It’s really hot here. How hot is it? I’m not saying. People get competitive. You’d just say it’s hotter where you are and then I’d have to recite our altitude, I’m much closer to the sun. You’d have a retort and the places on my body that are clammy would only get clammier. I’d still be hot, but I’d be in a worse mood about it. It’s the middle of summer. Even the sunsets burn even hotter.
We’re still recovering from the Fourth of July. Fireworks are illegal here, but apparently true patriots don’t care. My tradition for the holiday is to lay in bed watching the horses be restless all night, with the dogs are pressed against my side quivering so much the sheets are vibrating their way off the bed, and all the while telling myself that isn’t smoke I smell. It was a rough night that set all of us up for July fifth, when the new neighbors put a bunch of cattle on their twenty-acre pasture. So, my mare ran laps for a few hours, tail flagged, snorting, and beautiful, warning us of this dire threat of alien invaders, while the geldings stood at the fence, glassy-eyed and frozen on the spot. It would have been a lousy day for a ride.
Sometimes I wonder how many training issues, emotional damage, and injuries to humans happen when we think we must ride. And are we riding for their welfare, for our own, or because of some obligation from the vast but imaginary crowd of onlookers? As usual for the horse world, we have extremists on both sides. People who believe horses must be ridden every day for competitive soundness and mental focus and people who don’t ride their horses ever, saying that a relationship with a horse can be totally fulfilling for both on the ground. Some will say that competing horses is cruel, and it is if you train like a monster. But we aren’t all monsters. Others will say that horses get bored if they wander around and eat all day, which is what they were designed to do in the first place.
I notice there is always defensiveness on both sides of this conversation. Most of us hear a parental voice telling us what we should do with our horses when truthfully most of our parents would rather we didn’t have horses. So, we sit taller and feel worse about ourselves. Or it’s the culture in the barn, or expectations from strangers who know nothing about horses? Maybe you learned it on a video from someone who has an ulterior motive about your horse, or you got hung up on a cowboy fantasy. After all, movies about gray-haired women mucking probably don’t have the same theatrical appeal. Maybe feeling guilty is a habit, but now riding more is on the same list as dieting or beginning an exercise plan or volunteering in your community. It’s the list of things we would do if we were better people but, in the meantime, it’s the list of things that we fail at. Egads, how did horses get on that list?
I also notice there is a voice missing in the conversation.
Your horse doesn’t care if you ride him or not. Horses do care about living as close to “natural” as possible. Horses have three primary needs: free choice forage, the company of a herd, and room to move at liberty. These are the big three requirements and most riders, trainers, and animal behaviorists agree. Beyond that, good health care and farrier work. Something’s missing here, too. Riding doesn’t even make the top ten on the horse’s list.
Back in the day, we thought it was all discipline and dominance. We proved our toughness in the heat of summer. Do you know that horses get hot quicker than we do? Heat builds in muscle, and because they have a higher ratio of muscle to bone than we do, heat has a greater impact. Black horses want you to know color matters. His version of hot is different and now we’re back to “How hot is it?” The horse is right, dark-colored horses struggle more but research says that all horses heat up ten times faster than we do.
Back in the day, we thought horses needed to be worked six days a week. We thought young horses needed the discipline and competition horses had to hold their edge. We also had lameness issues in the extreme, early arthritis and tendon problems from starting too young and riding too much. There is no edge to hold, just peaks and valleys. We were about repetition and drilling, but brain science shows we will get farther by quitting when the horse does the thing once, and he gets time to mentally process it. Three days a week are plenty for performance horses and we tend their mental health. It ends up that the quality of the ride is more important than quantity. Will we ever learn that?
Back in the day, we thought we knew better than horses. We didn’t trust that they would remember how to be ridden if they have a day, week, or year off. Horses, and especially mares, would like you to know that they have profound memories. They have the largest amygdala of all domestic animals. When will we finally trust their intelligence?
As much as all of us love the romance we have with horses, one hard truth remains. Horses were not put on earth for us. They have a rich life of their own, rewarding bonds with herdmates, and the constant equine reality of a prey animal. Marginally domesticated, they remain true to their natures. There are things about humans that horses like, but we aren’t the center of their lives. We are only a hobby.
How do horses feel about being ridden? I suspect they take that cue from us. It’s about as fun or miserable as we make it.
It’s up to us then. What would it mean if we gave horses a couple of months off a year? To give their backs a rest and to tune up our horse-crazy girl thrill. Horses would be sounder, and we’d be less complacent. It seems obvious they’d pick July and December off.
We could use the mental health days to make peace with societal expectations and the number of should obligations in our lives that don’t truly support us. Lighten the load of guilt baggage we carry daily. We could remember that standing next to a horse is a privilege that most don’t know. The rest is all gratitude. Ride or not, as you please.
It’s July and if we get defensive about how hot it is, imagine how defensive we get about horses. Soon, we’re defensive about being defensive. It’s really clammy around here now, but the geldings have a suggestion for that. Take a dirt bath, shake it off. No one cares if you ride.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
Want more? Visit annablake.com to see our class schedule, online courses available on a revolving basis on Calming Signals, Affirmative Training, and More. You can book a live consultation or lesson, subscribe for email delivery of this blog, or ask a question about the art and science of working with horses. Join us in The Barn, our online training group with video sharing, audio blogs, live chats with Anna, and so much more.