compassionate. Fear and doubt are slowly disappearing.
    As for the spiritual connection between Marcello and me there is a definite energy reflecting energy aspect within it.

    • Oh, amen. For me, I couldn’t get to the upper levels without this approach… it works both ways, I guess. Love this comment, love your journey with Marcello.

  3. Love this! I’m just heading out to ride my ‘difficult’ horse. I will carry your words with me. Neither of us are patient beings ?

    Sent from my iPad


  4. Anna, I’ve read your book and have been following your blog for a few months, now. You’ve taught me a lot…especially about how to see things from the horse’s perspective.

    Two of the most important things I’ve learned from you are remember to breathe and remember to laugh.

    These words, “…make sure you are laughing in your lessons…” have become a mantra of sorts for me…the measuring stick I use to see if my attitude is where it should be. Even when I have to get very firm…it should be with a smile and a sense of humor. When I catch myself descending into a contest of wills with both me and the horse becoming increasingly resistant and resentful…I hear your words, “make sure you are laughing” and the words of Ray Hunt, “work with the horse you have today”…and I take a deep breath…and find a different approach.

    Thank you, so much! 🙂

  5. Thank you again, Anna! “Blurring the lines between work and play” – I LOVE it. That’s exactly what I need in my life. Tonight as I cook dinner for the family, i’m going to “blur the lines” … hmm, could make for an interesting dinner!

  6. It is so nice to see, on these posts at least, so many of us considering the horse, as Mark Rashid would say. I would say for me it has always been that way, mostly because of ignorance of what it took to be a “good” horse person (something I still struggle with and why I’m part of this blog, thank you, Anna!). And it never occurred to me not to want my horse to have fun, too, for goodness’ sake!

  7. Not only do some horses begin to hate arena work, but I, myself, feel rather restricted in the arena; though there are times I do use it.

    • Arenas are only limited by our imagination. I wish I could take you for an ride in one… and I hear you. Thanks for commenting, Karen.

  8. I think you’ve hit it on the head. I mean why I’m enjoying my riding this summer, I’m blurring the line. It’s supposed to be fun. Sometimes I think Ember thinks I’ve lost my marbles when I go to great lengths explaining to her why I want her to do this or that and why I’m laughing at her attempts to avoid it. Her ears are quite mobile listening to my rambling, maybe she finally does what I want just to shut me up? I don’t think horses want to be left to loaf. Mine always come to greet me when I’m out there and no, it’s not because they get treats every time. Sometime they do but sometimes they get fly spray – which they don’t hate but it’s not their favorite thing either – and sometimes they get ridden but they still come to greet me.

  9. Work! I do think some , possibly many horses like to have a “job”. Especially if they are good at it and their rider lets them know they are good at it. I sometimes think it is hard for some horses to retire as they will not be in the routine of work and no longer be the center of attention. I can honestly say I think my horse Biasini likes to work. He certainly works hard to do what is asked and he never says “No”. He enjoys hacking in the forest too and seems to come back to the schooling with even more enthusiasm. I enjoyed your post. Thank you.

  10. Thank you for this lovely post. My mare is an ex-trekking pony who has gradually come out of herself since being in a more relaxed setting with me. Having had some abdominal surgery, I’ve had to stick to groundwork for the last 6 weeks, and won’t be riding again till sometime in Sept. This has turned out to be a lovely opportunity to explore what we can do together in very gentle and low-key ways. She loves touching and following targets, for instance, and we’ve messed around with nudging and chasing a big exercise ball. As others have said, I’ve reflected on how patient she has been with me, as I’ve followed a zigzag path towards being partners and towards a more open-ended and less tasky way of being.

  11. Hi there, I have a question and hope it’s okay to do it this way because I don’t want to wait until May. I’ve been reading alot about calming signals. I have started taking Amy on trail rides and it seems like she is starting to trust me and we are able to do one pasture with her head lower, no snorting, just walking along (TW style) and curiously looking around. We also go with some friends on trails through the woods with other horses. I have noticed when we get back from these rides that, once she rolls and rejoins her pals she does a huge yawn. This concerns me because I am thinking maybe I am stressing her by taking her on trail rides? She is a retired show horse, and did some trails for the Equine Wine Tours in our wine country, but other than that she hadn’t had alot of experience with the type of trail riding I am doing. If she is doing this calming signal when she is finally free of me, I am afraid I am the cause and it’s freaking me out……if you have time, could you give some ideas? Thanks. I just got done with your Barn Dance book..loved it. It’s helping me heal.

    • Judith, take a breath. There’s no way I can make judgments about a horse with so little information and no video. I never substitute someone else’s eyes for my own. So I’m just guessing here. JUST GUESSING. If she wanted to be “finally free” of you, she would have bucked you off on the trail. I can’t compress a day of information into a comment here, but most horses release tension when people step back. That’s what the roll is about, too. It could also be a release because she is back with her herd. Don’t freak out; she’s communicating all the time and it isn’t fair to take one instant out of context of the whole ride. We could schedule a consultation if you are freaked out, but if she is good on the trail and doesn’t give you many signs of anxiety while riding, then you shouldn’t let that yawn be too important. Hope this tides you over until I’m back in Washington and I can meet the two of you. Thanks for the kind words about Barn Dance, and for now, notice what she does, but don’t take it too personally. Take care, Judith, and scratch your mare for me.

  12. I’ve loved every single line of every post here! I’m no longer riding…Tulle was the emotionally fragile OTTB who ended up overcoming all that and enjoyed a long retirement before leaving in his 36th year. I’ve loved hearing here of all the inter-relationships everyone has had with all their horses, and this brings back an amazing story told to me by my older sister. She’d had only a few riding lessons when my first horse, an eleven-year-old Tobruk Arabian, came into my life. The world was his oyster and he was an incredibly safe ride for her strong preference simply to sit on him and go down trail.
    On one of their days it was raining too hard for a trail ride and she had to submit to the indoor arena so as to have a short time together. When they entered the arena door, there was a group lesson taking place…four horses walking single file on the long wall. The rest of the arena was clear, and while she was contemplating the best thing to do Bay Boy simply walked over and joined the lesson behind the lineup!
    If there was ever an epithet written for a horse, this Arabian boy’s came forth time after time. “He was all things to all creatures, two-legged and four-legged.”

  13. All your articles inspire me. I am coming back to riding after a break of 28 years. My horse got cancer and died and I stopped riding after that. I’m taking lessons now and have discovered that I have to start all over. It’s very frustrating and I worry about what I’m doing to the poor horses. This article reminded me that riding is supposed to be fun! I’m going to keep that in mind and try and relax more in future.


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